Building capacity with design education

If you were asked to select a picture of a room interior and “black out everything that could be classified as design or that has been created by a designer,” what would be left?

And if you were required to list “all the products and objects of design you use in the first hour of your day”, how would this look?

These exercises from Design, a textbook prescribed for Grade 10s, demonstrate the ubiquity of design; and could probably be applied to most environments in which we find ourselves. So yes, design’s impact on our lives is enormous.

Yet how conscious are we of design’s potential to improve things? And in the face of the challenges facing us in South Africa, how determined are we to build on our design capacity and indeed to incorporate design learnings into the grassroots of our educational system?

Prioritising design education

Incorporating design education and design thinking across all curricula –from primary to tertiary - will have a far-reaching impact.

Design is capable of addressing the problems we face as a society in areas such as social and environmental development, transport, health – the list goes on. It’s also about developing a more productive society, and supplying business with competitive, creative and innovative thinkers and problem solvers.

Provided that you have well-trained facilitators, young kids can develop to become problem solvers, entrepreneurs, innovators and strategic thinkers while at the same time also developing their communication, people and literacy skills. These are life skills that any parent should want their child to have.

There are the talented few that currently gain from the traditional subject combination of mathematics, science and technology, but if we want to nurture a generation that will be able to design top export quality products it’s time to consider a working relationship between design, technology and science. After all, design drives the process across all three of these industries in which people use skills like creative and innovative thinking towards problem solving. Recognizing the impact of such a relationship could seriously assist South Africa to reach its full potential.

Designing towards quality of life

‘Designing’ is a human activity that reacts on our basic needs to survive and thrive. Therefore, if design is about improving the quality of life, then nurturing design capacity is very relevant to our own emerging nation with its constitution that puts people first with the intention of creating a better life for all.

Simple, inexpensive design solutions have already improved the quality of life for many in South Africa and in other developing countries. Iconic examples can include the Hippo Roller, an innovative container that improves water transportation; the Freeplay Wind-up Radio that assists to educate, connect and communicate vital and sometimes lifethreatening information to rural communities and the Fetal Heart Rate Monitor, a 2009 INDEX:award winner, now a global great example that is  saving lives around the world.

Experts acknowledge that economies with a strong design culture that use their human resources and creativity to develop and sell products using indigenous technology, are the most successful.

However, South Africa is still seen globally as a manufacturing country of other people’s ideas. If local businesses are not challenged by their own consumer markets to increase the level of innovation and design, and in turn produce quality products or services, then it could become problematic for South Africa to reach its potential as a global competitor.

According to Bruce Nussbaum, a contributing editor to BusinessWeek , business is currently faced with an interesting trend where design is becoming “more important to the bottom line than technology.” Design has matured into an independent and intellectual discipline that is increasingly being sought after as a means of bringing about unexpected and intentional change in the world. In the past, there was a preference for business leaders to employ left brain or more analytical thinking for problem- solving. Owing to the complexity of the problems with which they are now faced, these leaders have begun to realise the role that right-brain or design thinking can play in addressing contemporary challenges such as global warming and sustainability to name a few.

The current success of design in business internationally, with examples such as Apple, IBM and Sony as forerunners in the electronics market, indicates that business today values a culture of design. Within a local context too, Nussbaum urged South African designers to consider the ways in which a culture of design can drive the South African economy, and be widespread within business.

For South Africa, to ‘design’ is therefore not a luxury or an elitist activity but a great necessity. It is time to nurture a generation able to face the changing needs of the future; a skilled workforce of innovative problem-solvers and top quality entrepreneurs.

Contributor Name: 
Suné Stassen