A Creative Education

On the 21st of May this year there was a D&AD President’s Lecture entitled ‘A Future for Creative Education?’ With the A level results out today it seems a good time to revisit the themes within.

The panel, which included Lord David Puttnam, D&AD President Neville Brody, Emily Campbell of the Creative Education Trust and David Erixon from Hyper Island, was unanimous in supporting the value of a good creative education, both for the individual practitioner and for the nation as a whole.

As mentioned previously I have a lot of time for the panel but Brody especially. I haven’t always liked his work – when I was in art school some of it was uncomfortably trendy. However, his views on education are both passionate and eloquent:

“The bottom line is that we need to be producing a nation of creative thinkers, not creative objects. It’s not about developing clichéd craft; it’s about building on an extraordinary legacy, but combining that with our ability to take creative risks. That’s what we’re supposed to be developing: people who will change and lead in global industries. Not people who will become professional clones. We’re not a nation of vocationals; we’re not a factory turning out glazed clay china versions of ourselves.”

Neville Brody from Guardian interview.

While at the Hay Literary Festival I attended a session curated by Simon Schama, he of TV history fame. It was a clarion call to history teachers nationwide to come and discus the new curriculum proposed/enforced by Michael Gove.

Historian Simon Schama

The passion from the teachers was evident from the start. With not one voice praising the reformed curriculum it was obvious that there was a huge backlash against the tightly compressed and rushed pace of the new system. The end product would be a generation of history drones, able to recite a very narrow and some would argue dangerously selective and imperialist view of the past.

The glaring omission from the curriculum – and this is where design education has the potential to shine is the lack of training in critical reasoning, deduction and exploration. The job of the historian is to gather as much of the primary evidence as possible, then having exhausted that, secondary and contemporary sources to try and arrive at and informed and deduced narration of events. Simply being ‘told’ history doesn’t make you a historian, it bases your competence purely on your ability to memorise and regurgitate the ‘approved text’.

There are very few people that go on to be historians, or geographers too. What they do have is the ability to absorb and process many different types of information and allow this to provide them with the most probable conclusion. The glue between all these different singular facts and evidentiary signposts is creative reasoning and experience.

Ironically this is even more important when it comes to science.

Louis Pasteur in his laboratory, painting by A. Edelfeldt in 1885
Louis Pasteur in his laboratory, painting by A. Edelfeldt in 1885

Every innovation has started with a ‘what if’ statement, posted in the mind of the inventor or researcher. They use their creative skills and talent to postulate a theory. This is then tested by the empirical skills, and so theories are proven or discarded. But if you don’t have the mental muscle trained, enthused and conditioned to make those non-linear mental leaps of imagination then you will never have innovation and progress.

Portrait of Galileo Galilei by Giusto Sustermans
Portrait of Galileo Galilei by Giusto Sustermans

Science and by extension engineering, chemistry, medicine etc are living things. Science is never finite. It’s a process of imagination and test. The balance of theory against evidence. Proven and repeatable. We may be creating a nation of great testers, or reciters of fact but unless we have theories – irrespective of how outlandish – to test then we will never see the innovation we require and aspire to as a nation.

Marie Skłodowska Curie, ca. 1920
Marie Skłodowska Curie, ca. 1920

Many of the great historical innovations are by brave men and women who defied convention, often defying the state and the church at the same time. People of great sacrifice and conviction.

Designers by definition are problem solvers. Different to fine art their creative talents are directed towards an issue or a challenge rather than pure expression. They take their talent, training and craft and apply it to a brief that’s either expressed or unspoken.They research, they take in the world around the challenge and then work to make both better. They draw on everything they’ve learnt, experienced and done before. They investigate and explore the challenge. They look at it from a myriad of angles and sides. Their creativity is a conduit for their skills and experience to manifest themselves. You could argue that it’s almost a scientific approach…

We rarely see creative reasoning taught, or philosophy for that matter. The emphasis on purely vocational industrial skill sets have to be married with the ability to imagine and think freely so that the practical skills are applied in the most productive manner.

I argued with Professor Schama that prospective employers (including us) would hate to employ anyone why couldn’t problem solve, let along ‘think on their feet’. The reduction in the arts and creative disciplines in the curriculum is a gross mistake. It undermines the long term prosperity of the nation. Not just in a economic sense as I’ve hinted above but also in a cultural sense too. Being able to express yourself in a creative way is crucial to personal development as a human being. Be it art, design, dance, drama or music.

Creative expression and exploration allows you to think differently, and think at a different pace and perspective. Rarely does the theory manifest itself in the lab. The ‘eureka!’ moments are unexpected and unpredictable. Often when the brain is at rest or diverted by an unconnected activity. The lab is where the theory is tested, refined and documented. If you don’t have theories to test and develop then soon you won’t need labs, eventually you won’t need scientists either!

You can find a whole load of D&AD Presidents Lectures archived for your further delight.

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