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Swinburne University of Technology Sarawak Campus

Design – artistic hobby or economic imperative?

August 21, 2013

Dr Adam Newcombe

Although design courses have proliferated around the world over the last 20 years or so, the actual understanding of what design is and its importance to an emerging economy is often overlooked.

The perception of many parents, when advising their children towards future professional career paths tends, very often, to follow the line of medicine, law, engineering, accountancy, business and the like, while ignoring the 10 to 20% of children who show a natural inclination towards using their creative passions, visual skills and kinesthetic abilities in building successful and fulfilling careers.

This parental lack of understanding in the possibilities of using visual, kinesthetic and creative strengths in constructing an economically viable career path is understandable. It is only natural that parents advice their children within the context of their own life experiences. In emerging economies, design is most often imported or derived from somewhere else. Design strategies and trends evolve in economies steeped in design culture, with mature design educational institutions and businesses attuned to the role of design in the manufacture, marketing and packaging of their products and services.

Within education, the idea of creativity and visual proficiency is too often corralled into the idea of hobby-based creative arts. A process long taught as a minor component of secondary education, although the skills and knowledge of creative practice and thought are perceived as an essential component of pre- and primary school education. All too often art/performance, sport and music are not understood as essential elements in learning processes and in developing learning constructs and problem solving thought. Leading world educational experts such as Edward de Bono and Sir Ken Robertson (see Robertson’s lectures on TED.com) have long argued for the introduction and use of Design Thinking at the center of secondary education. Howard Gardner even posits that most educational systems only really train and educate two out of eight levels of intelligence in his 1983 book Frames of Mind.

Interestingly the two levels of intelligence Gardner refers to are verbal-linguistic and logical – mathematical, the two intelligences most utilised by disciplines such as law, accountancy, medicine, science, engineering and the like. The other six intelligences he identifies are: musical – rhythmic, visual – spatial, bodily – kinesthetic, interpersonal, intrapersonal, naturalistic

But how does a society develop design as an economic driver and not keep it as a creative hobby, or something to be imported and copied from somewhere else? Modern Design education was first consciously structured and implemented in Germany, at the Bauhaus, in the late 1920s and 1930s, as a response to the perceived lack of export potential and aesthetic quality of brilliantly engineered and manufactured, but ugly and unappealing German merchandise. The British and Americans, due in part to the Arts & Craft movement of the late 19th Century, had already begun the long conversation concerning the role of design and aesthetics in industrial manufacture and indeed advertising and visual communication. After World War 2, there was a realization in Italy that the cultural heritage and craft skills of the country could be utilized to re-build industry and manufacture. Today, Italy is a world leader in fashion, beautifully designed niche manufacturing and top of the line auto manufacture. In the late 1960s Japan came to the same realization as the Italians, and over the next 30 years built the world’s second largest economy.

So what do these examples tell us? First, underlining each of these national examples is an inherent craft skill drawn from a long heritage of cultural craft production. Taught craft skills, manufacturing know-how and innovation, and visual, creative and design education, underpin a country’s ability to design and manufacture highly exportable products. The second significant element in this construction of a conscious national design culture is an awareness, implementation, education and social engagement with design. In Germany, as with most successful economies, the production of design surrounds and immerses the local population. It is a key, conscious component to all social activity. The Germans drive beautifully designed cars, live in cities that invest in designed systems that keep them clean and functional. The Japanese constantly draw on their long and unique cultural heritage and craft to manufacture for export, products that reflect a conscious use of design, as increasingly do the Koreans. For all their present economic woes, Italians live and breathe design, as a central component part of their cultural and economic life.

The two main keys to building a design culture are, firstly, an acceptance, understanding and implementation, across society, of design as a crucial professional discipline. This requires a pro-active engagement by authorities. The second is a well-funded, widely recognized, accepted and carefully structured design education system that promotes both design thinking and craft skills and awareness.

The discipline of design is not an artistic hobby; it is of paramount importance to the building of both an innovation-led economy and a creative society.


Dr Adam Newcombe is a Senior Design Lecturer with the Faculty of Business and Design at Swinburne University of Technology Sarawak Campus. He has spoken and consulted on the implementation of design craft, thinking and design education across a number of institutions and countries. He is contactable at anewcombe@swinburne.edu.my