Let’s celebrate our designers and engineers!

12 December 2013

A wider audience needs to appreciate our successful designers and engineers, writes Stephen Holmes, even if it is only to encourage the next generation to sit up and notice

Despite creating most of the objects we rely on in our daily lives, industrial designers and engineers are never really in the mass-media spotlight. 

In much of society the perception of product design has been massively overshadowed by the worlds of fashion design and architecture; even Crayola-clutching graphic design gets more general exposure.

Engineering has spoken longingly about shaking off the cobwebs and appearing as a blazing career choice for the best minds, yet still it struggles to embrace popular culture or steal the spotlight.

This is a problem when trying to generate interest in the professions as careers.
Millenials — those born after 2000 - are the most tech-savvy generation ever to have graced the planet, yet the majority are uninterested in design and engineering.

New research from Career Academies UK, a charity that helps young people prepare for the world of work, has found that positive influences for potential young designers and engineers are waning further.

57 per cent of the young people surveyed (already undertaking STEM subjects) said that Stephen Hawking was the most inspirational figure in prompting young people to take an interest in science and engineering.

In second place was Professor Brian Cox, followed by Top Gear presenter James May and comedian Dara O’Briain.

Not one of those gents (note no female influence, but that’s another issue) is under 40, and almost all are recognised for their work on television shows.

In a world where idolised sportsmen, actors and musicians are well below the 30 year-old age bracket it’s hard to imagine anyone, let alone school children, aspiring to be James May.

Worse, only 20 per cent could name a famous engineer. Of those that could, their reply was Isambard Kingdom Brunel — a man who died over a century and a half ago.

This begs the question: how are young people expected to be excited by a profession if they struggle to see it in its modern sense?

Of those that could name a famous engineer their reply was Isambard Kingdom Brunel – a man who died over a century and a half ago

Cinema blockbusters like Iron Man, Transformers and Star Wars are clung to as a positive image by campaigners, but most of the audience leave any notion of Tony Stark’s engineering prowess behind on the sticky theatre floor.

Television has tried, yet schedulers punt informative shows to graveyard hours or channels reluctantly accessed by younger viewers.

While the nation’s viewing is gripped by baking, property development and soaps that follow public sector workers, creativity and ingenuity are left to crackpot garden shed dwellers that appear in front of a panel of reluctant investors.

‘Design For Life’ was an unsuccessful attempt at applying the reality TV contest treatment to product design.

It was a failure of unrepeated measure.

Philippe Starck was the judge. A brilliant designer, but a character most sane humans would struggle to connect with. He plucked reasons for contestant elimination seemingly from thin-air.

Viewers were left feeling alienated from the entire process rather than being gripped by the creativity and ingenuity.

While not all industrial designers and engineers are as eccentric, most seem uncomfortable with media attention, preferring to let their work do the talking.

However, such modesty hardly helps grab the public’s attention, or influence school pupils.

Apple’s design maestro Jonathan Ive is repeatedly the only designer the British media feels comfortable in displaying, primarily on the back of the clamour for Apple products.

His recent link-up with another famed designer, Marc Newson, for the charity RED saw Newson all but wiped off the credits by many newspapers seemingly uninterested by his involvement.

Thomas Heatherwick — who last year provided the most memorable Olympic Cauldron in living memory, and renewed a rolling landmark in London’s famous red Routemaster buses — still lives in relative anonymity.

There’s a long list of present-day, active, great designers and engineers that we should be proud of and who can provide the role model status that the professions currently lack.

With the opening of the new Design Museum in London next year hopefully we will see a new perspective on great design and engineering as it takes up a grand space at the centre of the city’s museum quarter.

There is a wave of coverage surrounding 3D printing and events such as this month’s 3D Printshow in London, and exhibitions devoted to new means of fabrication at the Science Museum and the current Design Museum.

A surge of interest in Maker communities and the ability to create in a virtual world using games like Minecraft mean that younger generations are exploring digital design from an earlier age.

3D software is becoming easier to use at all levels, while hardware is becoming more and more affordable — anyone can now create a 3D scan using the camera and a free app on their iPhone, or access a 3D printer to reproduce it.

It is the ideal time to build on the back of this new swell of interest in 3D technology. The next step is to tell the wider world more about the people behind the products.

The human element is always what connects people; putting designers and engineers in the spotlight might just spark a new career boom.

 

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