Northumbria University hailed as shining example in call for design focus

Northumbria University has been named as a shining example of why British design schools should be top of the government’s education agenda

Northumbria University graduate and Trunki inventor Rob Law
Northumbria University graduate and Trunki inventor Rob Law

Northumbria University has been named as a shining example of why British design schools should be top of the government’s education agenda.

The report from the Universities Alliance (UA) calls on ministers to enthrone design among science, technology, engineering and maths – the so-called STEM topics which drive its industrial strategy.

And among its case studies was Northumbria graduate Rob Law, who rejected £100,000 on Dragon’s Den when his Trunki children’s suitcase fell apart on camera – and went on to sell more than 1.3m of them.

Mark Bailey, a lecturer who taught Rob Law in the late 1990s, praised the report, saying design could boost businesses and “improve society”.

He said: “Both the design council and the RSA have long made the case for focusing on design and innovation within education, both in schools and university. But the recommendations are practical and increasingly important.

“The emphasis on STEM subjects as the only solution within further education is debilitating because it does ignore the very vital role that design plays in giving meaning to the discovery they can bring about.”

The former aerospace designer, whose six-year-old daughter posed on top of a Trunki for the first competition it won, said his discipline could improve everything from fashion and websites through pots and pans to NHS waiting rooms and charity workflows.

He cited one student who had consulted with Age UK in Newcastle to help them weather cuts by clever use of resources, and new deodorant spray bottles that carry the same amount in half as much aluminium.

Northumbria University’s design school is known for producing high-profile graduates such as Sir Jonathan Ive, the Apple designer who Steve Jobs called his “spiritual partner”. The UA’s report claims businesses get £20 back in revenues for every pound they invest in design, and calls on policy makers to include it in their industrial strategy.

It notes work by Northumbria researchers to create printable sensors embedded in clothing to measure hospital patients’ breathing.

It also proposes building “creative approaches to problem solving” into the secondary curriculum – something Mr Bailey deemed essential.

He said: “We have an education system which is built around the notion of there only being one answer to any given situation, any given problem, and experimentation is frowned upon.

“Design and technology in schools has become very formulaic. We spend most of our first year uneducating students in order to release their creative potential. And that is with all due respect to many very good teachers, who are frustrated that they’re hidebound by a curriculum that doesn’t value creativity.”

As for Bob Law and the Trunki, Mr Bailey called his former student “hard-working and diligent” and “determined to make something happen” – even if he “wasn’t necessarily a stand-out star”.

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