Head, Heart and Hand: a design school for the twenty-first century’s

  • Update:2009-12-08
  • Professor Sir Christopher Frayling
  • Source: No.194 | June 2009

Head, Heart and Hand: a design school for the twenty-first century’s

Professor Sir Christopher Frayling


One of the symbols of London's Royal College of Art is the Phoenix, the mythical bird of ancient times which rises from the flames. It is a symbol of everlasting renewal. Out of the ashes flies creativity. It is also a symbol that is shared by the RCA, the emperors of old China, and even Air China一a Phoenix logo which I understand was designed by a member of staff at Tschinghua. The Royal College of Art, of which I am Rector, is the world's only wholly postgraduate university of art and design. It has a strong emphasis on creativity.
I want to do two things in this lecture. First, to tell the story of the Royal College of Art in London over the last 170 years or so一its changing philosophies of education, and in particular its changing attitudes towards design. The Royal College of Art is, in fact, the longest continuous experiment in the history of public art and design education, to be found anywhere in the world. It has renewed itself over and over again一like its symbol the Phoenix. In this lecture, I want to take four very significant `moments' in this story: the mid-nineteenth century, the early twentieth century, the mid-twentieth century and today, 2009. My main theme will be that design education of all kinds is an excellent form of education for the uncertain world of the 21 st century.
My starting point一and the text for the four ‘moments’一is a famous quotation from John Ruskin, the Victorian British writer on art, craft and design, who wrote in the late nineteenth century: The education of a young artist, he wrote, should always be a matter of the head and heart and the hand. Art and design, he said, "must be produced by the subtlest of all machines which is the human hand. No machine yet contrived, or hereafter contrivable, will ever equal the fine machinery of the human fingers.
The best design is that which proceeds from the heart, that which involves all the emotions一associates these with the head, yet as inferior to the heart; and the hand, yet as inferior to the heart and head; and thus brings out the whole person".
So the heart is the key, the source of all the emotions: then the head and hand. Of course, our thinking has moved on since John Ruskin's day, but his remarks on head, heart and hand are still as relevant today as they were in Victorian times一and they can provide for us an elegant way of organising the story of British publicly-funded design education, from its origins as the Government School of Design in London in 1837 to the present day. There had, of course, been private academies and schools in Europe long before 1837一when the first national government-funded design school in the world was set up: Lorenzo dei Medici gathered young artists and critics together in the garden of his palace in Florence, Italy, to copy antique sculpture, as early as 1488. But this is the story of public design education, funded by the government.
The first moment: 1837 onwards. When the Government School of Design opened in London, in 1837, it was largely a matter of the head一of information and knowledge. This experiment in design education lasted until about 1900一and in the twentieth century it was to form the basis of the `design methods' movement, or more recently databases and digital design. The basic concept was that design was a kind of language, and if you spent several years learning by heart the grammar of that language, you might one day be able to make use of it for yourself. So, all students would start with basic geometric shapes, then progress to copying a range of architectural details from books or dictionaries, then they would copy objects in glass cases一plaster casts of famous sculptures, ceramic tiles, metalwork bowls and so on. These objects played a key part in the curriculum一and the teachers collected so many of them for the purpose that they eventually ran out of room and had to found what is today the Victoria and Albert Museum in order to house them The Cast Court in the V&A still contains plaster casts of great sculptures from over the world collected for the students to copy. Drawing from life, or drawing things that moved, as opposed to copying things that stayed still, was expressly forbidden, since it was felt by the original founders of the School in 1837 that this activity might encourage students to become artists一and in those days they felt that art and design were very different disciplines.   Eventually, drawing from life一the still life and the human figure一was permitted, and the students loved it.
The point of the Government School of Design was to train young people to work as designers or ‘ornamentists' in manufacturing industry, especially the textiles, ceramics, and carriage industries. Design was something you did `to' things. The educators were confident that once the School's students had learned their grammar一had learned to use their heads, to absorb information一they would then be able to go out into industry and improve the visual quality of everyday products. Concepts such as "originality', or "self-expression", or "creativity” were completely absent from this system一which came to be known as"the South Kensington system" when the School moved to London's South Kensington, SW7, where the Royal College of Art still is. And when a network of what were known as branch schools was evolved, all radiating from the centre, like the branches of a tree. Other words, such as "system" and "grammar" and "method" and "type" were at the centre of things. The man who developed this structure, and made it a model for every single publicly-funded design school in England一the Victorian government official Henry Cole一was also the man who masterminded the first Great Exhibition of manufactures in 1851.This "South Kensington system" was to be exported to Canada, via Princess Louise the wife of the Governor-General, and to the USA, later in the nineteenth century. In England, every industrial town of any significance had its art and design school, often related to local industry, with industrialists represented on the board. The students sometimes entered the system from 16 years old.
Let us call this the `normative' tradition the tradition of rules and regulations and structures and information. It starts with the abstract and progresses to the particular. The role of art and design education was to theorise the language of manufacture一and then to teach young people the grammar
When the reaction to this system came in Britain, in the 1890s, it came from a group of educators and designers who wanted to re-direct the system from a training of the head towards a training of the hand. Of the "South Kensington system", they said that it is one thing to half-educate young people in an effort to educate them completely一most of us do that all the time! What is bound to fail is an attempt to half-educate people by intention, on purpose. You couldn't teach grammar unless you also taught at least some usage, or "doing". To understand design you also had to understand how it was produced. That is, in part, what Ruskin was writing about when he referred to the whole person. For the remarks I quoted on "the head, the heart and the hand" were intended as a criticism of a South Kensington system which in his view was too oriented towards the head. Too much thinking, not enough action, not enough innovation. As W.R. Lethaby said一he was the first Professor of Ornament&Design anywhere一as Lethaby said, it was time to end "the sham science of design". Design he said was not a science一it was a craft
So, under the delayed influence of the Arts and Crafts Movement, there was to be a new emphasis on studio practice, and especially the crafts of throwing pots, working metal, making furniture, and weaving. Instead of being equipped with library shelves, drawing boards and museum exhibits, the studios were to house the technologies of craft activity: wheels, lathes, saws and looms. The purposes of the curriculum were three-fold: to provide a basic visual education; to get to know at least one craft; to produce, in the final year, independent design work.
The grammars of ornament and design were put aside. Instead, the organising concept of design education was to become architecture一its theory and practice; and, for image-makers, calligraphy, as a training for the hand and eye. Walter Crane, the Arts and Crafts designer who briefly headed the system in the late 1890s, said that since "architecture is the mother of the arts", it must generate the ideas which would then become design in the studios and workshops. The new template for a design course tended to involve all students in the history, philosophy and drawing of architecture in their first year. Also, a basic course in calligraphy. Then, they could choose from among four specialised studio areas: Decorative and Mural Painting (it was to be another quarter of a century before the system dropped the adjective "decorative" before the word "painting") Sculpture and Modelling Architecture or Design (meaning Craft). The words "originality' and "self-expression" were still largely absent from this system: phrases such as "good practice" or "doing is designing" or "quality of workmanship" or "levels of skill”were of much more importance. Indeed, W.R. Lethaby said that the following words should be inscribed over the front door of every design school: "no art that is only one person deep can be very good art". The point was to belong to a tradition of designing and making, and to work from within that tradition. In rare cases, Lethaby added, students would be able to stand on the shoulders of the previous generation: but they should never be permitted to jump off those shoulders. The point was also to challenge what was seen as the poor quality of manufacturing industry and the ideologies which underpinned that poor quality一by producing one-off pieces which had obviously, tangibly, been made with great care and attention to detail. A question of quality, not quantity. Maybe, if students spent three or four years thinking about tradition and mastering a craft一in a version of the apprenticeship system, adapted for the classroom一maybe they would find their own voices, and ultimately be able to improve the quality of the visual environment. Not by working in a facsimile of industry, but by working in a craft workshop. This was more or less the basis of British design education from the 1890s, right through to the mid-twentieth century. As interpreted by German writers on design at the turn of the century, it was to become the basis of Walter Gropius's famous experiment at the Bauhaus, the German design school: for example, Walter Crane's emphasis on architecture and mural painting, combined with W.R. Lethaby's course on basic design, were to be translated into the preliminary Bauhaus course; and the whole Bauhaus curriculum was based on the fusion of the fine arts with the crafts, with artists as the main lecturers and crafts people running the studios. Let us call this the ‘critical’ tradition. since at its centre was an implied judgement on the world of industrial design and the organization of manufacturing. And let us recognise that with today's concern about the environment, and the social responsibility of the artist and designer, it, too, still has something to say. Design with attitude. The role of art and design education had become to criticise the language of manufacture一to act as an irritant from the outside, and hope that industry was listening. On the whole, industry wasn't listening.
By the mid-twentieth century, it was often being said that the `critical' tradition, with its emphasis on making and doing within craft traditions, was not giving students enough opportunities to express their own ideas and concepts, to use their own emotions. It was also being said with increasing force that the `critical' tradition could never hope to touch on the real issues facing industrial design, issues of quantity as well as quality. So a series of reports recommended that the education of the designer should involve much more heart一as well as head and hand. In reaction against the Arts and Crafts philosophy一with its strong emphasis on skills and training, and with its assumption that you could separate the hand from the heart一there was to be a new emphasis on ideas and education. And on specialised design subjects rather than generalised ones. The new watchword was "professionalism”一in the then new design specialisms such as "graphic design", "industrial design", "ceramic design", "jewellery design" and "fashion design". One central concept of this revolution was that the fine arts一in particular, the traditional fine art of easel painting一would nourish the work of designers, and encourage them to speculate about their work; designers, in turn, were to be educated by exposure to "the history of art in several significant periods of time". It was a case of art in a design environment and design in an art environment. It was a new direction in design education full of words such as "originality', "self-expression" and "creativity”一indeed, the artist and musician Brian Eno was to categorise the whole system as "a leap into the unknown".
The words "structure" and "system" on one hand, and "skill" and "technique" and "workmanship" on the other were now beginning to be seriously questioned. Simultaneously, art and design courses became much more specialised, and oriented towards the new and rising profession of consultant designer to match the consumer boom which was happening outside in the 1950s and 1960s; and as the subject areas became much more narrow in focus, the approach to teaching became much more open-ended, with a shift towards individual tuition rather than the class-room. The results of this system were to spread right across British art education from the 1960s onwards and they are still with us. Let us call this the "expressive" tradition, since at its centre is the notion that students should develop the courage to find and use their own voices, their own emotions一within the constraints of "the design process". It is a tradition which emphasises the heart, in two senses: one, in the sense of personal creativity and emotion; and two, in the sense of being in touch with today's cultural and visual world. Having one's finger on the pulse.
What, finally, of today一in relation to these three traditions一the normative, the critical and the expressive一the head, the hand and the heart.
Well, the first thing to note is that's today's era is becoming one of convergence, a bringing together of all three traditions. Design itself has become more of a convergent activity一rather than the divergent activity of Victorian times (thinking versus doing), or the Arts and Crafts period (doing versus thinking),or the 1960s(specialisation, without much thought or reflection).Convergent at many different levels: between the present and the past, as history is reworked to supply a culture of quotations; between fine art and design一 in the 20th century, often at loggerheads一as industrial design and sculpture, architecture and installations, for example, edge closer together; between technology and design, as on the one hand engineers and industrial designers begin to work more closely together; and on the other digital and electronic technologies in the studios and workshops mean that for the first time in the long history of art and
design education the technology available to students is very similar to the technology they will be using in their professional lives inside education and outside; between industrial design and graphics or packaging, in the post-black box era; and between the crafts and design, at the levels of small-scale batch production and architectural detailing; and above all between the world inside the academy and the expanding world of the creative industries. There are countless other convergences at work today. In such an era, the keynotes have to be interdisciplinarity一for much of the most interesting work emerges from the space between disciplines, the cracks in the floorboards一flexibility, design with attitude and professionalism. One key theme is ‘making sense of an extremely complex world of technology'.
As a response to these conditions一and incidentally as a key contributor to them一design education now seems to me to be bringing together all three of the traditions I've described and will I believe continue to do so in the future.
The tradition of the head: most notably, a more thoughtful attitude towards design (ecology, social concerns, inclusive design and so on: what happens to objects when they've outlived their usefulness, for example);a more systematic approach driven by the systems of the digital technologies; rapid prototyping; and a new emphasis on research一research into design, research through design and design as research; research as a crucible of the creative industries一in the same way that science in universities has traditionally been a crucible of manufacturing industries.
The tradition of the hand:the modern crafts, which touch art at one end of the spectrum and design (`an industry of one') at the other; the possibility of small-scale batch production, allied to customisation, which has been made possible by digital technologies; the fusion of the crafts with intellectual debates of the moment. There was in fact an exhibition a couple of years ago called ‘industry of one’一about the crossover with the luxury end of product design, the small batch production end The other aspect of this is the importance of ‘making'.
The tradition of the heart: which has nothing to do with sentiment, but rather with having one's finger on the pulse of what is going on in the wider visual culture and in the creative economy一the mega-visual explosion, as it has been called. To do with belonging to contemporary culture.   Within the creative industries themselves, people don't have the old prejudices about higher education一in fact they see it as a gateway to knowledge; they are creative learners; the industries are usually populated with young people; they often depend on others to do research for them; they depend on active networking and clustering; and they realise that higher education can broker relationships between small or medium-sized creative businesses (and they do tend to be small as well as undercapitalised) and big industries. They also tend to be unstable一which means that in lean times their practitioners often want to teach as part-timers. So this world of industry is particularly receptive to `the tradition of the heart'. It wants to be stimulated rather than served. One key is to find a link between distinctive national tradition and the present-day, at a time of increasing globalization.
In short, as John Ruskin famously put it一criticising the straitjacket of the Victorian system: the education of the young designer should always be a matter of "the head, the heart and the hand一and thus brings out the whole person".
Today's design school is a place where art and design can directly engage with the post-industrial age, and with educating a new kind of designer who can flourish within a post-modern society and culture. Not learning grammars, or criticising products, but engaging一at a time when the very word `products' is completely changing its meaning. The dictionaries still define products as "things assembled or manufactured", but I guess that will soon change. In this world of flux, the staff and students of today's design school must by definition have a strong belief in the future. They'll have their finger on the pulse of contemporary culture, they'll be flexibly-minded, multi-cultural一they will think of cultures rather than culture一good at setting their own agendas and solving their own intellectual and visual problems, highly motivated and full of attitude, completely at home in the digital universe, excited by an unpredictable world where the boundaries keep shifting and products are made of thin air, in tune with future market trends一and they will indeed have a profound belief in the possibilities of the future. Design students in Britain are already five times more likely to be self-employed than any other university graduates一and they are particularly good at constructing worlds around themselves in very entrepreneurial and improvisatory ways. Worlds where products and services seem to be blending together; where in-house has turned into in-system; where there's no longer a stable idea of function, where design isn't just something you do to things, it's something that happens in a cultural and economic context; and where there's a sense of stimulating industry rather than criticising it or even serving it; and where designers can become strategic thinkers in the world of business. Because the creative industries want above all to be stimulated with strong creative ideas. And we need to build bridges between the new economy and the old one. Today's design school is a place of professional education; a research institute and a place of convergence, a place of experimentation, challenging the old disciplinary boundaries between subjects and their technologies which in some cases go right back to 1837, when it all began. A place where you say "why not?" rather than “why?”.
So, how will today's, and tomorrow's design school do this? Well, I believe it will have three basic roles. It will be an agency of professional education, having close contact and two-way relationships with the professions of art and design一through professional practitioners as teachers, examiners and advisers creating an entree into the networks or clusters the students will belong to when they leave; through being places to wire into, for mid-career professionals; through exploring the boundaries between research and advanced practice; through relationships with small and medium-sized businesses which understand and value educational and highly creative environments. Another firm link with these professional worlds will be the design school as a cultural institution in its own right一with its exhibitions, its reaching out into the community in a much more generous way than is usual at present, its space for sharing what it does and what it stands for一in the visual and the performing arts. Inside, for the first time ever, the technologies available to art and design institutions will be the same or similar to as those available to the professional worlds they seek to will stimulate. For example, rapid prototyping. But our new design school will not attempt to clone the professions一it will instead be what I call a "radical academy". When people ask what work do you do, artists and designers will talk of their practice and of their professionalism as teachers and researchers in this setting. At the moment, if you ask designers about their work, they never talk about their teaching. In our new radical academy, they will...
Allied to this, our new design school will also be a research institute for the creative industries一a key crucible for research and innovative applications within this burgeoning sector一performing a similar function to engineering and applied science within traditional universities in relation to manufacturing. Not so much a think tank, as a `think and do' tank一with the creative environment, the space, the expertise and the time to recharge batteries. Innovative applications will include customising and humanising technologies;testing new materials, asking questions the consultants would never ask, making machines do things they were never meant to, bringing together the performing and visual arts. Research could include social applications such as inclusive design一design for everyone一design which understands users and a lifestyle laboratory or digital playground which businesses, artists and designers will want to wire into. And `intelligent fabrics'. Maybe design against crime, as well. And what about research into `emotional ergonomics'? This research institute model places schools of art and design as not just part of the graduate supply chain but as a key part of knowledge interchange. As I've said the creative industries want to be stimulated; they thrive on it.
In addition to being an agency of professional education and a research institute, our design school will be a place learning through art and design as learning to art and design. What mean by this? Well this is where the poet and critic Herbert Read comes in. In 1944, he wrote an important book called Education Through Art. In it, he made the key distinction between what he called teaching to art, and what he called teaching through art. Teaching to art, he said, meant the professional education of the artist (or the designer); teaching someone the skills and attitudes of how to become a practising artist. That aspect of art education, he said, seemed to be widely understood if not always that well done. Teaching through art, he added, meant teaching a series of related conceptual and physical skills through the medium of art: problem-solving, making things, resourcefulness, independence of mind, flexible thinking, preparation for an unpredictable world (and if he was right about the 1940s he would certainly be right about today), learning to see as well as to look, to pick up on what's in the ether, and so on. Herbert Read concluded that the very best form of art education should combine the two: teaching to art and teaching through art. But that teachers ought to be clear about which they were teaching at any given time. In Herbert Reads view一and this was very controversial一art was the basis of every natural form of education.
Now as this design school of the future is partly in place already: i) the seeds are there of a new two-way relationship with the creative industries ii) an increasing emphasis on research as well as teaching iii) two-way relationships, long-established, with the professions of art and design iv) increasing success in graduate destinations, particularly over the last decade with the expansion of opportunities.v) a good reputation in the teaching of history and theory一so people don't go around thinking they are reinventing the wheel all the time, and so they'll develop a critical intelligence. All component elements of art-education-as-crucible. It is one model of the way education should be going. The seeds are there, but they need more fertile soil. Clearer thinking一and a vision.
Finally, since the watchwords of the new creative industries are as we've seen `challenging the boundaries', `multi-disciplinarity' and 'why not?', our design school will indeed be a place of convergence.
Other university subjects in my view have a lot to learn from design schools一how they teach and research and engage with industry. And how they can bring out "the whole person”一through the head, the hand and the heart.


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