Designers tell a story in different languages of Expression

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Graduate Fashion Week

June is my indulgence month. It’s Graduate Show time and I am cool-hunting for trends and talent. I start with fashion…

The Old Truman Brewery has been a fashionista’s edgy paradise for some years now. This year it hosts the Graduate Fashion Week. How many catwalks can I fit in? A lot actually. Five trends I couldn’t miss: volume, wide belts, half garments, age blur, genderless. From dresses to trousers to coats, from prints to knits, volume is blown sideways and all around to deliciousness; the coat belts are wide, half garments are in. I wonder why we need separate streams for womenswear and menswear. Young males look “lost”. What happened to grumpy old men – they’re all colourful and jovial.

My second stop is at Oxo Tower Wharf, on the London South Bank. Somewhere between the National Theatre and Tate Modern, the wharf is surrounded by restaurants, cafes, bars and design shops. I make my way through a narrow darkish passage that leads to an open courtyard. Ahead of me towers the Bargehouse, solid, imposing and raw. An industrial setting amidst the arts world. A big sign “Made in Brunel” invites me in.

I was not prepared to find a ”grand design project”, a warehouse with torn ceiling plasters, ripped walls, wires, rust.  Four floors of designs from more than 200 students from Brunel University, famous for its engineers and industrial designers, and in 2013 it scored top for its Business School too. Pens that detect ingredients in food to alert the user about the allergy dangers, shoes that grow with the child, screwless glasses, systems to solve contamination problems due to most people not washing their hands properly, diagnosing concussion in rugby, recycling plastic for 3D printers, enabling education in Africa, bio-reactive tactile expiry label, multisensory learning toys, exoskeleton for older people… One strong theme through all of them: technology is changing the way we make things, and the things we make are shaping us too. I leave the Bargehouse thinking: what an inspired setting to host the Future of Making.

I head towards another warehouse, the Granary. It once held Lincolnshire wheat for London bakers. Gloriously restored by Stanton Williams Architects, it is the gate to “the street”, Central Saint Martins new campus, with studios, theatres, workshops that connect with overhead walkways, where students, teachers and staff from different departments can meet, talk, bump and spark off.  This year the Graphic Design Graduates – about 150 of them – culminated their studies with an exhibition and a conference. I am invited to open the conference and share thoughts on designing the future. Young, energetic, from all over the world, they will soon enter the world of work, a journey that for most will be at least 50 years.  They find that exciting and daunting in equal measure. We talk about sense making, design mindset, collaborating across disciplines, cultures, time zones and age. We talk about hard work and application, failing and learning, passion and meaning.

When we think Design, we often identify it with the beautiful element that touches and delights us. But as these graduates tell the design story, you can’t fail to see that there is a lot more in design than what catches the eye. Designers are trained to spot problems, and design solutions. They are trained to tell a story in different languages of expression, they are trained to create experiences that delight, engage and involve. And going through the exhibitions, you get the feeling that they care too. And through their designs they dare to tackle some of the big problems the world is facing, like gun control, caring for the elderly in China, identity and belonging, environment awareness, human rights, war traumas and many more.

I end my journey filled with inspiration by the talent I’ve seen. For the students, the search for jobs starts tomorrow. Some will get employed. Very few will start their own business. A fact I heard at Made in Brunel stayed with me. Only 0.7% of the graduates start their own business. It hits you if you compare this with more than 50% of the MIT graduates in the US. Yes, they put a lot more emphasis on entrepreneurship and innovation, have more incubation facilities, and more Makeries that combine craft and technology. Is that all?

Endnote. I arrive home to find a message from my friend, Jim, form TechShop in San Jose. “Julia, it’s America’s national day of making. President Obama is hosting a Makers Fair. Do make something today or mentor somebody too! ”

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