Disrupting Design for the real world

Toaster Teardown

Partial disassembly of toaster for sustainable design workshop at Plymouth College of Art ©PCA


Material culture lies at the heart of design and there can be no question that we have a need to better understand and evolve material culture, for the common good of all people. As a society we’re currently using twice as many resources as the planet can sustain and I believe that all practicing product designers should be adjusting their working methods to use the resources available to us more responsibly.


Making Futures - Beijing

Our Making Futures Conference (Beijing) ©PCA


In my experience, the commercialisation of design education has caused many providers of it to become more rigid and inflexible in the ways that they deliver design training and education. Educational providers of all types are naturally concerned about the risks associated with offering too many options in their design education curriculums. This means that too many educational programmes now nurture a conservative approach, leading students to deliver the results that they expect will best meet the needs of our material culture. It’s safer for educators to encourage this approach than it is to inspire students to explore and disrupt existing models of design - the path that would more likely lead to innovation.



Award winning 3D Printing from waste packaging work with Co-oproduct, Nestle’ Research and NTU ©Co-oproduct


According to Steve Rutherford, editor and author of the first cross-disciplinary design text book, The Design Student's Handbook : "At a time when design education at all levels is becoming definable, modularised and conveyor belt-like, what the design industry and the business world in general really need are people who are flexible, positive, pro-active and great researchers and communicators, people who take calculated risks and contribute real change to society, no matter what they're working on. As we're trying to do this, governments, universities and even professional bodies are trying to tie down what design is to a tight syllabus, a list of skills and a job specification. In a quick changing world these are not the things we need".


students teardown

Students learning to disassemble products during sustainable design workshop with Jamie ©Sarah Packer, PCA


Rutherford’s call for dynamic and proactive design education is also evident in the Design Disruptors documentary by Invision, where it is presented alongside clear evidence and numerous high profile case studies that demonstrate how a flexible approach to contemporary design can add value to any business or problem, no matter what the potential outcome. It is this ability to adapt and use the design process, through critical and reflective thinking that enables designers to transform even the most challenging of problems.


Design Disruptors documentary by Invision


Not surprising then, that the recent Design Council 2016 report, The Design Economyreveals £71.7 billion was contributed to the UK economy in 2013, by designers working in both design-specific and non-design industries. The Design Council report reminds us not to lose sight of how important design is. However, as Victor Papanek pointed out 45 years ago, “There are professions more harmful than industrial design, but only a very few of them.” (Papanek, V., 1971)


There are also many other important issues that we need to consider in the creation of our design educational curriculums. These include the fact that we are using 50% more natural resources than our planet can sustain (The World Counts , 2016 ) and that the recent explosion of big data means that there are rapidly expanding new markets and environments to be explored and understood.


Students evaluate toaster design 

Students evaluating a mass produced toaster using Autodesk’s Sustainable Design Tools ©Sarah Packer, PCA


Regardless of Papanek’s foresight, the majority of product design education hasn’t prepared well for this change and is only beginning to understand the significant effect that design can have on these major issues.


As a Senior Lecturer in Product Design, I’ve reached the stage where I’m not interested in creating another conventional product design degree, with the same accompanying problems as those that already exist. In my new role at Plymouth College of Art,I've been helping to establish a unique contemporary Product Design degree which has proven to be a rare opportunity to create a distinctive; disruptive and socially relevant new product design course. This opportunity reminds me again of how it feels to innovate...


"Talking disruptive design with Jamie Billing". @PCA


This new product design degree, combines physical and digital design with contemporary shifts in sustainable, ethical and open design principles - to disrupt the status quo and train the designers of the future. Uniquely to the provision of design education in the UK, we have identified three core drivers that are currently challenging design practice: Environmental Degradation’, ‘Social/Open/Frugal Innovation’ and ‘Interaction’ (or, the continued convergence of humans, objects and information). In the true spirit of creation, we have built our programme from the ground up around these central themes. The rationale for doing this is threefold:


1. Designers play a central role in contributing to environmental degradation, because design and the production of material culture drives consumption. Consumption requires a constant flow of resources and infrastructure and the majority of designers simply haven’t proved their efficacy in influencing a sustainable balance of natural resources against manufacturing demand.


2. There are many new emerging trends, cultures and methods that actively seek to disrupt the status quo, by challenging existing conventions and ideologies. Designers need to understand how the global phenomenon in new democratic, open, social and frugal forms of innovation such as ‘Making, DIY and Sharing Culture’ are changing and shaping the traditional role of the designer.


3. The recent explosion in software and data production forces objects and information further together than ever before, unifying them into new forms, often realised as complex and ‘smart’ responsive systems and products. The evolution of architecture and infrastructure to support this new data explosion means that many networks are comprised of multiple, evolutionary layers of dynamic and ‘smart’ platforms. Recently, designers and particularly the product design profession have begun to establish themselves as a vital influence in the manifestation of new software and data products. It is important that design education embraces this new shift in design practice and continues to explore the significant positive influence that product designers are achieving in the evolution and experience of these new products.


On the Product Design & Innovation programme at PCA, we’ll be adopting Fusion 360 for our students, as an alternative to Solidworks and once again, will use the sustainable design resources on the Autodesk Sustainability Workshop . I’ve used them many times in my own practice and academic work with students, which you can read about on Core77, at Autodesk or Co-oproduct .


jamie with students

Students discover how easy it is to design better products with Jamie & Autodesk tools at Plymouth College of Art ©Sarah Packer, PCA


If you would like to learn more about BA (Hons) Product Design & Innovation at Plymouth College of Art, please take a look at our website or contact me directly: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.. I’d love to hear from you!


Jamie Billing

I am Technical Director & Co-Founder of Co-oproduct. I spend most of my time thinking about how design can be more useful to the world and I make my own Cider, from my own apple tree! You can find out more about me in our 'About Us' pages.

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