Using museums to engage young people in design
'I found the dress designs amazing. I could not believe my eyes when I saw how young the girls who had created them were!'
Visitor to Design for Life exhibition of young people’s design work, V&A, 2010
How can museums work in partnership with schools, community groups and the creative industries to enhance young people’s design education? This article addresses this key question, following a three-year national museum education project led by the V&A with other regional museums. The Design for Life project demonstrated that museums can encourage young people to engage critically with design in their everyday lives, educate the designers and consumers of tomorrow and contribute to the future
of the UK design industry.
Why design education matters
Design is a huge area of potential future employment for young people. The UK design sector is the largest in Europe and the high standards of British design are respected worldwide. Design is also an essential part of young people’s everyday lives and key to how they build and communicate their identity. In contemporary material cultures, young people are surrounded by branding and design statements. They make design choices every day: what to wear, how to decorate their rooms, which pair of trainers is most desirable. Young people are interested and critical consumers.
What do museums add?
Museums are important creative hubs in which designers can study, collect and reinterpret visual ideas. The V&A was founded in 1837 as the teaching collection of the Government School of Design. Contemporary designers, such as fashion innovator Dame Vivienne Westwood, continue to use museum collections for inspiration. Objects in a museum or gallery also tell us how design has evolved from past to present. As such, they are an important and unique educational resource.
Museums introduce young people to some of society’s cultural resources, providing exciting inspiration for their own projects. The rich variety of museum objects can spark ideas for visual motifs and forms which enhance young people’s own imaginative designs. Museums can also inspire young people to pursue an education and career in design.
Museum displays can teach young people how design has evolved and explain its relevance to local industries. In larger museums such as the V&A young people have the chance to experience many world cultures and design traditions under one roof. They can learn about the use of materials and design processes across a wide range of disciplines. While smaller museums may not have such comprehensive collections, pieces can still be selected with care as examples of quality and excellence by local designers, producers and collectors.
One of the core functions of a museum is to research and provide information about the objects in their collections. Many museums are in the process of digitising their collections so that images and additional information are accessible online. To search you will simply need the designer’s name or the object’s museum identification number, usually given on the object label.
What are the benefits to schools?
Richard Green, Chief Executive of the D&T Association, has observed that 'using product analysis to learn about past and present objects, materials, manufacturing processes and design strategies is an aspect of design and technology that pupils and many teachers often find difficult. Being taught how to do this by using museum collections, whilst working with museum staff and designers, not only helps the pupils but also provides invaluable CPD to the accompanying teachers'.
Research by the Design Council has identified three main areas for development in design education: a) research and critical thinking skills, b) non-linear and imaginative teaching approaches to develop innovative ideas, and c) increased links with current professional design practice. Museums are ideal environments in which to strengthen teaching in these areas. For example, ‘compare and contrast’ exercises can be a valuable tool for visual research. A simple ‘spot the difference’ activity can be enough to introduce basic object observation skills.
Christopher Dresser’s geometric shapes contrast strongly with the elaborate curves and swirls of Charles Ries’ Kettle. Who would think that there was barely twenty years between the productions of these two teapots?
The two teapots above would be a great starting point for a discussion on which item would do its job the best, which one people prefer and why and how tastes change. Taking time to look, ask questions about an object and draw conclusions from careful observation can reveal a great deal about design principles without any need for specialist knowledge.
What are the benefits to youth groups?
'At the end of the project every young person was proud of having achieved something that looked good which was then going on display in an art gallery'
Youth and project workers who have helped young people engage with museum collections have often seen an increase in the self esteem and confidence of participants. The V&A’s ongoing Design for Life project has inspired a young mother to return to study after a period of disengagement from education, and given a young man the enthusiasm and drive to get up in the morning and bring a project to successful completion.
'I love designing and making stuff. I love practical things'
Young Design for Life participant
Working with a designer
'I thought the designer giving us guidance was most important as she helped me develop my ideas and made me realise how much work it takes to design something'
Young Design for Life participant
Contact with professional designers can inspire students to create more experimental, ‘out of the box’ design work. They will also gain valuable first-hand experience of professional design processes. Looking at the designer’s own sketchbooks, design development in moodboards, prototypes or range of finished product examples can provide key visual inspiration. A designer can also give useful advice and information about career pathways in the industry. By striking up a supportive mentoring relationship, designers can often bring future careers and aspirations within reach and convince students that they can acquire the skills necessary to achieve their goals.
What are the benefits for designers of working with young people and museums?
'I gained an understanding of effective methods for inspiring groups of differing abilities'
'Having to communicate my practice made me really reflect on it and now I’m able to communicate it much better'
An increasing number of design firms now perceive education work as a key part of their Corporate and Social Responsibility programmes. The designers participating in the V&A’s Design for Life project reported a range of benefits, including training in design education and networking opportunities with other designers and museum professionals. Above all, they felt the project strengthened their own creative practice. As one fashion designer put it, 'the experience of working with young people is inspiring – you learn so much from them'.
Design for Life was funded by the Department of Culture, Media and Sport and the Department for Education from 2008-2011; and additionally by the Museums, Libraries and Archives Council from 2010-11, as part of the government's Stategic Commmissioning Programme for museum and gallery education.