John Wood asks students to take on a persona when writing projects, to dream in the written, not just the visual form. Jennifer Currie hears his ideas
John Wood has every reason to be pleased. He has just learned that his teaching methods for design at Goldsmiths College, London, have been singled out for praise by the Quality Assurance Agency.
"I've heard that my writing techniques will be used on other courses, including PhDs and undergraduate courses," says Wood, who runs a masters in design futures that "gives practising designers a chance to dream. It helps them reflect on ethical and environmental matters of importance to them and the world."
Behind this idealistic description lies a more practical reality that officially requires students to produce four essays plus a dissertation in written form.
"The assessment structures put in place in the 1960s dictate that art and design students must partly be assessed by reading and writing. Yet many practical studio tutors will still refer to 'the work' in isolation from the students' performance in theoretical areas," Wood says. "This means that an educational opportunity is lost, and student designers are able to avoid facing uncomfortable questions relating to their own future practices."
Art and design courses attract a high proportion of dyslexic students. This might motivate some teaching staff to revamp exams so that they do not rely so heavily on written forms of assessment. But Wood, who says he is slightly dyslexic, has sidestepped this option and developed what he refers to as "writing in 4-D".
"If 2-D writing is governed by the traditional linear form of the school essay, which tends to put form over content - introduction, middle and conclusion - then writing in 4-D puts content over form. I encourage my students to write from where they are and to empathise with their reader's position.
"I felt we needed some original thinking about what writing for design practice might look like if it were developed from radical principles. For example, some of our students are from Pacific Rim countries, and we often discuss the western mindset. Here we are bamboozled into thinking that the world proceeds in a linear, agent-driven flow. This is a dangerous myth endorsed by alphabetical writing.
"We want to combine the best values of creative studio practice with our scholastic traditions as an 'old' university. Scholastic knowledge tends to emphasise 'knowing that', whereas design requires more 'knowing how'."
Wood asks students to address their work to an invented or actual "reader" rather than assume an unnamed examiner. This focuses their ideas, he believes, and makes students develop their designs into "workable solutions". In some cases where actual readers were used, dissertations have informed real-life project designs, such as Battersea Park and the Sony Walkman.
The choice of the reader is crucial. It must balance many factors. For example, if he or she is too familial and sympathetic, the author may feel empowered but unchallenged. If he or she is too expert and hostile, there may be insufficient encouragement to develop the most elementary premises of argumentation.
There are no limits to their choice of reader. Company chief executives, public servants and even undergraduates have been addressees.
With a fixed addressee in mind, students can continually reshape and refine their plans rather than concentrating on narrative finesse from the early stages of writing. "A well-chosen reader will ask you questions you already know the answers to while encouraging you to do additional research and invention."
Some students have adopted a persona so that they can identify with a particular perspective or approach. They may choose to be designers, "concerned world citizens" or just themselves. One student recently wrote "as" a dog in order to reflect on principles of ecology.
Just as wide-ranging is the project subject matter. One student developed a kettle that ran on half the energy of other kettles, while another devoted their year to design a religion.
Wood sometimes recommends that students collect their thoughts in four areas - dreams, curiosity, capability and ambitions. By making the academic duty of writing more compatible with the creative process, Wood hopes that design students will begin to develop reading and writing as a professional skill.
"Many designers claim they don't think reading and writing are important, perhaps because they don't have time or because they prefer to absorb sets of ideas from pictures."
Wood says the practical and theoretical sides of design education are still poles apart, a legacy of the uneasy liaison between the medieval monastic (book) and the crafts guilds (design studio) tradition.
"It is not uncommon for an art or design student to be writing on a subject totally divorced from what they are doing in the studio. It would seem sensible if they were related. Yet the system permits the divide between the two."
Short of revolutionising higher education's custom and practice, Wood hopes that his writing methods will be accepted as a means of galvanising better links between the hands-on and the reflective schools of thought.
"Designers need better writing practices to think better and to be better informed. If they cannot think profoundly, or if they do not understand what they are doing, they cannot be expected to take responsibility for it."