At the cutting edge of design

4th November 1994 at 00:00
Brendan O'Malley talks to four top commercial designers to find out what education can do for design and what design can do for education and industry.

What can education do for design? And what can design do for education? The place of design within schools is matter of continuing debate but over the past few weeks the Design Council has begun a nationwide exercise to establish a consensus among schools and businesses on what it should be.

Schools were invited to "consultative breakfasts" in London, Bristol, Birmingham, Manchester, Leeds and Newcastle and the results will form part of the policy directive of the new Design Council Education and Training Foundation which will be launched this month.

The aim is to find out how design should fit into the curriculum, how it relates to other subjects, and what values should inform design teaching and learning. We decided to make our own contribution to the debate by asking four leading designers across the spectrum of British industry - in the motor industry, consumer products, corporate communications and fashion - to tell us what role education played in their own rise to the top, what are the secrets of good design and what is the most important way education can help schoolchildren and industry get the most out of design.

The striking consensus among them was a concern about the lack of recognition both in schools and in industry of the key role design plays in commercial success; and the need to ensure that young designers understand the importance of creative thought and understanding of the market, of using free thinking to come up with a design solution that meets a genuine need or demand. This is what they had to say: ohn Sorrell, 49, is chairman of the Design Council and chairman of his own design company Newell and Sorrell, which he owns jointly with his wife, Frances Newell. The firm specialises in corporate identity and corporate communications for public and private sector clients across Europe and the United States. This year it won four Design Effectiveness Awards from the Design Business Assocation - a remarkable feat as no one has ever won more than one before.

Two of the awards were for work done for the Royal Mail - one for effectiveness in an education programme with schools on the Letterbox prize given to all children who enter the Royal Mail's letter writing competition and the second an enviromental effectiveness award. The other two were for work with WH Smith and Boots.

Newell and Sorrell employs 60 people who all work as a team. John Sorrell says he is still very much involved in design direction, though he is surrounded by "brilliant creative thinkers".

The core activity of his company is identity, helping companies to understand themselves better, find a way to position themselves, a point of difference - and explain it through design in their literature and behaviour. Sorrell cites as an example InterCity with which he has been involved. Since 1986 it had been losing Pounds 125 million a year but in three years it achieved a huge turnaround.

Sorrell believes his company contributed partly because the design programme was locked into a quality programme that showed how design can improve performance of the company and individuals. It gave people pride in their organisation. The environment of the trains was improved, so was the quality, and people felt better.

He explains: "For most organisations design is a very sophisticated part of their activities. It is a way of thinking, a way of looking, of doing, of working. Smell, taste, feel: all have to be considered and designed. It is to do with the quality of life."

Sorrell started on a path to design during secondary school at a time when you only did design in art, if at all. "It was very different when I got in. I had an inspiring art teacher who set design projects. One day when I was 15 he asked if we were interested in doing Saturday classes at Hornsey College of Art and Design, north London. It was the most unbelievably exciting experience. "

He took the entrance exam and started at 16 doing an intensive three-year National Diploma of Design (this preceded the Diploma of Art and Design, the forerunner of the BA). "The quality of teaching was extremely high - 90 per cent of it was undertaken by practising designers or sculptors, engineers, artists," he says. "It was an extraordinary opportunity to learn about a wide spread of disciplines. This helped me over the years. I understand how people in other disciplines think."

The experience was formative. After college he worked for six months then set up his first business at 19 and he has never looked back. Now as, oddly, the first designer to become chairman of the Design Council, he believes passionately about the quality of design teaching and the way design could be made to work in a broad curriculum so that even those who are not going to take the vocational track can benefit from skills and thinking developed in design work.

"It is vital we give people as broad an experience as possible then give them a chance to specialise in an area in which they are most capable. We must continue to produce the best designers in the world, but we must also integrate design into the curriculum in a way everyone understands about design and appreciates its value, and use it to solve problems, access ideas, communicate ideas.

"Problem-solving skills help people to work through a sequence of a way of thinking. Everyone can use this to help solve problems, not just design problems. I want to make the skills designers have more widely available, not just physical skills but thinking skills as well. I think they should be part of our make-up, as much as say English. I'm talking about a design literacy. "

"Design is one of our key competitive weapons in helping British industry improve its performance. It can give companies an edge. So we need world class designers working with British companies. It's fundamental to keep in front of the game."

"We have to make sure future generations of designers are educated in the best way. And we have to take that through all sectors of education right through to lifelong learning. We need to help teachers understand that design touches every subject - for instance some of them are already using design in the way they present instructions on paper in the classroom - and make design more integrated into all teaching. This is an area to explore."

ick Powell, 42, is director of Seymour Powell, a firm he set up with partner Richard Seymour in 1984 and which has since become a leading industrial design product group whose clients include Yamaha, Ra-cal, ICI, Clairol and Philips. "We are best known for our motorcyles and kitchen appliances, but we've done trains, watches, televisions and telephones - consumer products, all the things you can buy in High Street shops like Dixons and Currys."

In July his company won a BBC design award, possibly the only award which is voted on by the public, for their Skorpion motorbike.

Initially he found education more of a hinderance than a help on his way to the top. "I went to public school, Ampleforth College, where they had never heard of design and the art department was a row of poster paints." He wanted to mix art skills with engineering skills and felt the only way to do that was to go into architecture. So, much to the annoyance of his parents, who wanted him to go to Oxbridge, he went to art college to take a foundation course. From there he switched to industrial design at Manchester Polytechnic and took a masters degree at the Royal College of Arts.

With four children of his own he takes a keen interest in education and has detected an alarming trend.

"What worries me most is the gulf that has gradually emerged over the past 10 years between art and design on the one hand and design and technology on the other. Design and technology has been well funded over the last ten years because it was underdeveloped, but in the process it has become separated from its artistic roots. When you remove the artistic roots you are left with technicians rather than designers.

"There is a role for such people, engineering design for example, but most design endeavour has its roots in art. Once you remove design from the artistic environment you destroy the core aspect that separates design from engineering. "

aul Smith, 47, the country's top name in fashion design for men had no formal training at all. He left school in Nottingham at the age of 15 with no qualifications, just a burning ambition to race bikes. A crash ended his dream and he began working as a gofer in a clothes warehouse. Then, inspired by drinking with arts students in a local pub, he turned his mind to designing. With Pounds 600 of savings he started up his own shop in 1970, opened two days a week, and began selling his own designs. He earned his bread and butter the rest of the week by working for textile companies giving advice on colour and fabrics.

"That was my training. Training by doing, I call it. I would work with the technician, for example with an exciting fabric like the Prince of Wales check I would get them to enlarge it and bring a yellow overcheck through it. "

Since then he has built up a reputation for offering classical designs with the unexpected. "A lot of designer clothes rely on trickery or decoration, " he says, "but I tend to work around classic shapes or form and give it a little twist. Co-ordination is the key. In a Paul Smith collection every season there are 1,600 pieces. They all will work together or individually. They won't be strange. They will work with something that already exists in your wardrobe. That is probably one reason why they are so successful. It's a retailer's dream."

His use of offbeat fabrics and colours captured the imagination of clothes shoppers and his business took off. He now has six shops in London, one in Nottingham, New York and Paris, two in Hong Kong and Singapore and 131 in Japan. His worldwide business turnover is Pounds 65 million in 35 countries.

Asked what is his best design achievement, he says "probably not actually a piece of clothing. It's more the gentle nudging of male awareness in this country towards being more interested in looking a bit better in the way they dress."

He believes the key to his success lies is the fact that he was a shopkeeper first and a designer second and warns young designers to keep their feet on the ground. "A lot of designers get so self-indulgent with design that they forget the customer, they create things that are too specialised," he says.

He wants industry and education to talk to schoolchildren about what design really means. "A lot of school leavers think fashion design is about a notepad, blank sheets of paper and a pencil, and drawing all day then handing them to someone who mysteriously makes the clothes.

"In fact it it's not just about the product, it's about a lot more. It's about knowledge of the world of fashion, knowledge of the market - what is working well, what prices are acceptable. It's about being entrepreneurial, being able to handle the press, travelling easily, having two languages. You have to think of every element."

Paul Smith believes there is a goldmine of talent in this country because of the "free spirit of Brits" as exemplified by street fashion. "We are a really great example of youth culture, we have a freer way of expressing it. We are not embarrassed about experimenting. It is because of this that we are good at design - we think very laterally very often, we don't go the obvious route to solve a solution."

But his big complaint is that industry does not make use of this talent and as a result there aren't enough jobs in design for school leavers to aim at in this country.

"Industry generally doesn't un-derstand that design can create jobs and profit. It's something to do with the attitude that design is a fanciful thing. The problem is design in industry is dominated by the high street chains. All manufacturers are geared to mass production for these chains. Luckily in the last three to four years they have started taking on their own designers. Rather than trying to copy existing designs, a lot of manufacturers are learning that designers can give them an edge.

ordon Sked, 47, is director of product design for the Rover Group with additional responsibility for all concept engineering in support of the design process, which includes mechanical packaging, design feasibility, surfacing, aerodynamics and people.

He cites as his biggest achievement the fact that cars from the Rover Group are now sought after by vastly more people than ten years ago. "It's the re-establishment of the Rover mark which encompasses most of the recent range of Rover cars and the Land Rover series."

But he says his school education had "very little" influence on his career. He came out of a private school in 1965 aspiring to become a doctor, but two weeks before his degree course was due to begin he changed his mind. He decided he wanted to design motor cars and wrote to the manufacturers to see how he could get into the industry.

He took up a pupilage with the Rootes Motor Company, which made Humbers, Hillmans, and Sunbeams, and studied for a HNC diploma in body engineering - "That was the closest I could get to design". Nowadays aspiring motor car designers can do a degree course in Coventry or a masters at the Royal College of Art in London.

Sked thinks the single most important contribution schools can make to industrial design is to make children aware of what design can contribute to business. "It touches all of us, from the products we select on the supermarket shelf to more important purchases like the motor car. Sometimes we don't put the message across strongly enough either to captains of industry or to our children, to nurture them in the acknowledgement that design is important to our future prosperity.

He says it's a common fault for businesses to treat design as a luxury item, only dwelt on when the bottom line is right, rather than a bolted-in standard component of industry.

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