Traditional skills are being lost by designers relying on computers

Working digitally can be fast, low-cost and has endless scope for creativity and sharing content - but it's also a flat, two-dimensional medium.

The benefits of an ICT-based world have led to an inevitable switchover across all areas of people's lives, but particularly in work and education. And that means an essential change in skills, attitudes and capabilities that is a particular issue - and problem - for British creativity in art and design.

With the opportunity to cut costs by stripping out workshops and the pressure to focus on the English Baccalaureate or subjects that are felt more important than creative arts subjects, some secondary schools are phasing out any kind of hands-on craft and design from the curriculum. Universities have been busy closing departments like ceramics, glass and craft based material subjects for some time. Even art schools have been reducing the focus on the 'process of making' to chase the digital approach to design.

The UK has traditionally been very strong at making things, and working with real materials. The industrial revolution was made possible by capitalism - but perhaps equally by the stream of high-quality and practical craft and design ideas that were taught in the art and craft colleges found in virtually every town. ICT is a great tool, but that's all. The danger is that we let the tool become the main factor in shaping what's produced. Digital design is inevitably detached from any sense of the quality and characteristics of things and how they work, and is much the poorer for it. 

More and more products on the shelves have been purely designed via an IT screen, and you can tell - they possess no inherent material qualities. They might look well-finished but they are often unsympathetic to the materials used. For employers or universities looking at a portfolio from a candidate you can see almost immediately if they've actually spent any time working with real materials. This is why our university is sticking to its guns on keeping craft workshops open, for glass, ceramics, metals and wood, and balancing this appropriately with the use digital technology which is a great tool.

Beyond the loss of important skills, purely using digital media leads to a different mindset among students. ICT allows for instant 'cut and paste' results, easy changes and easy delivery. Consequently that can be what young people expect from everything they do. Making real things takes patience, physical skills, co-ordination and the maturity to cope with failure and difficult challenges.

Digital technology is a great leveller. That's good for access and participation, for opening up design to larger communities. Not so great for business and for the UK's position as a world-leader in art and design. The UK has traditionally had an influence entirely out of proportion with its size. A reputation for quality and consistency of new talent has kept us in the premier league. But for how much longer? The BRIC economies have caught on to the value of creative arts, not just in themselves, but underpinning many other industries, and are putting major investment into art and design education.

What's needed is digital understanding combined with craft and making skills and a sensibility rooted in the real world of things. We need it in schools and colleges and in HE if we're not to end up with generations of people incapable of 'making', and quality design becomes synonymous only with the industry for antiques.

Professor Mark Hunt is deputy vice chancellor of the University for the Creative Arts.

Students using lathes at a technical college in Bolton, 1966. (Photo: Getty)
JESSICA NELSON/MOMENT OPEN
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The fisher bird that unites levity with strength

We think the planet's fish are rightfully ours. But the brown pelican is known to snatch fish from other birds in mid-air.

If ever there was a time when I was unaccountably happy, it was the day I first saw the Pacific. I had just started working at an office near San Jose and, three days in to my first week, a colleague drove me south and west on a back road that seemed to run for hours through dense stands of Douglas fir and redwood, not stopping till we were just shy of the coast, the firs giving way to wind-sculpted specimens of California cypress and Monterey pine.

Here we parked and walked the rest of the way, coming over a rise and finally gazing out over the water. The Pacific. The idea of it had been part of my mental furniture since childhood, though I didn’t really know why, and what I saw both confirmed and confounded the image I had of that great ocean. But the thing that struck me most, the true source of my unaccountable happiness, was a long flight of brown pelicans drifting along the waterline, just ten yards from the shore, more elegant than I could have imagined from having seen pictures and captive specimens in zoos. This is not surprising, as what makes the brown pelican so elegant is how it moves, whether diving from astonishing heights in pursuit of fish or, as on this first encounter, hastening slowly along a beach in groups of thirty or forty, head back, wings tipped up slightly, with an air of ease that would give the term “laid back” a whole new definition.

The brown pelican: it’s a slightly misleading name, as the predominant colour varies from cocoa-brown to near-grey, while the breast is white and the head is brushed with a pale citrus tone, rather like the gannet, to which it is related. The birds breed on rocky islands off the Central American coast and travel north to hunt. In recent years, concern has been voiced for the species’ long-term safety: first, because of an observable thinning of the eggs, probably caused by pesticides, and second because, as recently as 2014, there was an alarming and inexplicable drop in the birthrate, which some observers attributed to huge fish-kills caused by Fukushima.

On an everyday level, though, pelicans, like cormorants and other coastal dwellers, have to be protected from those among the human population who think that all the fish in the ocean are, by some God-given right, unaccountably ours.

But none of this was in my mind that day, as I stood on that white beach and watched as flight after flight of pelicans sailed by. Out over the water, the sun sparkled yet the sea was almost still, in some places, so the bodies of the passing birds reflected in the water whenever they dipped low in their flight. What did come to mind was a phrase from Marianne Moore’s poem about another member of the Pelecaniformes family – the “frigate pelican”, or frigate bird, which she describes as “uniting levity with strength”. It’s as good a description of grace as I know.

Yet grace takes many forms, from the absolute economy with which an old tango dancer clothes her unquenched passion at a Buenos Aires milonga to Jürgen Schult’s world-record discus throw at Neubrandenburg in 1986, and we have to learn from birds such
as the pelican what we mean by “levity”, and “strength”.

How else to do that, other than by closely observing how the natural world really operates, rather than how we think it does? Later, in her poem about the frigate bird (an accomplished flier and an even more accomplished thief, known to pluck fish from another bird’s grasp in mid-air), Moore extends that notion of levity: “Festina lente. Be gay/civilly? How so?” and adds a quote from the Bhagavadgita that, to my mind, gets to the heart of the matter: “If I do well I am blessed/whether any bless me or not . . .” The lesson we learn from the noble order of Pelecaniformes is exactly this: of the many prizes we may try for, grace transcends all.

Next week: Nina Caplan on drink

This article first appeared in the 16 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times