In a time of global uncertainty, the design industry is growing exponentially as the world looks for creative solutions to our environmental and societal challenges. Laura Lightfinch looks at how design education can help to create a workforce equipped to make positive change for people and the planet.
Design is a powerful tool in the world right now. That’s according to the Design Council, the UK’s national strategic advisor for design, which revealed in its 2022 Design Economy report that the industry is growing twice as fast as the rest of the UK economy. In fact, one in 20 of all UK workers are in a design-related role.
Beyond the UK, countries including China, Korea, the United States, Japan, India and Turkey have all also shown significant contributions to the design economy. In 2021, Forbes reported that the size of the global design industry was estimated to be US$162 billion and growing.
Why is design flourishing across global economies? Bernard Hay is the head of research and design practise for the Design Council in the UK and co-author of the Design Economy report. He says: “We’re seeing that design is playing a much bigger role in the public and private sectors now. Designers can understand and interrogate the opportunities and challenges at the very start of a project. They’re not only great problem solvers, but problem framers and identifiers. That’s critical in today’s context.”
77 percent of designers in the UK now work in non-design sectors like finance, retail and construction. As a discipline, design covers a broad scope of roles from architecture to digital and service design, craft, product design and even policymaking. What brings them together is the ability to apply creative problem-solving to visualise and imagine things that don’t yet exist.
A call for curriculum reform
As part of their report, the Design Council is calling for curriculum reform to create more future designers. Between 2010 and 2021 there was a 68 percent decrease in students taking design and technology at GCSE, a threat to the design industry’s ability to continue to skills pipeline. For Hay, it’s not just about increasing that number with the existing curriculum but “ensuring sustainable and regenerative design principles and methods are embedded in the curriculum from an early age”.
Some of the world’s top institutions for design are trying to lead the way to create innovative and adaptable designers who can solve today’s global challenges across a vast range of sectors. The Royal College of Art (RCA) ranks first in the QS World University Rankings by Subject 2023: Art and Design and offers programmes across 18 areas of art and design, including architecture and environment, curating and culture, fashion, graphic and illustration, and experiential design.
Vice Chancellor, Dr Paul Thompson, shares the same concerns as Hay. “The curriculum needs to be addressed as a priority,” he says. “There’s a lot of work to do in pre-16 education, but I think the future of university design must be human-centred and societal. The days of training people to design endless variations of a consumer product aren’t going to grab the minds of young people anymore.” RCA takes its position as a leader in global design education seriously and understands the need for designers who can work as part of multidisciplinary teams and apply their creative skillset to a vast range of industries, whatever their discipline.
With the knowledge that today’s students will have a different set of parameters placed on them to consider bigger issues, RCA is rethinking the curriculum. “One of the bolder pushes has been encouraging students to work across more diverse, multidisciplinary teams with students outside of the field,” says Dr Thompson.
The school has introduced links with the scientific disciplines including material science, computer science, AI and robotics. With a multidisciplinary lens, students are set broader challenges. One such example is looking at how marine farming can be used to feed the planet more effectively without polluting water and damaging wild species.
“The Terra Carta Design Lab is another way we invite students to design a credible product, service or system for people and planet,” he says. “We had two very successful AgriTech products developed by students that have now been launched as start-up companies.”
As design continues to grow in Italy, Politecnico di Milano receives over 6,000 applications yearly for their bachelor’s design courses, with just 1,000 places on offer and an almost 100 percent employability rate. Francesco Zurlo, Dean of the School of Design, believes that’s because the school offers a “lively context that stimulates curiosity and entrepreneurship”.
“Our graduates end their studies with a specific skill like product, interior or graphic design, but they also acquire a set of soft skills that allows them to deal with work contexts which are not necessarily in line with their original path of choice,” says Zurlo.
The power of design education for change
The COVID-19 pandemic presented overwhelming challenges for public health, but design played a significant role in creating innovative solutions for hospitals. Product design and technology student Dominic Leatherland developed an oxygen-delivery system while studying at Loughborough University, using human-centred design to adapt to the needs of each patient.
The mask was developed with Avon Protection’s senior design engineer, Nick Hunter, and was approved by the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency for use in hospitals across the country. Fenja Rebell is a communications design student at the University of Europe for Applied Science in Germany. Alongside her studies, Rebellalso works for a creative agency that focuses on sustainability and creating change for good.
Working with a list of clients to provide environmentally conscious business solutions, she uses the skills and knowledge from her design degree for positive change. “Designers have a responsibility to lead society in a better direction through our designs,” says Rebell. “It’s my mission to stay curious, observe the world’s challenges, question critically and be a part of the solution. Without these qualities, I don’t believe new and innovative design can emerge.”
Shaping student potential
The RSA Student Design Awards have been challenging budding designers to tackle social, environmental and economic issues for almost 100 years. The global competition inspires school pupils and higher education students across the world to understand their potential as changemakers.
Each year, over 700 applications are made to the RSA Design Awards. Nat Ortiz is senior designer and head of collaboration and learning design at RSA. Ortiz provides strategic input for the awards, focusing on the intersection of design, creativity and social change.
“We work collaboratively with industry partners to understand the challenges facing society and to develop a brief that inspires students to think about change,” says Ortiz. “Our briefs might focus on how we can protect the dignity of refugees, how we might democratise health and wellbeing, or rethinking clothing production.
“Students decide on the form of their proposal based on their own context and we support them to tackle the challenge. It doesn’t have to be a product or service, so the richness of entries we receive each year is fascinating.”
With the growth of technology and digital services, RSA Design Awards has seen an increase in submissions for the design of experiences. Organisations like the NHS are working with service designers to streamline healthcare systems, and government bodies are working with designers to create and test policies. Ortiz echoes the concerns about the current curriculum and says: “We often hear from schools and educational institutions that the curriculum is still commercially-focused…We want to inspire students to look at the harder, more complex and systematic issues, and challenge themselves to apply their skills to shaping a more regenerative, resilient and rebalanced world. “The possibilities are out there already,” she adds. “We want to show young people that these roles and careers are possible.”
The future of impactful design
Sophie Morice studies design and innovation at the Open University and is part of the youth climate movement. Alongside her degree, Sophie is a brand associate at Reckitt, owner of household names such as Air Wick, Vanish and Finish, where the company is working on design innovation projects in its plight to create a cleaner, healthier world.
With such conviction in climate activism, a move to the FMCG sector might not be the obvious one, but Morice says, “you either sit back and try to stop the massive machine on the outside, or you go on the inside and understand how something works in order to influence change”.
Today’s generation of student designers are poised to make a difference. They have a deeper understanding of their place in shaping the world and are driven by purpose and values. Whether it’s climate and sustainability or social justice, design education plays a key role in helping them realise their potential and make real change across whichever discipline or industry they choose.
This article was from the QS Global Education News Issue 10. Download the full edition.