Big Ideas for D&T: Design


In deciding what to teach in design & technology it is important to consider both the nature of design and the nature of technology. These have quite separate intellectual traditions and one of the tasks of design & technology as a school subject is to bring these two traditions together in a way that is both workable and rigorous.


Designing is a complex activity. Lawson (2004) makes an intriguing analogy with playing chess:

Designing then, in terms of chess, is rather like playing with a board that has no divisions into cells, has pieces that can be invented and redefined as the game proceeds and rules that change their effects as moves are made. Even the object of the game is not defined at the outset and may change as the game wears on. Put like this it seems a ridiculous enterprise to contemplate the design process at all! (p. 20)

Interestingly, this mirrors to quite a large extent the requirements of the conceptual challenge that young people will tackle in the new single title GCSE.

Ropohl (1997) has further described this activity as requiring:

[The development and design of] a novel technical system, anticipat[ing] the object to be realised through mental imagination. [The designer] has to conceive of a concrete object which does not yet exist, and he [sic] has to determine spatial and temporal details which cannot yet be observed, but will have to be created by the designing and manufacturing process. (p. 69)

“Conceiving . . .what does not exist” (Buchanan, 1996) and “developing and designing a novel . . .system” (Ropohl, 1997) indicate that pupils will, on occasion, be required to make conceptual design decisions.  “Developing and designing a … technical system” (Ropohl) indicates that pupils will need to make decisions about the way their design will work, that is, make technical design decisions.  “Spatial and temporal details which cannot yet be observed” (Ropohl) indicates that pupils will need to make decisions about the appearance of their designs, that is, aesthetic decisions. Finally, “created by the . . .manufacturing process” (Ropohl) indicates that students will need to consider how they will make their design, that is, constructional decisions.

Ropohl (1997) does not explicitly consider the user, yet product designers have commented on how important it is to consider the user when developing design proposals and this is now explicit in the design & technology National Curriculum and the new GCSE specifications. For example, Jonathan Ive, Apple’s Chief Design Officer, states, “the design of an object defines its meaning and ultimate utility.  The nature of the connection between technology and people is determined by the designer” (Department for Education and Employment, 1999, p. 14).  This indicates that some of the decisions made by pupils should be informed by a consideration of the user.  As these considerations will be broader than any one group of users, such considerations are perhaps better described as market considerations.  This indicates that pupils will need to make decisions related to the market for their product.

Decisions in these five domains (conceptual, technical, aesthetic, constructional and marketing) are not made independently of one another, for as Buchanan (1996) states, “a designer must attend simultaneously to many levels of detail and make numerous decisions as he or she designs.” (p. 7).

Hence, we have adopted a design decision making model as a useful way of describing pupils’ design activity in designing and making activities and used this in the “Good Practice” section of v2 of the rebuilding paper (Figure 1).