RCA/Imperial IDE: The missing link

New Design, January/February 2002. Article PDF [PDF 468Kb]. The article that appears here is as submitted with one correction. Also included is an unpublished report on the IDE debate that took place at the anniversary event. As this has not been checked against a transcript of the debate, it is not to be cited. Original post.

The industrial design engineering course at London’s Royal College of Art came of age last year. Nico Macdonald talks to staff and former students about 21 years of the course and its effects

Taking the well travelled bus route between Knightsbridge and Kensington you pass along the south side of Kensington Gardens, the Royal Albert Hall to your left. This is the northern part of Albertopolis, the largely undeveloped area at the West edge of the expanding city bordering the venue the Great Exhibition of 1851, which by royal edict became a centre of science and the arts.

Opposite Albert’s recently restored memorial is the Royal College of Art, itself due for a make-over in the near future. Heading south from the College towards the Science and Natural History Museums and the V&A you pass the Royal College of Organists, with its ornate frontage, before descending the steps to be confronted by the sprawling campus of Imperial College, Britain’s original university of applied science and technology.


A gulf would appear to separate Imperial and the RCA though in fact they have been “nosily looking at each others washing” since the 60s, while students such as James Dyson, studying furniture then interior design at the College, would ‘gate-crash’ lectures at Imperial.[i]

RCA Rector Christopher Frayling recalls the stereotyped counter-position of “long-haired style-merchants and white coated engineers with slide rules and skin problems, who listened to heavy metal”, but in the real world there was a growing recognition that design and engineering were on converging paths. RCA Professor Frank Height was concerned about the diminished value of engineering, and keen to promote design for need (in the spirit of Victor Papanek), and the synthesis of prototypes in design. He wanted to create a “new cadre of designers” who created designs that were manufacturable and holistic, and products of independent thinking, and he saw a joint course with Imperial as the way forward.

“Year by year, from 1973 onwards”, he recalls “I remember trotting down the steps behind the Albert Hall to go to Imperial College with a package of revised proposals for a Master’s Degree in design engineering for submission to Senate House in Bloomsbury. Year by year, we were turned down — the course was suspect.”

Thinking laterally, Sir Hugh Ford, Head of the Department of Mechanical Engineering at Imperial, proclaimed: “Forget the Senate, why don’t we give the Diploma of Imperial College?”. Height’s dream became a reality and Industrial Design Engineering (IDE) was born, inducting engineers into design with a two year course, the first learning basics and the final year focusing on one project. In 1980, the first four students, Phil Seeney, Andrew Douglas, Chris Lowe and Roy Tam, arrived at both the RCA and Imperial College. Twenty-one years on there are 38 students in the current year and 274 graduates from the course.

According to Professor John Drane, 90% of graduates quickly move into a senior position as industrial designers in companies they go to work for, and many start their own businesses. The graduate diaspora is both geographical and across industry with alumni going to companies such as Apple, Nokia, Cambridge Consultants and IDEO, others starting consultancies such as PDD and Alloy, and many finding a home from home at Dyson Appliances. “Alumni of the IDE course are designing the world from bases all over Europe, United States, the Far East and Australasia”, claims John Perkins, from Imperial’s Engineering Faculty.

Benefits of being an engineer and designer

The benefits of training in engineering and design are considerable. Jim Orkney, Managing Director of Kinneir Dufort, observes that “the new product design engineer has to be creative and technically credible and proactive, but also have vision, management, user understanding, business understanding, the ability to work in a team and take a holistic viewpoint”. Gus Desbarats, chairman of Alloy Total Product Design, believes his engineering background “gave me an ability to be quite analytical about what we were doing creatively with form”, adding that while “in design culture problems are bad, the engineering culture is that problems and challenges are there to be met and addressed”. Joe Ferry, Industrial Design Manager at Virgin Atlantic, reports that “IDE enabled me to communicate to engineers and manufacturers without being termed a fluffy which is how most designers are treated within industry”.

Course approach

The IDE course has developed considerably within Height’s original vision. Professor Drane notes that IDE “began with a design for industry philosophy as the source of the brief” and has moved to more human-centred “design for society” philosophy. This human-centred approach is eye-opening to people with an engineering background. Desbarats recounts that he “spent four years in a mechanical engineering programme learning a lot about bridges and stresses, and absolutely diddly squat about people”.

Observation and understanding of people is a key element in IDE. Senior Tutor, Prue Bramwell-Davis, argues that “often users don’t know what is possible” and “that in order to design anything of any real value you need to listen to people and look at life from their point of view”.

Creativity and innovation are complementary but equally key aspects of the teaching. One of Drane’s objectives is to “reveal the fundamental creativity within engineers” and he promotes thinking ‘outside the box’ (also the theme for IDE’s anniversary events), encouraging students to “undo their assumptions and break through into new areas”. Ferry endorses this approach. “The main things I learnt doing the IDE course was that creativity and innovation are the core to good design or as I say in my studio at the moment — you can’t polish a turd.”

The great variety of disciplines at the college is a considerable bonus. Kursty Groves, Special Ventures Manager at PDD, recounts “coming from engineering and being stuck in this creative melting pot that is the RCA”. Mark Sanders, a visiting tutor and principal of MAS Design, reflects on the “opportunities that came from being among all these other designers, ceramicists, textile designers and their thinking methods”.

This diversity encourages cross-disciplinary practice and Ferry has taken this approach to Virgin Atlantic. “In effect what I create is my own mini Royal College of Art”, he comments.

Clear, structured thinking underlies the IDE approach, building on students’ engineering training. Graduate Ibrahim Ibrahim points out that “it’s not a course which teaches you how to do a specific thing and design a specific product for a specific sector. It’s a course that teaches you to solve problems creatively and in a structured way”. With this way of thinking “graduates will continue to thrive no matter how the world or technology evolves” Sanders adds.

Summing up IDE’s approach to design, Drane states that “a product has to be original, have a powerful brief addressing real needs, be manufactured in a sustainable way, within cost constraints, be good to look at and easy to use, and recognise branding aspects of marketed products”.

However on graduating, Simon Wells, now at PDD, noticed something missing from his skills. “I realised that there was a gap, and the gap was in design implementation”, which he characterises as “that woolly bit that we all wrote about in our major project reports where we gloss over manufacturing and gloss over production and maybe mention something about cost”.

Why do people do IDE? How do they choose it?

Twenty-one years on from the inauguration of IDE, Drane notes that “the somewhat heavy, uncouth engineer has disappeared”, though he still laments the poor public image engineers have in the UK compared to Italy. “People go from engineering into the City or manufacturing”, Groves observes “but others want to learn more about the creative side of things and products in general”. Gareth Jones, now at Dyson Appliances, reflects how he “started life as a mechanical engineer working at Rolls Royce slaving away in the design studio, looking forward to the next pair of dead men’s shoes so I could move up the ladder”. His apotheosis came when he visited the degree show in 1988. “That confirmed for me that IDE was the missing link.”

How do other people learn design engineering?

IDE isn’t the only route to creating industrial designers and engineers. As a participant in the Alumni Forum noted, “there are lots of people who are industrial design engineers who have never been near the RCA”. Brunel has a well regarded Engineering Product Design undergraduate course, and Glasgow School of Art runs joint under-graduate and post-graduate courses with the University of Glasgow[ii], though Teesside’s Design for Engineers course recently shut up shop.

Internationally there are related courses at Stanford University (of which, along with the RCA, IDEO’s Alan South says “these two establishments are absolutely core to our whole business”), the technical universities of Delft[iii] and Eindhoven[iv] in the Netherlands, as well as course in Sweden, Hong Kong and Japan. “UK industrial design studies are more rigorous especially in the analytical thought that goes into design,” argues Bill Evans, Director of San Francisco-based Bridge Design[v], “but importantly they are steeped in art and culture, hence the value of placing IDE in an art institution rather than a technical one”.

Others make their way without the benefit of an IDE-type course. Kevin McCullagh of Seymour Powell Foresight, whose background was in engineering but didn’t have a design foundation, found that the Design for Industry course[vi] at the University of Northumbria was willing to make an exception for him. Fellow student Mark Delaney, who didn’t have an engineering background, comments that “we were taught enough to ask the right questions”.

Do designers need to know engineering?

While training engineers in design has a clear logic, does the reverse make sense? “I have met many designers who are brilliant engineers but are hindered by not being qualified,” observes Sanders. Conversely, Nina Warburton of Alloy Total Product Design, and a Design for Industry graduate, has come across “product designers who know so little about engineering that they are dangerous”. “You need to know who to ask what questions and how to evaluate the answers”, she explains. Drane is of the view that there should be a course for art school-based designers to enhance their engineering skills, but for the time-being for IDE qualified design engineers will be coming from engineering not design. “If designers aren’t clever, engineers might take over from designers in product innovation”, notes IDE research fellow Rob Holdway wryly.

How do people succeed in industry?

IDE graduates appear to land in a wide variety of roles, partly due to the way of thinking the course promotes. In fine engineering-speak Drane notes that graduates’ “exit direction is very different from their entry vector”. “I can guarantee you can put an IDE student in any bit of a business and they would be able to tackle that job and add value,” contends Jones.

Coming from an engineering background, there might be tendency for graduates to find themselves in more engineering roles or, as a graduate from a related course puts it, “Dyson slaves”. This may be expected, as Warburton points out, “75% of jobs in the design industry are grunt jobs”, adding that IDE graduates “might take on more methodical roles because that is their disposition”. Delaney, now at Samsung Design Europe, observes that graduates “tend to end up at design companies that sell a CAD system rather than design-led companies like Tangerine and TKO”.

How might the course adapt to the future?

The world of product design has changed a lot over twenty-one years of IDE and the course has adapted to many of the changes.

Reflecting on the early days of the course, Mark Sanders points out that “it was actually relatively easy to be an IDE student. We had to meet three basic criteria: does it work, can it be made, is it appealing. The demand for skills has increased as the course has evolved, not only to meet these skills but also to address how design as an industry has evolved”. One area in which that evolution is evident is the tendency for OEMs in the Far East to do the engineering work, and the associated move to 24-hour engineering and design, a model used in Alloy’s work on HP’s Journada Pocket PC.

The increase in skills is also putting pressure on the structure of the course. One participant at the Alumni Forum noted that “if you want an industrial design and an engineering accreditation, you’ve got to put in five years”, and course tutor Paul Ewing noted in the US students spend at least five years in education at degree level followed by two years at masters.

There is a more fundamental issue that has been with the course from its inception: can it really create designers, or just design-friendly engineers? Drane argues that the course addresses this. “We suss out the right people at interview; Look for people with the right qualifications who are also showing the right kind of imagination, an awareness of how design functions, who read design magazines and go to exhibitions.” It may be that there are some people with engineering training who are already thinking like designers. According to Delaney “there are two kinds of engineers: those who see their job as reducing risk, and the more problem-solving ones who don’t just want to do things the way it was done last year”.

As design has moved from a focus on tangible things to intangible experiences it has also begun to focus on another intangible: the organisation. Holdway comments that “the way a company organises and orchestrate itself is as important as the design solution”, noting that design practice leads to a kind of management consulting. “What didn’t I get out of IDE that I would have liked?”, asks Bill Evans. “Business and leadership understanding.”

Holdway proposes that “IDE students need to understand the broader context of design, the business processes of innovation, the knowledge that exists, and the way change takes place”, and advocates that they should be reading publications such as the Harvard Business Review. In the spirit this spirit he convened the ‘Help Yourself — Designing Better Business’ seminar[vii] during the week of IDE’s 21st anniversary events.

Speaking at the anniversary Frank Height set another new challenge for IDE, expressing a hope that “somehow, Government, the City and industry can be helped to discover the seeds of growth that are here”. That this challenge is credible says a lot about how far design, and IDE, has come in the last two decades.

(Unless otherwise cited all quotes are from IDE graduates and faculty. Some quotes are taken from the IDE21 Alumni Forum which took place at the RCA on 7 November 2001.)

The IDE debate

One element of the IDE 21st anniversary events was the ‘Manufacturing, Sustainability and the User Experience’ debate, with James Dyson, of Dyson Appliances, addressing manufacturing; Edwin Datschefski, of BioThinking International taking up sustainability; and IDE Senior Tutor Prue Bramwell-Davis.

Dyson, ever controversial and refreshingly so, addressed the role of design consultants and the role of design at Dyson. “If you look at the design press, you would think that design was only done by design consultants”, he claimed. Advocating that designers should take a lead in industry and “determine your own destiny” he scornfully observed that “intellectuals in Britain shy away from manufacturing”. “In manufacturing you can create change at a great rate”, he argued, adding that he was doubtful whether an external consultancy could have sold the concept of the dual cyclone vacuum cleaner. According to Dyson, the external consultant is a “slightly neutered person, absolved of responsibility”. Refuting the common observation that in-house designers miss out on external influences, he noted that they do benefit from them “along with gems of insight from being on the inside”. “An external consultant can only read about it; an insider can do it”, he noted. “Don’t think that creativity can only exist in the ‘creative industries’.”

Considering the role of designers at Dyson, he explained that they need to understand customers and retailers, and that they talk to retailers to get ideas, not just about what people want. “Market research only feeds current assumptions”, he explained, challenging people to “design the unimaginable”. Describing the involvement of designers throughout the company, Dyson contended that it was possible to “design so that quality control is almost unnecessary”.

In his presentation on sustainability, Datschefski claimed that “all of the world’s environmental problems are caused by designers” and that ‘good’ practice is ‘bad’ because, among other things, it endorses pollution. “Products that are unethical win awards” he observed, though as ever in such debates he assumed the audience agreed on what was ethical. Appreciating that you can’t win an audience by being down on everything, he argued that “sustainability is becoming an important business pressure” though he had claimed earlier that “nobody understands what sustainability is”.

Discussing user experience Bramwell-Davis observed that fifteen years after the Boilerhouse exhibition on design for the elderly “user-centred has a Cinderella-ish ring”. Noting that inclusive design, an approach IDE has pioneered, has connotations of political correctness, she was adamant that we should “design with the whole person in view” while deriding the concept of a ‘user’ “and all these undignified terms”. Instead she advocated human-centred design, referencing Design Issues co-editor Richard Buchannan’s contention that “designing a user-centred hand-grenade would be hard, a human-centred one impossible”.

Much of the ensuing discussion focused on the design ethics theme, with one attendee arguing that while “designers must be conscious of the environment they are working in, the idea that we shouldn’t produce new products is a kind of insanity”. Professor John Drane added that rather than there being too many products, there were “too many bad products”, commenting that we “mustn’t get too hung up on the moral approaches” to design. “We have heard all about sustainability before”, observed another attendee. “It is not up to the designer to take the high moral ground.”

Design projects

[For images see the PDF version of of the article.]

‘Space Hobs — Flexible Cooking Zones’

The kitchen is significant to every aspect of our lives. These days it’s not only cooking and eating that take place in the kitchen. The kitchen has become a social centre for many other activities.

Every day the kitchen is required to undergo a metamorphosis, transforming itself into a study, TV room, playroom and dining room. As well as being the central focus for all food preparation matters in the home, the kitchen also has to accommodate the changing need of the user throughout the day.

With space at a premium in the majority of kitchens, especially in the inner city and for the first time home buyers, appliances need to be designed in order to accommodate people’s lifestyles and domestic needs.

This product aims to investigate the footprint of the built-in cooking hob found in the traditional kitchen. Traditionally the size of the hob related to the plan of the oven housed beneath it, although today this need not be the case with the advent of compact built-in ovens that can be placed just about anywhere. The surface occupied by traditional built-in cooking hobs whilst not in use is valuable workspace.

The aim of this project is to redesign the traditional cooking hob into a space saving cooking appliance for those who choose not to have a large kitchen.

Mark Delaney: “[They had] done a good job of styling them up, and they worked.”

‘H20T1 Kettle’ Stephen Davies

Safety and efficiency are two major problems with the conventional electric kettle. Thousands of serious burn and scald injuries are caused every year due to electric kettle accidents and research shows in excess of £150 million per year (in the UK) is wasted from boiling more water than is actually required.

This plumbed-in kettle provides boiling water in a far more convenient, safe and efficient manner. Easy to read levels ensure the correct amount of water is used and as the kettle is fixed to the work surface, it cannot be knocked over, there is no trailing flex and no need to lift for filling and dispensing.

The kettle was selected by the UK Government for the [email protected] exhibition in Kuala Lumpur to promote British design and was a finalist in the Dyson Product Innovation award and Living etc. magazine Bright New Things Award. It has also been selected for the Design Museum in London and featured both on television and in a number of major magazines.

During 2000 and 2001 Ovo Design gained significant investment to allow the H20T1 to be developed further with a view to seeing in to production.

A new fully working prototype of the H20T1 Kettle will be exhibited at Hotelympia in February 2002.

‘Home Fax’ “Light Path” George Marmaropolous

A fax machine designed for a home rather than an office environment. It can be easily operated by all family members and it can be displayed as a decorative object. The icons on the acrylic spiral are touch sensitive buttons and are sequentially illuminated to guide the user through the steps of operation. A retractable scanning element allows the scanning and sending of information directly from newspapers or 3D surfaces. When a fax is received, the whole object is illuminated in order to indicate its status in a clear and visually appealing way.

‘HP Jornada 540 Pocket PC’ (1999) Gus Desbarats, Alloy

The global collaboration methods developed for BT have proven extremely useful with other clients, notably Hewlett-Packard Singapore. HP was one of the first clients of Alloy, the design business I founded in 1999. The Jornada 540 Pocket PC product has been a great commercial and creative success, winning both design-awards and significant market-share. It’s a true global product: designed in the UK, engineered and manufactured in Singapore, marketed and distributed globally by an American company.

Once again, the RCA IDE hybrid mix of creative and technical ability was central to success. According to the Head of HP Singapore Kok-Khoon Lim: “Conventional approaches to industrial design either gave us products that looked good but couldn’t be made, or, bulky products that could be made but were hard to sell. We needed a fresh approach”. After a global search, Lim was impressed by our ability to bring together creativity, technology and collaboration skills, within the tight timescale required.

The main creative challenge was to create a distinctive look, suitable for lifestyle markets, without compromising HP’s core brand-values. My strategy was to keep a very clean neutral appearance, but focus on using the case design to add practical benefits to the product. The core breakthough idea was to add an integral lid to the device and move the stylus into the lid. This repackaging eliminated the need for a separate protective bag, allowed a bigger, more accessible stylus and created a new market for brightly coloured replacement lids. The idea was off-brief, but was allowed into market research, where it convincingly beat off our 4 other more conventional ideas.

The other main challenge was applying our long-distance 3D file-sharing techniques to a tight, complex and very fluid electronics package. This was been recognized by the world’s two largest American IT companies in operating systems and CAD who have chosen to use this project as a benchmark case-study of modern collaborative project management.

From Alumni Forum: We were given an insurmountable challenge, the external dimension was a millimetre bigger than the internal electronic dimensions. So we had to come at it completely differently, do something crazy like add a lid to protect the screen, better ergonomics, mass customisation benefits and all that sort of thing but the point is that we actually went looking for trouble, went challenging the problem, didn’t try and pretend it was anything other than what it was.

‘DCO6 Robot vacuum cleaner’ Dyson

Dyson, manufacturer of the vacuum cleaner with no loss of suction, is working on another world first — DC06 a robotic vacuum cleaner that efficiently cleans and does not need to be programmed. DCO6 will clean your home efficiently and be able to think for itself. It will provide the sort of methodical coverage that it would be difficult for a human to achieve. It will be the first autonomous Dyson machine, developed by Dyson’s 350-strong team of scientists and engineers.

Read on

A book based on the Industrial Design Engineering course will be published by the RCA in early 2002, and Web archive for the course is also planned. Information on the IDE21 events can be found at http://www.ide.rca.ac.uk/21/helpyourself.html

[i] James Dyson biography http://www.dyson.com/jd/1947.asp

[ii] http://www.gsa.ac.uk/design/product/pde/

[iii] http://www.io.tudelft.nl/english/iostuderen.html

[v] http://www.bridgedesign.com/

[vi] http://online.unn.ac.uk/prospectus/search_detail.asp?CourseID=21

[vii] http://www.ide.rca.ac.uk/21/helpyourself.html


Kensington Gore, South Kensington, London SW7 2EU, UK

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