Design Pedagogy Research, Kate Hatton (ed.), (2008)

Huddersfield: Jeremy Mills Publishing, 114 pp., ISBN 978- 1-906600-35-8 (pbk), £14.99

This book contains 10 of the 14 papers delivered at the Design & Pedagogy Conference which took place at Leeds College of Art on 16th March 2007. Publications of conference proceedings like this tend to bring together a disparate collection of papers which leave the reviewer struggling to identify a theme they share. In this case a theme wasn’t so hard to find as there was a lot of soul searching about the role of the designer, the purpose of design and of post-secondary design education. In other words, authors are questioning much that is often taken for granted through asking why.

In particular authors wonder about such things as whether designers should be agents of social change, or serve existing capitalist structures. Should educators perpetuate the myth of the designer as superstar, licensing their name to enable objects to be sold for inflated prices? Or should we encourage students to become agents of social change, undermining the system? Should we be teaching students to be ethical designers? In these days of computer-aided design and manufacture, should we teach craft skills, or some more generalised ability to be creative? In fact, as Kate Hatton wonders in the Forward (p.2), ‘Should design pedagogy be orientated as a vocationally driven activity, towards industry, or does it engage a more humanities-driven approach that welcomes critique and experimentation?’

It needs to be stressed that this theme is extracted from a diverse selection of papers. Here are some examples. Peter Oakley writes about practical skills and craft theory. Despite being informed by Foucault and scrutinising ‘praxeological subjectification’ the paper is not too laden with academic jargon that its gist can’t be deciphered. It deals with a fundamental dilemma: which (craft) skills do students need and what benefits do they derive from learning them? Janine Sykes gives an account of the history of Burslem School of Art, Stoke-on-Trent. Her paper concentrates on the curriculum and the ideas and leadership of its first two principals from 1907 to 1944. Kate Hatton and Sherelene Cuffe recount how they introduced a Multicultural elective module into an undergraduate design course at Leeds College of Art and Design. Karen Dennis goes into the theory of sustainable design and explains how these principles have been developed in her own fashion design practice.

Each of the papers I’ve listed above relates to a substantial tranche of the literature about design education: craft education theory; history of design education; multicultural art and design education; ‘green’ and ethical design. However, only Karen Dennis shows familiarity with the relevant literature and is the sole author in this volume to have identified the key text for her topic. In every other case, the authors appear to have been unaware of the key texts. This makes their task all the harder because without this knowledge, they struggle to re-invent the wheel.

This lack of knowledge is all the more curious when one considers how small the literature for all these areas is. For example, one visit to the (United Kingdom) Craft Council’s small study centre would be all that would be required to discover the relevant literature about craft education. Each branch of design education theory has a very small coterie of academics contributing to it and these networks are easy to tap into. In design history it is taught how Japanese companies that move into the manufacture of a product for the first time would choose not to start from scratch, but instead look around the world to find the best now being made and try to design one that would be even better. Some of these authors could improve what they write by adopting a similar strategy.

As well as lacking adequate theoretical frameworks, papers also missed out necessary information. For example Samantha Broadhead writes about design education in schools but only in the context of the subject of art and design, as if the subject design and technology didn’t exist. I can imagine that these faults are due to people with full timetables and busy schedules finding too little time for scholarship into pedagogy. I sympathise.

I’m torn as I write about the shortcomings of these papers, because this kind of academic activity should be encouraged. Many readers will have faced the dilemma of how to feedback to a student who is working hard but only producing average work. We want to encourage and praise the effort, but we also have a duty to put it into the context of other work. To the extent that there aren’t many people writing about these issues this publication has to be welcomed, as does the conference that lies behind it. Design education literature is disjointed, mostly small-scale and can sometimes be hard to find. The conference from which this book is derived is one attempt to bring some of this activity together and disseminate it. Out of some of this clay theories can be formed. Too many involved in design education simply go about their work without asking the kinds of questions these authors have asked. Therefore this book is not only a manifestation of some of the problems of literature in this field, but also forms part of the solution.

Reviewed by Nicholas Houghton