Emily Campbell: «The Constraints Are What Stimulate Creativity»

12.12.2013, 11:58
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Director of Programmes at the Creative Education Trust, Emily did a workshop for Strelka students last week together with Pascal Anson, artist and product designer. Emily shared her thoughts about design, education and new ways of learning.

During your work at the Royal Society of Arts you produced a manifesto called «You know more than you think you do: design as resourcefulness & self-reliance». What does it stand for?

The RSA is an eighteenth-century membership organisation that has always had the encouragement of arts & manufacturing as part of its mission. I needed to renew its account of design and social progress in order to legitimise its continuing involvement with design in the context of much wider social pre-occupations.

I said that design in its essence is a kind of resourcefulness – the ability to make something – a solution or a system or a proposition — out of whatever is available to you. This ability makes you more self-reliant because you’re less dependent on state provision or commercial supply. The set of processes we call ‘design’ gives you some steps to follow – some reasons to make this rather than that decision.

Resourcefulness has many interpretations of course, but for design it contains the idea – absolutely essential to design – that the constraints are what stimulate creativity. For a designer, total freedom is not liberating. It’s knowing what you have to work with, or within, that gives all the positive tension to the process of design.

How would you define the current state of education? Does it teach us to be more resourceful?

It’s hard to generalise about the current state of education, but broadly I agree with most people that there should be a central and universal emphasis on literacy and numeracy because they give you access to just about everything else.

What I think is missing are the concepts that can help you link your learning in one subject with your learning in others. The design programme I’ve written for schools originally started as a list of ‘key concepts’ that I felt linked what I knew as a designer with what I learned as an undergraduate literary critic and what I learned at school from learning languages, science, maths, history, etc. This is where the six concepts of Structure, Pattern, Meaning, Performance, Human Interaction and Fabrication — which form the core of our design programme — came from.

Creativity is the ability to link all or any of the things you know in original or new or enterprising ways. We think it helps to identify a problem as structural, or semiotic (Meaning), or to do with performance or Pattern, or as a failure to recognise what people are really like and how they behave (Human Interaction) – this is why we give design education this conceptual framework.

In this manifesto, you mention the downturn in the big commercial market that will force designers and architects to apply their skills in a smaller local context. Why do you think this is happening?

The manifesto was written in 2009 and at the time I believe I presented this as a question rather than a prophecy. I’m not sure that it is happening. But in my current job working with schools – which are relatively small and local contexts — I have no problem persuading designers to commit time and energy to helping young people and their teachers think like designers.

Let’s talk about design thinking as the new paradigm of work. How would you define this term and how is it useful?

I never say ‘design thinking’ because I’m afraid someone will ask me what I mean. I wouldn’t be able to answer. I’d probably say ‘design’.

However, I do know that the kind of reasoned, resourceful thinking that Pascal and I have encouraged in the Strelka students this week is valuable to all kinds of people whose job description doesn’t contain the words ‘creative’ or ‘design’. A genuine design process can help people be creative regardless of how good or bad they are at drawing or performing. I’d define a genuine design process as asking narrowly defined questions that permit a wide range of responses; or perhaps undertaking a very specific task that has a wide range of possible outcomes. The workshop we ran was constituted of exercises like this, and it’s what I do with teenagers. You have to help them reject and push beyond the obvious answers or existing forms. You have to help people resist going straight to execution.

You work as the Programming Director at the Creative Education Trust. What kind of innovation are you trying to put in the curricula in order to generate transformative outcomes?

I’m trying to prove that design and creativity are not random, subjective intuition, but rigorous and ‘hard’. Design is less about taste — what you like or don’t like – than about what’s right or wrong according to some key principles like Structure (does it stand up unsupported?) or Meaning (do people understand?) or Performance (does it bear weight, happen at the right speed, withstand use, etc.?). Of course you might ask ‘do people like it?’ but that’s only one of many starting points.

Above all, we want the programme to teach what are known as ‘transferable skills’ – surely the whole point of education is to teach you some things that you can re-apply later in life? So instead of asking school students to design a chair (which they are very, very unlikely ever to do again in their lives), we ask them to make a structure that will support their own weight. Besides, if you ask a teenager to design a chair they tend merely to imitate the stylistic signifiers of chairs they know; whereas if you ask them to invent a structure, they have nothing to copy.