I was in Iceland when I was first asked if I knew what was going on at the Royal College of Art. It was on a visit to Reykjavik for the city’s annual design week in March. Halfway through the festival, I was walking through the city’s Old Harbour with a design curator who had also made the trip out. We’d just made it down to the water when he stopped to ask me. “So, have you heard what’s happening at the RCA? The changes to DP?”

For that to make sense, you need to know the acronyms. DP is Design Products, a two-year masters programme run by London’s Royal College of Art (RCA). As much as any course in the world, it has been responsible for shaping the face of contemporary design. DP was founded in 1998 under the directorship of designer Ron Arad after the RCA combined its Furniture and Industrial Design MAs into one course. DP took elements from both its parents but repackaged them with an increased emphasis on material experimentation and creative liberation. Unlike comparable courses that ploughed more traditional furrows of industry and technical training, DP was progressive and avant-garde, its students delving into eccentric uses of material and process that challenged all aspects of the industry. For his 2006 graduation project, Max Lamb sand-cast molten pewter stools on a Cornish beach, in so doing capturing the tone of the then emerging maker movement; while Julia Lohmann’s early work used the hollowed-out bodies of slaughtered farm animals as moulds for leather stools, creating a reflection on material consumption provocative enough to draw condemnation from the great 20th-century Italian designer Alessandro Mendini: “The idea is cynical and pointless, it is simply turning the torture of a dead body into entertainment”. Elsewhere among the course’s graduates, Yuri Suzuki’s work with sound and music is widely credited with initiating a whole new discipline within design. DP has an acronym because it’s important enough to merit one.

Under Arad and his successor Tord Boontje (2009-13) the course produced designers such as Peter Marigold, Raw Edges, Martino Gamper and Troika, as well as emerging practitioners like Thorunn Arnadottir, Felix de Pass and Bethan Laura Wood. From the beginning, students were encouraged to follow their creative instincts and push at the boundaries of accepted design practice, with little deemed off-limits. “‘Chaotic’ is the word that comes to mind in describing it sometimes,” says Sir Kenneth Grange, an industrial designer and visiting lecturer on the programme. “There is a liberation that DP sets out to provide and which I think it succeeds in.” Yet despite the anarchic freedom afforded by the course, DP had a clear model for success. “It was understood that design is a broad and ever-changing profession and that a successful course needed to be diverse and dynamic as well,” says Boontje. “We gave the students space and freedom to experiment without pressure or judgment.”

For 15 years, DP led this kind of charmed existence, with its students afforded a liberty alien to many other courses both domestically and internationally. Last year however, changes began to arrive. Faced with a new climate of higher education in which funding for teaching has been radically cut,(1) the Royal College has been forced to adapt itself accordingly. As DP has sought to increase outside research funding and rationalise its own internal structures, many alumni have been left fearful that the course’s culture of creative tolerance and permissiveness will be lost in the shuffle. It is a change that raises concerns that should reverberate throughout the industry. If a course as feted and successful as Design Products is under threat from governmental changes, what does that say about the future of design education?

The changes to DP began in summer 2013. In June, Boontje stepped down to focus on his own practice and the college appointed his successor Dr Sharon Baurley in October. Formerly head of design at Brunel University’s School of Engineering and Design, Baurley differed from previous appointees. Unlike Boontje or Arad, she is not a big-name practitioner. Instead, her background lies in academic research with an emphasis on textile development. It was an appointment that suggested a change in approach for DP and one that tied in with the RCA’s wider mission to refocus itself as a research institute. As the British Government cuts teaching grants for arts subjects,(2) the shortfall needs to be made up in other ways, and the funding attached to research is a key alternative. It’s a world that Baurley, whose academic credentials are more heavyweight than either of her predecessors’, is familiar with. “It’s nothing new for me,” she says. “It’s like having design constraints when you’re working on a project. The more constraints you have, the more creative you need to be to find a solution.”

If Baurley and the world she brought with her represented change, so too did the way in which she was appointed. While Boontje’s appointment had followed a transparent application process in which all shortlisted candidates presented their vision for DP in a series of public lectures, Baurley’s was opaque: the school employed a headhunter and tutors and students only learned of her candidacy after her appointment. Such changes to protocol meant Baurley’s arrival alone would have prompted speculation about DP’s future direction, but in March – two months after she formally assumed her role – came further upheaval. DP’s two senior tutors, Hilary French and Gareth Williams, were released and rumours of further change were soon rife. Even as far away as Iceland, people began to talk. “So, have you heard what’s happening at the RCA?”

Baurley did not initiate the departures but was left as the only senior figure on the course in the lead up to the second-year students’ degree show. It was a difficult situation and one that left many students concerned, their dissatisfaction culminating in an open letter addressed to the school’s management: “We, the students of Design Products, are deeply concerned and frustrated with the evident and undeniable deterioration of education that has taken place by way of mismanagement at the Royal College of Art.” The hashtag #saveRCA appeared on Twitter and students and tutors were left to deal with the fallout. “It was very upsetting for everyone and very distracting,” says André Klauser, a DP graduate and a tutor on the course for the past seven years. “It’s important for staff and students to reflect upon teaching itself, and the course structure, but it got to a point where you could tell the work suffered.”

“I felt people were just surprised and sad,” says Kirsi Enkovaara, a then second-year student on the course and its student representative within the college. “We didn’t know what the future was, but we felt that everybody in the senior management who knew the history of this course wasn’t there anymore. People were sad because they weren’t sure if this was going to affect the legacy.” It is a point with which Julia Lohmann, a graduate of the course and now PhD student at the institute, sympathises. “Everything changed very quickly. From one week to the next, I got an email saying that Hilary French, my PhD supervisor since 2011, was on sick leave and would not be back for a while. It was very hard to get any information and I had to liaise with other PhD students to find out what was happening. It was that way for quite a few weeks until it became clear that they had left the RCA, but it was not clear on which grounds or on what terms. They were not even able to hand over the PhD students or meet up with us to tell us in person what had happened.” For a programme that had always been characterised by its strong sense of community – the vast majority of tutors are returning graduates – the sudden nature of the departures was a blow to DP’s atmosphere of inclusivity. “Most of all I was surprised how it was possible that we were kept so out of the loop,” says Enkovaara. “We were all adults there and used to an environment in which everything was communicated as such.”

Design Products is now at a crossroads. In the coming year, Baurley will introduce widespread changes to the course’s structure and while the university acknowledges the student unrest, it is keen to emphasise its vision for DP. “I’ve been an art and design student myself and, of course, I know there’s a very big difference between a student experience as seen from one end and the strategic development that the university is going through,” says RCA academic pro-rector Naren Barfield. “But I think all the change is clearly intended to be in the best interests of students’ education, to safeguard the future of our disciplines, and innovate in those disciplines. We are protecting not only current experiences, but those of future students as well.”

In this context, the nature of Baurley’s changes becomes all important. DP has traditionally been run using a platform system: the school operated five to eight distinct teaching sets, or platforms, each run by a pair of practising designers with the autonomy to set their platform’s prevailing tone, as well as the projects their students undertake. Within the first few weeks of enrolling on DP, students elect which platform to follow for the remainder of their time at the school, with progress then mentored by their tutors. While switching platform is possible, it’s not recommended. It was a loose system that encouraged freedom, but was also intimately hooked to the individual strengths of the tutors, as symbolised by the fact that if a tutor set left the school, their platform would be retired until their return: Konstantin Grcic and Sebastian Bergne’s Platform 4 has not operated since 2000; Oscar Diaz and Yuri Suzuki’s Platform 21 was only founded in 2013. For all intents and purposes, the platforms are the tutors who found them.

Under Baurley’s proposals, the platform system will be retained but modified. The platforms themselves will be reduced in number to five and each will have a remit specified by the course rather than individual tutors: design through making; design for manufacture; object mediated interactions; design as catalyst; exploring emergent futures. On top of these platforms, there will also be a set of five prevailing course subjects, taught by Baurley and new senior tutors Robert Phillips and James Tooze – both are graduates who have since specialised in research (a third senior tutor will arrive later in the year).

Platform tutors will need to incorporate these themes – networked design; the making of things; designing things better; human culture; and new notions and actions from new technology – into their own courses. “For me, Design Products is about creativity for purpose,” says Baurley. “Addressing real world needs and solving real problems, by balancing the high levels of creativity that DP students have in abundance with technical capability and underpinning knowledge. What I’ve done is rationalise the system into five platforms that I think are the cornerstones of design approaches at present. Then it’s important to have a structure that will link these platforms together. That’s why senior tutors and myself will be teaching, so we can ensure there’s a parity of experience across the platforms.”

In part, this change is motivated by a belief that too much freedom had previously been granted DP tutors. While platform tutors will continue to be influential in the development of their own platforms, Baurley’s changes and the presence of the senior tutors should create increased uniformity and accountability across the course, breaking up a situation in which she believes platforms had been allowed to drift into autonomous “islands”. Power has been centralised, with the balance of control shifted away from platform tutors and towards Baurley, the senior tutors and the course as a whole. The islands of the platform system are becoming an archipelago.

Further changes continue in this spirit. The first two terms of students’ first year will become a diagnostic period in which they will try all platforms before specifying which to follow for the remainder of their time (“Applicants say the reason they come here is to experience different design approaches, but the reality is that they don’t,” says Baurley. “Three weeks into the term they elect one platform and that’s where they have to stay”); while a greater emphasis will also be placed on working with industry, academic research and developing students’ future business plans. “I think that DP needs to be more outward-facing. I’m not going to turn the students into academic researchers, all I’m going to do is make them informed designers,” says Baurley. “We can give them the tools and knowledge and access to expertise, and it’s then up to them what they do with it. I know from what I’ve seen of the DP animal that they’ll be like a sponge and will be very innovative and creative. That’s what I want them to be and that’s what DP has always been about, signposting new things that the industry needs to think about.”

While the school is loathe to jettison its liberal-arts agenda, the changes nonetheless suggest a more hard-nosed, practical approach to teaching design. “You should know in your second year why you’re doing the work you’re doing, where it’s going to take you professionally, and where it sits,” says Baurley. “Who does your work speak to? A two-year MA is a huge luxury, frankly, and it’s an expensive one. As far as I’m concerned, students should be starting to develop their business in their second year, knowing the next client they’re going to speak to.” The overriding theme behind the changes is of management taming the chaos that permeates DP. Tellingly, incoming 2014-16 MA students’ will not be extended the traditional invitation to design their own workspaces. They will work from a standardised design created by senior tutor James Tooze.

Chaos however is not without its defenders. For the coming year, DP’s second-year students have elected to finish their degrees according to the existing platform systems rather than shifting to Baurley’s updated programme, and last year’s platform tutors are expected to return to facilitate this. Less clear is who will teach the course’s first-year students. Earlier in the year, DP’s 13 existing tutors were invited to apply for a mooted 10 platform tutor roles, yet just four previous teaching staff – André Klauser, Onkar Kular, Simon Hasan and Ben Wilson – will return, joined by new recruits James Johnson and Chris Thorpe. Further appointments will not be made until after Christmas, when three more platform tutors are expected to be hired, with the remaining teaching spot to be filled by Tooze. It is a drastic change from previous years, when many tutors had high media profiles. By contrast, Johnson and Thorpe (alongside senior tutors Phillips and Tooze) are relative unknowns. Throughout the student body and DP’s alumni there is trepidation as to what effect the changes will have on the course’s future.

Sarah van Gameren, co-founder of London-based studio Glithero, is a graduate of the course and for the past two years has tutored Platform 18 with Philippe Malouin.* “The course always had this very unique culture,” she says. “It was really the only design course in the world where an artistic temperament was fully nurtured and valued. Hopefully it still will be, but you used to be completely free to develop your thinking in any kind of direction without having the constraints of what design should be. That’s what I’m worried about for the future. That sort of culture is such a burnable thing and dependent on so many factors, one of which was allowing for a culture where accidents could happen. The course always had these two things: a strong feeling that anything could happen, and that we went where the wind blew us.”

Van Gameren’s is the prevailing concern in the design community: that the introduction to DP of greater structure will stifle the sense of liberation that has been a hallmark of the course’s success. Many of its most prominent commercial successes – Jane Ní Dhulchaointigh’s self- curing repair rubber Sugru(3) or Roland Lamb’s Seaboard keyboard(4) for instance – grew out of experiments, with their business potential only emerging later. It’s a point the new administration seems conscious of. Simon Hasan graduated from DP in 2008 and returned in 2012 to tutor Platform 19. “Quite a unique characteristic of British design education has been the chaos it operates in,” he says. “When I was on the course it felt a little bit like looking for the light switch in a dark room, but that’s an incredibly stimulating and competitive and inspiring place to be. The challenge for us will be to hold on to that very important nugget of chaos and let it thrive within a more rigid framework and structure.”

Yet doubts nonetheless remain as to the need to alter that structure to begin with. The question “Why change a winning formula?” looms large. While a number of other international design programmes are more obviously geared towards industry, DP students have nonetheless enjoyed success in this arena. Major design companies such as Cappellini, Moroso, Kvadrat, Discipline and Established & Sons have all collaborated with DP graduates, as have commercial brands like Paul Smith, Camper, Nike, Swarovski and Disney. While much of the course’s output has been experimental batch productions or gallery-based projects, a large number of graduates have nevertheless found sufficient financial support to operate viable studios. Whatever it is that DP graduates have, industry and brands seem to want. “Highly creative and experimental designers are very employable,” says Tord Boontje, whose own practice combines commercial work with more personal research projects. “Ron Arad liked to joke about making people unemployable, but for him this meant that we educated very strong and independent designers.”

A connected point is a popular misconception about DP. While the course has always been celebrated for producing atelier-based experimental practices – it is these designers who grab column inches – it has enjoyed success in other areas, particularly in the more commercially oriented fields Baurley wishes to bolster. Ní Dhulchaointigh’s Sugru now posts annual sales of £1.8m and there are similar success stories: Min-Kyu Choi’s 2009 graduation project, a folding electrical plug, was the Design Museum’s Design of the Year in 2010 and is now commercially available as the Mu USB charger. While the chaos of the platform system undoubtedly fostered creativity, it also provided sufficient structure so as not to stymy other ambitions. “I think for somebody who is not a student it could maybe look like the platforms are too isolated,” acknowledges Enkovaara, who has recently established her own practice in east London. “But people tend to forget that we study in the same studio. You’re not sitting with your platform, you’re not sitting with first years or second years. You’re mixed up, interacting constantly in the studio with the other platforms.” Boontje puts the point more bluntly. “When I left, I left behind a course in a very good condition,” he says. “There was an energetic and enterprising group spirit with a very open and collaborative stance. Our graduates found high-quality employment in leading design studios and with companies such as Apple, Samsung, Nokia, and so forth. Others continued their own practices and started their own studios. I think we had something very right, so it’s unclear to me where the need to reform the system of DP comes from.”

The answer, at least in part, seems to be financial. Since 2010, the British Government has enacted a four-year plan to cut the higher education budget from £7.1bn to £4.2bn. It is a vast cut and one that particularly affects the arts, with funding for teaching in all subjects apart from science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) gradually being reduced. Universities have had to adapt. Tuition fees now make up a large part of income, while research funding is of increasing importance. In 2013, University College London won grants worth £135m, the most of any university in the UK, and it is this model that the RCA seems keen to ape. In 2013, for the first time in its history, the college’s income from tuition fees (£16m) exceeded that from teaching grants (£13m), while research grants rose to £1.9m. The challenge for the RCA is to maintain this trend. “Universities are in a slightly strange position because they’re not technically public bodies, but they’re certainly not private bodies either,” says John Gill, editor of the Times Higher Education Supplement. “They fall between two stalls and are now trying to implement business-like strategies to the market, but are perhaps not structured in a manner that lets them do that efficiently, or don’t have the personnel in place to do those kind of things.”

It is an effort to create such a structure that seems to lie behind many of the changes to DP. In 2011, the university restructured itself around six schools – architecture, communication, fine art, design, humanities and material – with Professor Dale Harrow, head of programme for the RCA’s Vehicle Design MA, appointed dean of the School of Design. It is Harrow who is now in overall charge of DP. “My vision is for the school and the programmes within it to maintain their individual strengths, identity and personality, but become a bit more porous around the edges so we can work more collectively with each other and externally with industry or academic partners,” he says. “I don’t want the individuality of the programmes to go, nor do I want a load of autonomous heads of programme reporting to me. I don’t want to create a school where students can just move, do what they want and then get a degree from the Royal College of Art at the end of it. I’m very keen on the idea that people come to study on a programme.”

Yet the academic landscape in which Harrow is working will be alien to many in Europe, where higher education is yet to be commodified and commercialised in the fashion that Gill warns of. Design Products’ two main competitors have traditionally been the MAs on offer at ECAL in Switzerland and Design Academy Eindhoven in the Netherlands.(5) Both schools teach in English (an important consideration for attracting international students) and neither is subject to the same financial pressures as the Royal College, a fact perhaps evidenced by their tuition fees for EU students: while DP fees total £9,000,(6) per year, ECAL’s degree costs CHF 1,925 (approx. £1,250) and Eindhoven’s €1,906 (approx. £1,500). A wider concern for the school and DP alumni alike is that while the RCA adapts to the strictures placed upon it by government, schools such as ECAL, Eindhoven may become increasingly attractive to students who might otherwise have applied to DP. Boontje is particularly pessimistic about the programme’s future: “A different course, somewhere else in the world, will probably become the next leading course in the field.”

If such a situation comes to pass, it will be an indictment of the UK’s higher education strategy. That a course as successful as DP is in danger of falling victim to a policy that prioritises one- size-fits-all blanket cuts over nuanced appreciation of the individual strengths, characters and needs of specific programmes is deeply concerning for students, tutors and the industry as a whole. “It’s not at all possible to point at the heads of the RCA and say, ‘This is all going wrong,’” says van Gameren. “The changes at RCA should be seen in the wider context of the changes that are happening in higher education; the financial restraints and devaluation of design and creative education in general. But what there should be is a lobby in government for this design course. We need people who understand the value of the course and how important it has been on an international level, and should continue to be. You need at least one course in the world where the best people come together with unlimited possibilities in materials, techniques, collaborations, cross-disciplines and contact with the industry. But that’s already here at the RCA! We should claim it as our own in the UK, otherwise that course will shift elsewhere.”

The lesson to take from this is that if DP is becoming more structured, it is because the RCA and British higher education both are. The changes to DP are not capricious, but an effort to respond to their new realities, a point to which those now running the course are sympathetic. “It’s 2014 and the academic landscape has changed in terms of funding and management,” acknowledges Simon Hasan. “Maybe there’s been a necessity for courses like ours to grow up a little bit and begin to play by the rules.” What remains to be seen, however, is how a course as nebulous as DP will fare when handed those rules. Efforts to untangle this question at present amount to little more than guesswork, but there is one point that will undeniably shape the course’s future and the success of Baurley’s vision: the reaction of tutors and students to the changes. It is an issue that emerges most clearly by returning to look at one of the proposed amendments to DP’s structure in more detail: the introduction of prevailing, course-wide subjects.

Superficially, this seems a radical change to the course’s past structure, yet closer examination suggests otherwise. When Boontje was appointed to lead the course in 2009, he created three key themes – the social manifesto, extreme functionality and the fantastic – that were intended to sit above Arad’s platforms and bind the course together. “You could put the previous teaching structure down on paper and it would not look dissimilar to this new version,” says André Klauser, an existing DP tutor who will continue under Baurley’s leadership. “The structure as it is on paper is just a theory. It really only comes to life with the people who fill the positions. Who is leading the conversations with the students and in the room, on the day, talking about the work? The structure as it is I can support very easily, it deserves to be tried out. It’s just about getting good people on the course and exposing students to those good people and their opinions.”

Yet Klauser also provides a counterpoint. “From my perspective as a tutor, I was very happy with the old system. It gave me a lot of freedom to operate as an autonomous group with my teaching colleague,” he says. “I can see the benefits of the changes, but it obviously impacts upon the autonomy of platform groups. I’m not so much my own boss anymore and I have to be careful not to let that impact on my own motivation, because that was very motivating in the past.” Platform tutors will need to determine how they feel working under the new course structure, and the same holds true of students. “The atmosphere of DP is created by the students and the tutors,” says Enkovaara, “and I think if people support the community, then I wouldn’t worry about the future. If the way students communicate and study changes, then that may change the course, but if the students are supported in maintaining their group, I think it will be fine.”

What emerges from this is a slight modification to the question first asked in Iceland. The point is less “What’s happening at the RCA?” than “What will happen at the RCA?” With changes to funding meaning universities now must be run more like businesses, Baurley and Harrow have introduced the kind of structure to DP that should make this possible. “I think I’m maintaining the same level of freedom DP has always had, but I do have a job to do to maintain academic standards,” says Baurley. “All the changes are just platforms for students to launch themselves off into any creative path they want to. The students will just make their own cocktail, as they always have.” But it will only be in the next few years that the design world will learn if Baurley has successfully married these two strands. Baurley believes the changes she has brought will create a DP with the same liberated spirit as before, but set within a stricter institutional backdrop. “I recently read a paper that Sharon produced explaining her vision for DP moving forward,” says Kenneth Grange, “and I don’t think I’ve ever read from that department such a cogently, well-argued rationale for the place.” Yet despite Grange’s endorsement, it will be a difficult balancing act to pull off, and one that many of DP’s alumni believe may prove impossible.

It’s a point captured best by Julia Lohmann, whose studies as both an MA and a PhD student on Design Products have led to a 12-year relationship with the department. “I think changes are a necessity, but whether it has to be these changes I find hard to judge,” she says. “Part of me still thinks, ‘Maybe there is something else. Something more creative that could be done. Something more off the wall.’ If you’re too off-the-wall to fit into the system, maybe you need to be more off-the-wall. Maybe you need to be more different to everybody else.”


This article originally appeared in Disegno No.7
Author: Oli Stratford, deputy editor of Disegno
Additional interviews and research: Johanna Agerman Ross, editor-in-chief of Disegno
Date of publication: October 7, 2014

(1) In 2011, universities throughout the UK faced cuts of up to 12 per cent before funding changes related to student fees were implemented. Universities focusing on research fared better than those prioritising teaching.

(2) The Browne Review was set up to review higher education funding in England. Chaired by Lord Browne of Madingley, it published its findings in October 2010. Acting on its recommendations, the government decided to cut the teaching grant for band C and D subjects (arts, social sciences and humanities) believing they could be funded by fees alone since they do not require expensive laboratory facilities.

(3) See the following link

(4) See Disegno No.4 p.56

(5) ECAL offers an MA in Product Design
and Design Academy Eindhoven an MA in Contextual Design; both are similar to DP.

(6) On 3 November 2010, then Minister of State for Universities and Science David Willetts announced new proposals based on recommendations from the Browne Review. But in a break with the review’s findings, the government proposed to increase the cap on undergraduate fees from £3,290 to £9,000 per year.