Creating a design for life: students consider the ethical issues of their work

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The Independent Online

It should come as no surprise that those who think most about the items we use every day - product designers - are increasingly concerned about environmental and social issues. Product and 3D design courses encourage students to think about the impacts of the products they create. Many do so only in one module, often as an optional extra. Not so the Kent Institute of Art and Design at Farnham, who has run a BA in product design sustainable futures since 2000. "We are interested in the social and environmental performance of products," says course director Miles Park. "We want students to think about the entire life-cycle of a product, from the raw materials and whether they are sourced in a sustainable and ethical way, to what happens to it when it's discarded. But we are still trying to design a beautiful, sexy product. This isn't about hessian bags."

This view is echoed by Matt Ward, lecturer in design at Goldsmiths College, London. "There's been a big move in the past decade with people in education and industry realising they can't ignore these issues," says Ward. His course was called BA in eco design, but dropped the "eco" part of its title two years ago. "Because there was a design course and an eco design course we kept being asked whether one was environmental and one wasn't, and we couldn't continue like that. All of our courses aim to teach designers in a way in which they understand the implications of what they do on the world."

There are more than 250 product design courses at colleges and universities across the UK, with still more specialising in product development, engineering, marketing,manufacturing and aspects of 3D design. Admissions tutors will consider applicants with a broad range of skills and qualifications - although the first port of call is the portfolio. Many hold interviews and expect to see examples of a creative project, which, in some cases - particularly in the realm of sustainable product design - could be a written piece rather than a piece of art or design.

Just like in the real world, product and 3D design students will learn to meet briefs in which they must consider the market, constraints on cost and production, and aesthetics, as well as the wider social and environmental implications. Many offer work placements and most expect a final-year dissertation. Graduates go on to a huge range of careers, from setting up their own companies to product development and manufacturing.

There are currently 15,000 first-year design students studying one of 1,800 undergraduate design courses nationally. This figure is only likely to grow given the Government's belief in design as the best way for industry to stave off overseas competition. And so some tutors believe that niche knowledge, such an environmental slant to a course, could help students differentiate themselves when they come to enter the job market.

"We really believe this is the way forward for design," says Susan Vernon, course leader of the BA in 3D design for sustainability at University College Falmouth. "A few years ago people didn't understand what sustainability meant. But now it's much more mainstream. A lot of environmental issues can be resolved at the design stage rather than when a product is being thrown out and people don't know what to do with it, so it's very important. Students need to be leading the field when it comes to making change."

FUTURE THINKER

Damien Jones, 26, is in his final year of the product design sustainable futures course at the Kent Institute of Art and Design

"I did my first degree in engineering at Loughborough University and I realised quite early on that I wanted to do product design. I felt it gave me a lot more freedom to be artistic and creative. Of course there are rules when it comes to designing certain products, but it seems a lot less rigid.

The course is fantastic. We are encouraged to think about social issues, such as making sure a mobile phone can be used by an older person who isn't used to technology, and green issues are becoming more and more important for business. Companies have to produce sustainability reports and more people are worried about global warming, so firms have to take notice."

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