Too much theory, laments inventor

March 3, 2000

James Dyson, multi-millionaire inventor of the bagless vacuum cleaner, is fiercely critical of what he regards as a damaging shift towards "an overly theoretical, navel-gazing" approach to the teaching of design.

Dyson, who earlier this week gave a lecture on design education at the Royal Society of Arts, thinks many design departments "cram in as many students as possible and treat design as an entirely cerebral activity, never even getting projects to prototype".

"Reforms linking funding to bums on seats are partly to blame," he said.

Rising student intake is positive in general, but many design departments have had a steady decline in ratios of staff to students and, "worst of all, workshops being closed through economies".

Mr Dyson tempered his attack with fulsome praise for a small number of institutions that have swung away from theory to a more engineering-oriented, practice-based approach to design.

"Institutions like Brunel, Glasgow, De Montfort, the Royal College of Art and Newcastle have all cottoned on to this."

They have adopted an enlightened, holistic approach to industrial design, from conception and development through to prototyping and manufacturing, he said.

"It shows in the quality of graduates. The ones we have taken on from them are fully trained and brilliant - they are virtually ready to go as soon they join us."

Mr Dyson, whose Malmesbury business boasts annual sales of Pounds 300 million, makes a point of visiting annual events showcasing student talent. "There is an ocean of difference between the work of students from the Brunels and Glasgows, and the rest," he said.

He said he would take some of the more theoretical approaches seriously if they resulted in high-quality design located in the real world.

"Instead, the stuff that is trotted out is awful. It is not even as good as what kids are producing in design and technology at GCSE and A level. The key thing is to find a balance between the cerebral and practical, and the likes of Brunel do that extremely well."

There are academics who are teaching design as little more than theory, he says. "Is it because they feel life is made easier by theorising than making? We all know practising and experimenting in the workshop is jolly hard work for staff and students - it is a damn sight harder than sitting around in studios having colourful debates about the 'meaning' or 'effect' of design," he said.

He thinks it "terribly important" that mature students work alongside staff and undergraduates. It was actually a research student who introduced Mr Dyson to the work of architect and engineer Buckminster Fuller, a major influence on his own work. He said: "I am sure there are a lot of things academic researchers could do, for instance look at the appropriate level of technology for products that companies would find useful. Practical, imaginative engagement in areas like that could be very useful to industry."

Mr Dyson employs 300 researchers, mostly graduates and postgraduates in engineering, engineering design and product design. His company spends about 18 per cent of its turnover on research.

Mr Dyson is also worried about design and technology in schools. It is popular among pupils yet the government may make it non-compulsory. He is about to send his third letter to education secretary David Blunkett urging him to reconsider.

Mr Dyson said: "The syllabus is brilliant and whoever dreamt it up deserves the country's thanks. It should remain a core subject."

"I believe creativity and making things is a very important part of children's development. It teaches them about the value of manufacturing and industry."

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