Impact on A-level designers

14th October 2005 at 01:00
Three years ago, I attended a teachers' introductory session held by the charity Intermediate Technology Development Group (now called Practical Action). It made a lasting impact on my A-level teaching. The focus was on practical ideas to introduce concepts of sustainability to sixth-formers. Successful students could apply for alternative accreditation for the Sustainable Design Award endorsed by ITDG.

I was already comfortable with the idea that products had to meet two key criteria: be fit for purpose - functionality and form - and be appropriate for purpose. The session challenged me to consider another criterion, which I call design ethics. Any product should take account of the environmental and social impact it has throughout its product life cycle (PLC).

A starting point now on my A-level product design course is: "Do we actually need this product?" If after discussing how it will be used and for what purpose the answer is yes, students go on to make decisions on product development using a combination of factors rather than just prioritising functionality and form. The type of projects chosen has changed to reflect their growing understanding of their role as designers and the impact their choices can have on the world.

They are clearly taught that, rather than just focusing on recycling, they could make better choices at the design stage, tracking the impact of their choices and decisions throughout the PLC. As a consequence, students are more willing to try to select appropriate materials whose environmental impact can be tracked throughout the PLC.

Within the constraints of an A-level budget this is not always possible, but there is change in their motivation for choice. Social impact also becomes a motivation for product development. We have always sought a better world through product design. Students are now also concerned that we do not exploit people we have a moral obligation to help. Labour sources and social reinvestment become issues about which, as designers with "ethical understanding", they now form views.

l Sustainable Design Award details available from Ian Capewell Email: iancpracticalaction@.org.uk

Liz Cook

Assistant headteacher, the Bulmershe School, Wokingham

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