Thursday, 26 August 2010

The Designer - May 1968

I found this in some papers of my father Geoffrey Bocking that have recently come to light. During the protest at Hornsey College of Art in May 1968, he was a Senior Lecturer in Design at Hammersmith College of Art and Building. It is noted by several authors that along with his close friends (and rivals) Norman Potter and Anthony Froshaug with others, he was very influential in determining the form of education for designers. It is evident from the papers I have put here and here that these questions had occupied him for more than a decade previously.

According to Nick Wright, the peripatetic visiting practitioners accorded Hornsey status which I surmise Shelton naturally wished to protect.


An unpopular plan

Dear Sir,

The shrill trumpetings of Harold Shelton [principal of Hornsey College of Art] have gone on so long now outside the city walls of London and they become more and more amusing. The wild and woolly provincials beyond his demarcation line of Coventry, Birmingham and Leicester can be heard giving vent to vulgar belly laughs in their caves in the hills. As Shelton struggles to decide what provincial borough he really belongs to, he also is striving desperately to crawl beneath the gates of the big city. He dearly wishes to align himself alongside the truly traditional London Colleges who lightly wish to preserve their own identity. Outside the gates he marshals his secret band of professional artists and designers the like of whom exist apparently nowhere else in the world if his argument holds good, let alone in the North of England. When he plots his demarcation line he forgets the educational armies in other countries with more enlightened views.

My own experience after teaching for some years in two of the main London Colleges is that there is a great weakness in a preponderance of visiting part-time specialists. This adds to professional techniques but weakens the concerted overall educational policy.

It is certainly a fact that artists and designers converge on London from all the provinces, but it is also clear that educational ideas often emanate from outside London. We can really ill-afford to neglect the overall contribution of different environments within such a small country for we need to work on firmer ground than for instance Carnaby Street, Bond Street and the Royal Academy if we are to achieve something that is Nationally worthwhile. Unconsciously however he may have struck a very good idea. A North versus South, all holds barred, kid gloves off battle tickles me no end for it could well lead to the deeper thinking this Polytechnic problem deserves but is not getting because of petty individual difficulties clouding the issue. And he might also get rid of a lot of the cant and humbug that has put Britain in its present difficult position if educationalists and designers all over the country got together. This is surely a national educational problem.

The trouble is that artists and designers have preached so-called efficiency, collaboration with industry and educating the consumer for years but when they are actually faced with the problem and the hard facts there is immediate withdrawal into their normal isolationists' unrealistic little Bohemian empires.

The greatest fear says Shelton is lack of identity and individualism. This is certainly lost by weakness but the DipAD developments have created an entirely new situation from that in the past. Art Departments in the old Polytechnics used to be swallowed up by larger ill-informed Technology Departments and they really asked for it with the sloppy approach to art and design that existed at that time. The problem still remains however and we are not solving it anywhere by backing away.

Are we forgetting that we've traveled a long way since the early failures and that technology is now in a better state to attempt inter-disciplinary education. With the strength gained by DipAD we could now achieve a tremendous advance if only we can tackle the matter rationally.

When the combining of all resources is an inevitable step that we must take for the betterment of education generally however difficult it may be, surely it is wrong not to get to grips with the matter now rather than wasting our time carping over personal difficulties.


11 May 1968

The Editor
12 Carlton House Terrace
London SW1

Eric Taylor’s scattered broadside hit upon at least one target against which I too should like to loose off a few rounds: the weakness inherent in a preponderance of visiting part-time specialists.

The notion that a successful design course can be run by relying on the peripatetic visitations of active and up-to-the-minute practitioners deserves to be exposed for the nonsense it is. The last thing working designers have time for, immersed as they are (and must be if they are to be of value to students) in the day to day running of busy and successful practises is the contemplation and reflection – as well as the objective study – needed to formulate an educational programme.  This is the job of the pedagogue, the expert who because his principal concern is education and not practice, can devote a sufficiency of time to devising, organising and running courses that will properly prepare students for practice. Charmingly nostalgic as the renaissance idea of ‘apprenticeship in the studio of the master’ is, we must recognise that in this age it is no more than an indulgent euphemism for ‘sitting with Nellie’ – a mode of training even the most backward industry finds adequate. What is urgently needed today - a need well recognised in the Polytechnic white paper, incidentally - are methods education and training that will better equip students practise than – let’s face it – the inept irrelevances with which most of today’s practitioners were themselves surfeited – relics of once-noble craft traditions served up in the mould of sterile academicism.

Peripatetic visitation, part-time heads of department and all the other devices for totally immersing students in day-to-day practice does not meet this need. Educational establishments should certainly not, for this purpose, be ‘groves of academe’ – but nor should they be pseudonymous workshops, in which students are encouraged to ape the working methods of their masters. Design schools if they are to do their job must face up to the fact that they are concerned with a comparatively new and still emergent discipline. We are as yet far from being able to say: this is what design is; and until a lot more objective study and hard thought has been given to it by men able to stand at the right distance, empirical methods will no doubt have to continue in service. But let them be methods based on some deliberate assessment of what design is about.
Here again the active practitioner is badly placed. He will tell you what design is – it is what he practises – and of course he is right, so long as we recognise that what each practice is no more than an aspect of a very much larger whole. But ask him what the whole is and in the rare instances where get a complete answer, you will find some remarkable lacunae in its conceptual structure. So when practising designers come together, as presumably they did to formulate, for example, the Society’s Policy for Design Education you may expect to look in vain for even an indication of what the content of design education should be, although admittedly there are usually some pious platitudes about the need for such content.

This gives teachers – men skilled in preparing students for, inter alia, a working life, precious little to get their teeth into. It is hardly surprising that academicism is still for some a convenient refuge. There is, as Eric Taylor advocates, a pressing need for educationalists and designers to get together. But if they are to do so fruitfully, busking designers must recognise that more will be asked of them than an admission ticket to their working lives. If, as I contend, design is a discipline - albeit an emergent one – it is worthy to be taught differently from, say shorthand and typing at a level consistent with an honours degree. And what design course in the country can claim it has this in view when even architecture, a recognised discipline of which design is the very stuff, has yet failed to get C.N.A.A. approval? Perhaps if designers were more secure in the knowledge of what they practice, they would have far less fear of its being contaminated by technology?

Yours faithfully:
Geoffrey Bocking
Senior Lecturer in Design
Hammersmith College of Art and Building

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