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)
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The Underground Railroad is a novel which offers hope for the very strong of heart

Whitehead’s prize-winning novel of slavery in America is his finest work yet.

30 DOLLARS REWARD will be given to any person who will deliver to me, or confine in any gaol in the state so that I can get her again, a likely yellow NEGRO GIRL 18 years of age who ran away nine months past. She is an artfully lively girl and will, no doubt, attempt to pass as a free person, but has a noticeable scar on her elbow, occasioned by a burn.

 

“Want ads” for runaway slaves serve as section breaks throughout Colson Whitehead’s searing novel The Underground Rail­road, which takes a familiar story – concerning the manifold injustices of American slavery – and brings it to terrible, terrifying new life. Whitehead does so by revealing, in close view, just how brutal and businesslike were efforts to ignore, obscure and destroy the dignity and humanity of so many men and women for so very long.

The novel begins with an auction:

 

Onlookers chewed fresh oysters and hot corn as the auctioneers shouted into the air. The slaves stood naked on the platform. There was a bidding war over a group of Ashanti studs, those Africans of renowned industry and musculature, and the foreman of a limestone quarry bought a bunch of pickaninnies in an astounding bargain.

 

Thereafter we learn that “A young buck from strong tribal stock got customers into a froth”, that “A slave girl squeezing out pups was like a mint, money that bred money”, and that a mother “maintained a reserve of maternal feeling after the loss of her five children – three dead before they could walk and the others sold off when they were old enough to carry water and grab weeds around the great house”.

Finally – and this is still just in the opening pages of the novel – we discover, through the eyes of a young woman named Cora, what happens when any of these persons resists living as purchased property: “She had seen men hung from trees and left for buzzards and crows. Women carved open to the bones with the cat-o’-nine-tails. Bodies alive and dead roasted on pyres. Feet cut off to prevent escape and hands cut off to prevent theft.”

Whether in spite or because of these consequences – and mindful, even haunted by the knowledge, that her mother managed to escape her own bondage – Cora decides to join a fellow slave named Caesar in running away. In Whitehead’s treatment, a metaphor for the secret network of support that helped black slaves reach the free (or at least freer) American north and Canada becomes an actual makeshift train that travels underground, which Cora and Caesar ride across the South. They are in constant peril, relieved by passing periods of respite: sleeping in a bed for the first time, learning to read and write, and even coming into a small amount of money, which, Cora soon discovers, “was new and unpredictable and liked to go where it pleased”.

Throughout their escape, they are pursued by a vicious slave-catcher called Ridgeway, who is motivated by far more than merely financial reward: “Charging through the dark, branches lashing his face, stumps sending him ass over elbow before he got up again. In the chase his blood sang and glowed.” Ridgeway, Cora and their respective others meet throughout the novel, their positions of advantage and opportunity revolving in ways that make for flat-out suspenseful reading. Many others are grievously harmed in the meantime, as they move through a small-town, 19th-century American world of crafty and hypocritical politesse and ritualised violence. The violence is never rendered more awfully than in the festive, Friday-night lynching sessions that take place at a picturesque park which Cora watches from an attic refuge.

The Underground Railroad, awarded the American National Book Award for Fiction last month, is Whitehead’s sixth novel. Following the more playful novel of manners Sag Harbor and Zone One, a zombie romp, it is his most ambitious and accomplished book since the Pulitzer-nominated John Henry Days of 2001. In fact, the lack of literary showiness – vividly presenting the rudely built underground railway and the hard lives of those riding it – makes The Underground Railroad perhaps his finest work. Although the repeated encounters between Cora and Ridgeway across such a sprawling set will strain the credulity of anyone save a diehard Victor Hugo fan, Whitehead is a confident enough writer to let their lines of escape, pursuit and capture braid and break apart again and again, building to an exciting and rending conclusion. It is one that offers hope for the very strong of heart. 

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage