Here’s a question for you design-savvy readers: What would you do if you could create a design school from scratch? What would you look for in prospective students? What courses would they take? How much professional influence would there be? How much academic transparency?

James Dyson

These are, I’m sure, only a few of the questions that Sir James “don’t call me the vacuum guy” Dyson must have had to answer in the long saga leading up to The Dyson School of Design Innovation, which recently got a green light from the UK government and the City of Bath.

The Dyson School of Design Innovation opens in Bath in September 2008. It is a unique private/public initiative. The James Dyson Foundation – a longstanding educational charity – and a number of leading engineering and hi-tech partners are working with the Department for Education & Skills (DfES), the Learning and Skills Council (LSC) and the South West of England Regional Development Agency (South West RDA).


I’ve been a fan of Dyson for a long time. When I first saw his ads for the vacuum, I didn’t quite get it. But after living in Britain, and especially after seeing him deliver the Richard Dimbleby Lecture back in December 2004, I became a follower of his philosophy: design should be about more than pretty looks, it should be about thought and logic and innovation. Dyson has been very publicly vocal about the [sorry] state of UK schools and of the [arrogant] nature of the design community. More often than not, I agree.

An alley in Bath
An alley in Bath. Not exactly Tottenham Court Road

But I find it ironic that Dyson chose Bath for the site of his school. Having visited Bath, I immediately noted how un-British is it. Built around a Roman bath house, the city is drab and shaded in the various browns and greys of natural stone. The tall facades and ironwork reminds me more of Amsterdam or Paris than of London. The narrow cobblestone streets and curved archway underpasses are well-suited for Vespas, but not so much for double-decker busses. It hasn’t produced any famous British musicians and the football club isn’t even in the premiership. (though the Rugby club is.) In addition, the city doesn’t speak to the world as a global design centre, as does London. But that might be an advantage as a location for a school — students will have room to spread out and won’t be shackled by the high prices of flats, food, and transport in the capital. And by placing the school outside of London, it implies that only the hardcore design-hungry youth will venture out that way and make a true commitment to their craft.

But back to those rhetorical questions I asked in the beginning. Seriously, what do you think? What were some of the shortcomings of your own design education? Would you have liked to spend more time in industry prior to graduation? Would you have wanted more collaboration with fellow students? More opportunities for research? More diverse classes? Fewer papers to write? Less red tape? Smaller class sizes? Better career advice? Leave a comment.

If I were in Dyson’s shoes, I would take the drastic step of requiring every first-year student, regardless of his or her concentration, to take Calculus. That way, like engineers and doctors, many students wouldn’t be able to make the cut. Design of all sorts would instantly become more respected, and the professions would be filled with thinkers, not decorators. I would also require everyone to take a writing or literature course and a business course every semester of every year starting with Creative Writing and Economics. If you can’t hack basic academic subjects, are you really going to become a change-agent for an entire industry? Hell, I don’t even think you should have a Bachelor’s degree! I’d also push out for a year-round schedule where students can work full-time in agencies (or agency-like environments on campus) over the summers or part-time while they study.

Let the flame war begin.