For both Priya Khanchandani and Daniel Charny, the past six months have been equally challenging and eventful.
Having contracted Covid-19 in March, the former spent much of lockdown recovering; and when she took on her recent role at The Design Museum, was initially working virtually with her new colleagues. She was overjoyed to eventually visit the museum’s current Electronic music exhibition, which she describes as ‘so energising’.
Charny, meanwhile, was teaching on the Design for Emergent Futures course at the Institute for Advanced Architecture of Catalonia in Barcelona, ‘but the students were sitting at home in Doha, in Texas, in Girona and in Greece’. Alongside other projects, he has concurrently been continuing his remarkable work with Fixperts, a free international workshop programme that challenges young people to solve everyday problems through design. They’ve had great success in the UK, training hundreds of teachers, many of whom are now using Fixperts in school hours and in clubs.
‘It wasn’t easy,’ he says, ‘but it is happening and enabling children to apply their creativity and understand their power for social good and inventions. And in universities it’s been amazing — taught in over 25 countries, with significant numbers of students, estimated around 5,000 in tens of universities, having done a Fixperts project.’
This meeting was — happily — conducted in person and ended up being a wide-ranging, intriguing conversation between two people with much in common: not least a passion for education in their field of expertise.
Daniel Charny: How has this period been for you? It’s such a complicated time…
Priya Khanchandani: Well, I had Covid and so spent much of the lockdown recovering. But it has been liberating in other ways. I’ve read a pile of books and have been writing and connecting with people online all over the world, including designers responding to the pandemic in creative ways, whom I probably wouldn’t have had time to speak to normally.
DC: Did you start at The Design Museum straight after lockdown?
PK: Yes. Initially I didn’t meet many of my colleagues in real life. There’s an intensity about meeting people in the middle of a crisis, isn’t there? It heightens your connection.
DC: Yes. I loved teaching online. I was initially really stressed — I thought it wasn’t going to work — but then it became something I looked forward to.
PK: Do you think education needs a location nowadays or has this period shown that there are ways for it to be more mobile?
DC: Oh, there are so many new ways. But we also value what the location gives us more, I think, than we did before. When you are explaining something complex online, you wonder if people get it or not. When you’re giving a talk or a lecture in real life and you feel the group, you know if the group is with you or not.
PK: Could you tell me about a typical Fixperts workshop?
DC: It’s really simple. A group of young people go into their community somewhere, they meet a person, it might be someone in the neighbourhood, it might be in protected housing, and they have to connect to someone. Then they sit with that individual and together they identify a small, repeated daily issue and try to solve it. They go back to the workshop, they make prototypes, they come back to the person.
PK: I know there are some really interesting examples from all over the world. Can you give us one?
DC: The latest one is a group in Nairobi.
The participants went and worked with a cobbler in the market, and together with him, they made him a better seat and storage. And it’s mobile.
PK: That’s amazing. Fixperts encourages such a hands-on way of learning design. How would you describe the state of design education in the curriculum in schools?
DC: Well, design and technology is in a crisis. There are fewer teachers, fewer students taking it, fewer head teachers deciding to offer it. That said, there are some brilliant teachers and pockets of amazing energy and creativity, but in general they’re losing the battle.
“I often consider there to be a misguided perception that creativity is something that is a luxury”
PK: So, are projects like yours running counter to that? They’re happening outside of educational systems, right?
DC: We tried to get into the day-to-day of schools and to be part of the actual exams, but it was very difficult. The education system here is very much about valuing knowledge and we are advocating project-based learning. But in some schools, we’ve had hundreds of teachers taking part and there have been schools running Fixperts for teaching maths, science and after-school clubs.
PK: You mentioned the Durham Commission report in 2019 found that the scholastic system isn’t preparing children with the creative skills they need. What are they fundamentally missing out on because of this?
DC: They’re not learning to apply their creativity to the changing world. Design is a process in which you are responding to the context, the environment changes, you’re addressing a purpose, not addressing a body of knowledge. So the skills that are necessary for being able to think creatively and critically are not being learned through the systems that are giving you rote learning. There’s a big mismatch between the visions of the importance of creativity in our country, and the way that it’s reflected in the education system.
“There’s a big mismatch between the visions of the importance of creativity in our country”
PK: When I speak to the next generation they seem to have strong views about how they want to change the world. How do you think that they can use design as a tool for that change, from your experience interacting with young people?
DC: If they had a chance to experience how to use design they might understand that it’s a part of a toolkit. It’s a process that you do with other people to understand and respond to change. In that sense, innovation happens when design is really responsive to needs. They have to relate to the sustainable, they have to relate to the social and they have to relate to the economics.
PK: I often consider there to be a (misguided) perception that creativity is something that is a luxury and that we can’t afford to put our attentions into it at the moment because we have bigger problems.
DC: For who?
PK: Certainly among those who make decisions about our education system.
DC: I think they haven’t experienced or they don’t maybe understand how designing is different from design.
PK: To the everyday person, doesn’t that just sound like a semantic difference? What’s the substantial distinction?
DC: Well, designing is the activity of improving your world, as opposed to what has a commodity value.
PK: Would you say the design industry today is engaged with design or designing?
DC: I think both things are happening. I’ve seen a lot of people suddenly, or rather in the past decade, learning again as opposed to claiming to know everything. Learning about green materials, learning about circular systems, taking longer-term responsibility towards the well-being of people who make things. And I think that’s the exciting thing that’s happening now. Would you agree?
PK: Definitely, and now especially. A time like this makes you recalibrate everything. It feels as though there has been a shift in the mainstream from the idea of design being only about expensive wallpaper and chairs, to there being a wider understanding of the type of design we are discussing, which is design with a social purpose. There’s hope.
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