Sebastian Conran: making young designers of Britain's school children

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The Independent Online

While Britain’s schools and colleges offer some of the finest design education in the world, there is often a disconnection between the creative focus of classroom lessons and the ways in which learners apply this in the real world of design and business. It's why, this week, Sebastian Conran has unveiled Design Ventura, a new education initiative launched by London's Design Museum and Deutsche Bank, aimed at developing student creativity alongside enterprise skills.

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The annual programme, running over three years, will see around 600 children, aged 14-16 from London state schools, respond to a brief, set by Conran, to create a product for the Design Museum Shop that fits the museum's ethical and environmental business credentials, and has potential to make a profit.

As part of the project, they will engage in a series of school and museum-based workshops run by professional designers and entrepreneurs, gaining hands-on experience of the design process, from fulfilling a brief to problem solving to pitching their ideas professionally.

"Design Ventura will encourage young designers to get hands on experience by working with practicing designers to meet the real life challenges of creating successful merchandise for the Design Museum shop," said Conran at the launch on Tuesday. Not only that, but the winning team can "then enjoy the satisfaction of seeing their creativity, not only being physically realised, but on the shop’s shelves, and in people's lives."

But what sort of things will Conran and his panel of judges be looking for in the winning design? "The whole point of design," he explains, "is getting into the minds of the people that are going to be using it. Will they want it to be a memento of their visit [to the museum]? Is it something they're going to use during their visit? We don't want something that feels like a bit of generic gift-shop merchandise - you know - slap a logo on a mug. But, actually, everyone needs mugs, so could you design a better mug?"

That might well be the case for many young designers, but before they let their creativity run amok, like any real designer, they will have to think about cost. Says Conran: "Anyone can design something that's very complicated to the manufacturer, but the Design Museum has got limited resources, it's a single shop, so we can't afford much in the way of tooling up. We want the price point to be an under £10 product, preferably a product that school children themselves could afford to purchase."

It is this rooting in the practical, real-world context of a design project that makes Design Ventura such an interesting project for children, who, day-dreaming at their desks, rarely understand how equations or grammar or classroom drawings are going to have any future importance in their day-to-day lives. Says Conran: "It all seems terribly abstract when you're at school and then, when you leave, suddenly mathematics – my god, it has a reason!"

A project like this, he explains, "gives context to a lot more of the academic stuff. You're not just an isolated pupil at your desk, you’re part of a team; you’re part of a chain.”

While the competition is limited to London State Schools, nationally, all schools can take part in the project via a free online resource called Virtual Ventura, which contains video content and lessons plans. A Ventura Award will be presented to the most innovative and enterprising response to the design brief. Meanwhile, all participating teachers are invited to attend a free Continuing Professional Development event on 14 June, which will look at the curriculum context and opportunities within the project.

For Alexis Brachacki, an Art & Technology teacher from Brentside High School, Ealing, the Design Ventura project is a fantastic opportunity. His pupils, he explains, often "lack the confidence to make design decisions," but, he says, a real-world project such as this will "take them out of the classroom context" and "give them something tangible."

For the young learners facing a "real world" characterised by fewer jobs, increased competition, rising university fees, higher taxes and an embattled economy, such an opportunity – be they designers-in-the-making or not – will help to equip them for the challenges that lie ahead.

Emily Jenkinson is interiors writer for furniture and interior design website mydeco.com.

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