It is the 50th anniversary of my starting as a design student at the RCA.
What are design schools for and do we need ‘MA’ degrees, and why have I quit the Vehicle Design department at the Royal College of Art?
About five hundred years ago painters like Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo and sculptors like Donatello and Leonardo’s master Verrocchio would take on apprentices to work with them on important commissions from wealthy clients. That way the young people would learn the craft from a master and often become major figures in art or design themselves. The earliest art and design colleges grew out of this system, young people who showed a talent whilst at school had the opportunity to develop their skills under teachers who believed in sharing knowledge and experience. Believing in the concept of education has always been important. Whilst Germany’s Bauhaus colleges were of great influence in the 1920s and ‘30s, the high point of design education was possibly in the late 1960s and 1970s. Colleges in France had gone through the turmoil of the student protest movement and were reinventing themselves. In America, both in New England and California 'Pop Art', new music and the desire to escape from the horrors of the Vietnam War gave the creative arts a new momentum; art and design were 'cool' and new. In Britain, after the grim austerity of the 1950s, there was an explosion of creativity. Sculptors, painters, illustrators and designers became household names, many of those students came from the Royal College of Art in London. Under the inspired leadership of Sir Robin Darwin there was a complete freedom of expression, a feeling that all the different disciplines were of equal value and an 'open door' structure to the College that allowed the students to interact across all the departments.
I am concerned that art and design schools have become businesses where students have become 'the product' , tutors are 'production managers' and the colleges are run by a CEO and a CFO (chief financial officer). Coded door locks, the taking of student attendance in a ‘register’, limited access magnetic security passes and an unspoken hierarchy among students where some schools are considered more valid than others (Vehicle Design at the RCA ranks very low), are making all those stimulating exchanges of idea a thing of the past. As class numbers increase valuable one-to-one tutorials become almost impossible to organize, overcrowded studios and too few tutors mean that many students are working from their apartments thereby missing out on the conversations and interactions that are at the heart of learning.
The setting up of MA, or post-graduate courses has unfortunately become a big money earner for Colleges and Universities. In some places an MA can be awarded after just one year of expensive study. Because of the structure of almost all BA courses, and the large numbers of students enrolled, it is an unfortunate fact that many of those students are under-trained. The MA courses have therefore become no more than ‘finishing schools’ where the skills that should have been acquired earlier are eventually developed, remedial drawing should not be part of any MA course!
What should a modern art and design school look like? Earlier this year I took part in the Zagreb Design Week, an event organized by good friend Daniel Tomicic, the venue was a very large open space within an imaginatively restored historic building. Inside this space were areas for workshops, seminars, lectures and small discussion groups. There were no doors, no key-card locks and no registers. A small restaurant and bar kept students around until well after midnight. The atmosphere was wonderfully stimulating, I was a lecturer on stage, part of an audience for great presentations, involved in small portfolio review workshops, contributor to group discussions, chairman of question and answer sessions with a number of well know and totally honest designers on our panel, and in the evenings was able to watch a fashion show or ride a brilliant electric scooter, designed by a participant in the event.
If one looks at the internet as a (sometimes unreliable) source of learning opportunities, there are no doors or locks between disciplines, there is no hierarchy of the relevance of certain studies over others, there is only the sharing of knowledge. And that is why the Zagreb event felt like what a new model for design education could be like.
Maybe a four year course; the first year would be totally exploratory with introductions to all the design disciplines before considering a route to follow. The following years would develop design skills, critical analysis, verbal and visual communication, experience of working with other designers from other disciplines, the history and cultural context of design, and college wide conversations about design. Both workshop and digital skills would be studied but the idea and not the execution would be the important output. At the end of the course a degree certificate would not be the most important thing, (I know students care about their parents being proud of their achievement and a piece of paper signifies that success), but it’s the portfolio of work that is the most important thing. A ‘Practitioner of Design’ could be the award, or maybe ‘Designer’ is enough. Some people like ‘being a designer’ and others just like designing. This imaginary school would be for those who love design.
Oh yes, and why have I quit the Vehicle Design department at the Royal College of Art? Simple, it no longer represents all those values that I feel are a fundamental part of design education.
Where is the light coming from?
Designers, like painters and illustrators, use the effects of light to show the form of objects that they are depicting. This control of the light can be used to emphasize an emotional feeling that the artist is attempting to show us. This is the same for designers, they do not just want to show the shape of a vehicle but also to give that same feeling of emotion that they hope their work will imply.
Many years ago when I was working as a design consultant for Alpine Renault, in Dieppe, I was often struck by the quality of the light in this ancient town on the coast of Northern France. Dieppe faces North so, during the day, the sun shone down the narrow streets leading to the sea, leaving the main streets in shade. An English painter called Walter Sickert (1860-1942), lived and worked in Dieppe and his use of light was based on the effects he saw in the town. Even his interior pictures show this technique.
An American painter, Winslow Homer (1836-1910) is best known for his great paintings of boats and the sea (see Inspiration section of this site). Since painting, like designing, is more about looking at the World than looking at the paper, looking at the effect of light on boats can cause one to move away from the normal methods of seeing the light as something that shines over your left shoulder directly on to the object facing you. Winslow Homer had a very modern eye for these effects, it’s hard to believe that the painting shown here was completed in around 1903!
Edward Hopper (1882-1967) was an American painter whose most famous picture is ‘Nighthawks’ a moody night time image where the light on the surrounding buildings comes from the inside of an all-night café. His ‘House by the railroad’ has the light coming from behind the building at the center of the picture.
More recently the American hyper-realist movement’s most famous painter Richard Estes, perfected a painting style that uses reflected light and images that are behind the viewer in an incredibly complicated technique that makes you realize how clever our brain is at only seeing those thing that we want to see. Richard Estes makes us see everything.
The best of automotive illustrators use this method to grab our attention, they depict the source of light as coming from somewhere that we would not usually expect, with dramatic effect. The master of this style is California-based Tom Fritz, his paintings of early hot rod cars, often with a setting sun behind the car, are as atmospheric as any traditional Dutch pictures. Looking carefully at one of his finest works it is interesting to see that the setting sun is actually painted pale blue, making it look unbelievably bright against the orange and blacks in the body of the picture (see Inspiration section of this site).
Sid Meade is another who was very creative in his ‘direction of the light’ that illuminates his futuristic designs. And, of course, my favorite automotive illustrators Art Fitzpatrick and Van Kaufmann used the positioning of the light source to bring vibrant life to their great Pontiac paintings, they never missed a creative trick. Most recently it is well worth a look at some of, Italian designer, Mauricio Cavalheiro’s work.
The point is that we are not only using design drawings to simply show the shape of a piece work, we are also hoping to engage the viewer (maybe the boss) in our vision of the emotion of our proposal. So many tools are now available to us, and so many creative examples of the use of light can been found that there is no excuse for the ‘light over the left shoulder on to the face of the object’ method of illustration.