Designer-led Learning at Design Society

Digital Media
November 23, 2017

In March 2017 we hosted our first maker in residence, Ross Atkin, as part of Design Society’s pre-opening activities and the British Council’s Hello Shenzhen project. Together we explored how maker education can be used to engage students and young people with problem solving through making, using objects that will feature in the opening exhibitions as inspiration. The project was both rewarding and inspiring, so much so that we invited Ross to return to Shenzhen in October 2017 and collaborate on a new learning project to build upon this model for designer-led education. This time we set Ross the challenge of working with 20 pupils aged seven to ten at the Southern University of Science and Technology Experimental Primary School to create furniture prototypes for the school’s roof garden. The aim, once more, was to engage pupils in the real design process inspired by objects that will feature in our exhibitions: testing out approaches and pedagogies for the learning programme which will be launched once DS opens next month. Here Ross shares his residency experience:

Design thinking in the roof garden

As a practicing designer and engineer I know that successful products only come into being through understanding and working within constraints of material, technology and social context. In the previous Hello Shenzhen project, back in March, we worked with university students to create interactive toys for children with autism – a project that presented the students with very challenging human and technological constraints.

Designers typically understand and challenge constraints through a process of iteration – making, learning and making again. We saw the power of this approach when we tested the prototype interactive toys and worked out what we would build next. Returning to Design Society last month I wanted to run a project that taught the same lessons, but would work for primary school students, aged seven to ten.

Tactile Paving: Exploring objects from ‘Values of Design’

We used objects from the V&A’s ‘Values of Design’ and Design Society’s ‘Minding the Digital’ exhibitions as a departure point, focusing on products that are cut from a single sheet of material using digital manufacturing tools. With the children we explored how 3D forms can be created from 2D materials, starting by folding paper robots and assembling small rocking chairs from pre-cut wooden pieces.

From 2D to 3D: Assembling robots
From 2D to 3D: assembling models from a single sheet of parts

Next we explored the context we would be designing for, visiting the school’s roof garden and discussing the people who would use it, why they would want to do and what problems they might face. The children jumped straight into inventing concepts for furniture that could help solve these problems, creating some amazing drawings which they then translated into card models.

The School’s Roof Garden

At this point we revisited the digitally cut furniture and looked again at how the designers had considered the design both as a 3D object and as a set of parts that fitted together efficiently on the sheet, minimising material wastage. I asked the children to build a new version of their model but where they could only use one A4 sheet of card and where they needed to maximise the size of the finished item. It was impressive how well many of them took to this challenge producing really well thought out layouts.

Student design work
Designing and Model Making

We often learn the most from models and prototypes when they are at full scale. The children worked together to transfer their layouts from the A4 sheets they had been working with to A1 pieces of corrugated cardboard, a 600% increase in size. They worked hard to cut out all the parts and assembled close to full size versions of their designs which we took up to the roof garden to see how they worked in context. After completing such a structured and technical set of challenges we let the children have some unconstrained fun to finish off the week with a Crafty Robot workshop.

Scaling up the layout
Building big!
Presenting work to family and friends
Crafty robot workshop
Crafty robot workshop

As before it was a pleasure working with the talented, energetic and dedicated learning team at Design Society and Sarah Green from the V&A, who manage to deal with the chaos created by combining a designer and primary school students (with no common language) with incredible grace and diligence. I am also hugely impressed by how well the children engaged with a technically demanding design process, how hard they worked, and the fantastic support provided by their teachers. It is amazing how much Shenzhen has changed in the six months since I was last there but the change I am most excited about happens next month when Design Society opens to the public!

Celebrating success: the design team with their certificates
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