Design activity can inform the development of a wide range of products and services. It does this across different levels of detail: from the positioning and nature of a switch at the level of fine detail to the overall nature and purpose of what is being designed at the grand scale level and for a device that required one or more switches this might be an electrically powered toy. And in most cases the designs operate within complex interacting systems and have to be conceived so that they can do this successfully. In previous GCSE specifications the Awarding Organisations set relatively closed design briefs for candidates to tackle. This led to young people spending much if not most of their designing time making decisions concerned mainly with fine levels of detail. This is not the case for the new specifications which start to be taught this September (2017) for examination in May/June 2019. The Non Examined Assessment or Contextual Challenges will be announced in June 2018 and candidates will spend the autumn and spring terms responding to them. Candidates might still design and make similar products to those they produced in previous specifications but this to my mind would be a lost opportunity. The whole point of the Contextual Challenge is that it requires candidates to explore situations and identify the needs and wants of people in those situations. From this consideration of needs and wants candidates develop their own design briefs to which they then respond through designing and making. This approach gives ownership of the activity to the candidates and enables them to pursue an endeavour which they consider to be worthwhile. Here are some sample Contextual Challenges posted by three Awarding Organisations.
From OCR we have
- Public Spaces
The sensitive design of public spaces can enhance users’ experiences and interactions with that space. Explore a space in your locality with the view to enhancing the users’ experiences within that space.
Theft of people’s personal possessions is a problem in modern society. Explore the role design can play in securing people’s belongings.
Dining can be a wonderful social and cultural experience that does not only focus on the eating of food. Explore the ways design can enhance the experiences for any of the stakeholders involved.
From AQA we have a rather more minimalist approach
- A high profile sporting event
- Addressing the needs of the elderly
- Children’s learning and play
From EdExcel we have
- Improving living and working
- Contextual challenges
(a) How can living spaces also be used for a work environment?
(b) How can objects be used for different purposes in a living or working environment?
- The sporting arena
- Contextual challenges
(a) How can technology be used to improve a sporting situation?
(b) How can merchandise be used to promote a sporting situation?
- Expanding human capacity
- Contextual challenges
(a) How can an aid for people with disabilities improve their capacity to perform a given task?
(b) How can we provide more protection for humans from the environment?
As an aside here we might ask if a more current and relevant contextual challenge would be the reverse?
Before we consider how these might play out in a ‘design for good’ approach it is worth looking briefly at this through the writing of Emily Pilloton. Her book Design Revolution is a clarion call to designers to make the distinction between ‘good design’ and ‘design for good’. To quote Allan Chochinovin writing in the foreword, when you move from good design to design for good ‘the design conversation moves from form, function, beauty and ergonomics to accessibility, affordability, sustainability and social worth.’ Allan is scathingly critical of much design activity, ‘Perhaps the wholesale poisoning of every natural system through industrialisation are “unintended” consequences, but there’s a cruel irony in designers running around, busily creating more and more garbage for our great grandchildren to dig up, breath, and ingest, all the while calling themselves “problem solvers”’. Emily’s book features more than 100 contemporary design products and systems including safer baby bottles, a waterless washing machine, low-cost prosthetics for landmine victims, Braille-based building blocks for blind children, wheelchairs for rugged conditions, sugarcane charcoal, and a universal composting systems. These and all the other items described in the book will make excellent case studies for D&T students on the theme of ‘design for good’.
So if we want our young people to embrace ‘design for good’ how might this play out in their responses to the GCSE Contextual Challenges. In theory all of the challenges identified above could be viewed through the lens of ‘design for good’ but some seem to offer more obvious opportunities than others. First a word of warning, as I explored this issue it became increasingly apparent that some if not most of the suggestions were outside the sorts of outcomes we have come to expect as D&T outcomes. Be that as it may I still think the exploration is worthwhile and in fact may encourage us to widen the scope of what is seen as an acceptable D&T outcome.
- Consider Public Spaces (from OCR) as an example.
What could be done for a park that was run down and poorly maintained or a piece of uncared for waste ground. Planting a meadow that flowered throughout spring, summer and autumn such that once seeded it would require minimum maintenance, be a joy to behold and adding furniture made from reclaimed materials to enable passers by to sit and enjoy the surroundings would surely be ‘design for good’. And this isn’t simply aesthetic indulgence. Meadows are of ecological importance because they are open, sunny areas that attract and support flora and fauna that could not thrive in other conditions. They often host a multitude of wildlife providing areas for courtship displays, nesting food gathering and sometimes sheltering if the vegetation is high enough. Many meadows support a wide array of wildflowers which makes them of utmost importance to insects like bees and other pollinating insects and hence the entire ecosystem. Clearly there are obstacles to be overcome in negotiating with the local authority and their parks and gardens department but surely worth a try. And how to manage this as part of the NEA? Too big a task for a single student well then, could it be a group project in which several individual students take on different aspects of the challenge? Providing there was sufficient design and make activity for each student this should not be too great a problem. Each candidate would have to be able to demonstrate clearly their own individual involvement, reflections, ideas and outcomes that were not simply using the work/outcomes of the peers they were working with, acknowledging interactions with others as they occur. The group dynamics would need to be good and each student committed to a fair share of the effort, no room for passengers. And as for a busy city street that has existed since Victorian times there would be lots of history to be revealed which could be shown using augmented reality (AR). Developing a series of location specific histories using open source AR software that could be loaded onto a tablet or mobile phone would enhance the experience of users within that space. Would such a digital solution to the challenge count? I asked Jonny Edge of OCR and he gave this useful and considered response.
There would be possibilities and problems in this. If they are simply developing location specific histories that rely on freely available AR software, this is more App development and therefore the domain of Computer Science / ICT. Ideas and potential outcomes would have to be considered against the Marking Criteria. What is the physical 3D ‘final prototype’? If the teacher isn’t mindful then this could be leading candidates into a situation that will disadvantage their assessment. The problem seems to be that there is no physical product unless the learner designs a holder or hand support / glasses / heads up display / special accessory etc. for the tablet/phone. If this was included I see no real problem as long as the right balance is achieved. This could be a series of prototypes, rather than just one. Part of it might be the digital/virtual aspect, but in order to meet the assessment criteria of all boards there would need to be evidence of the use of hand tools, machinery, digital design and digital manufacture. The way the OCR assessment works means that this does not all need to be shown in the making of the final prototype(s). The consideration that a candidate needs to make here is the physical attributes of their design solution. Other solutions/considerations to those given above may be how they are displayed/presented in the location. A criticism of the AR approach to enhancing users’ experience of the space would be that not all users have access to mobile devices and this should be considered as a limitation by the candidate.
- And what about Addressing the needs of the elderly (from AQA)?
There is no doubt that we are living longer and that this is creating problems for our health service. The elderly become infirm and frail and sometimes suffer from dementia. Providing care for the elderly is a problem that is likely to grow (see for example http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/health-40942531) and it is important that young people appreciate this and become engaged with developing solutions. So this is a challenge that has implicit appeal to ‘design for good’. And it is essential that any approach to the elderly treat them with respect and dignity. How might young people tackle this challenge? Visiting and listening to the elderly is surely a first step, perhaps their own family members, perhaps residents in local sheltered housing or care facilities. Simply hearing about their lives now and in the past would provide a wealth of information that could lead to suggestions for the elderly and the young people to consider together. I’m not sure what would come out of such considerations. But then, that’s the point of a Contextual Challenge, you don’t know at the start what you’re going to be designing and making. One idea that might appeal to both young and old alike did occur to me. A treasure box in which an elderly person could keep particularly precious mementos of times past – letters, postcards, photographs, jewellery, medals – which he or she could use as reminders of the past and as stimulus when talking to others about their life. Exactly what such a box would look like would be up to the young and elderly to decide together but there would certainly be lots of opportunity to design and make to an exceptionally high standard.
- And How can merchandise be used to promote a sporting situation (from EdExcel)?
I must admit my heart did sink a bit on this one; merchandising had the ring of “creating more and more garbage for our great grandchildren to dig up, breath, and ingest” to re-quote Allan Chochinovin. However I know from personal experience that lots of sporting events are linked to charities of considerable worth – fun runs to raise funds to support research into diseases and support for those caring for the ill. So the question for me becomes how might young people re-interpret the idea of memorabilia so that the items designed were not trivia to be discarded after the event. I was drawn to the idea of packets of seeds that could be planted to give various coloured flowers to act as a reminder of the event. This might involve choosing the seeds, ensuring that they do in fact grow well in various conditions, providing instructions for planting and care, developing ‘memorabilia’ pots for the seeds – not typical D&T activities but then perhaps one of the challenges of the Contextual Challenge is that it will broaden what counts as designerly activity in D&T.
Engaging D&T students with ‘design for good’ through the Contextual Challenge will not be easy but is I think worth doing. If we are successful then the results will be plain for all to see and this has the potential to raise the profile and status of the subject with a wide range of stakeholders – parents, SLT, governors, the local community and local businesses. And D&T departments will I believe find allies in this endeavour. Sponsorship from local DIY stores (B&Q), local building supplies (Dewson) local banks (Barclays has several innovation centres) would be possible and desirable. Good PR for the sponsor, the school and the subject. Is this just too idealistic? Well may be, but what’s the point of being a teacher and trying to enable our young people to flourish if we aren’t idealistic? And remember there’s almost a whole academic year to lay the ground for the Contextual Challenge before they are announced.
As always comments welcome, particularly from Awarding Organisations.