Design & Democracy

The Design & Democracy exhibition continues to run at the Scottish Parliament – a unique show that displays how the design students of Scotland are using their skills and knowledge to address a range of social issues. Full details of the exhibition can be found on the Parliament website, including video profiles of the exhibitors.

At the exhibition’s opening I said a few words on behalf of the four Scottish Design Schools whose students are represented. An abridged version of this follows below.

This is an exhibition that tells a story – the story of how design can contribute positively to our civic society on all sorts of levels: to strengthen democracy by doing what it does best – visualising alternative ways of doing things, highlighting problems we need to address, and giving a voice to those who are seldom heard. And behind the exhibition is another story: one of Scotland’s big success stories – the vibrancy and relevance of our world class design education.

Every summer the doors open on our art school degree shows. In Aberdeen, Dundee, Edinburgh and Glasgow, the achievements of our graduating students in art and design are celebrated in four sparkling and inspiring exhibitions of creative excellence. The idea developed to showcase some of the very best of our design graduate work here in the Parliament, in an exhibition themed around design and democracy. A broad theme, but one which enabled us to explore how students in design were looking at community engagement, social change, inclusion, sustainability – and other key issues that are essential to a healthy and thriving civic society.

At its best, design has always been about progressive social change – using the power of design to imagine new futures, new solutions and new ideas. At its best design is about empathy, about understanding people, about empowering people. And as we went from one art school to another this summer – we saw so many examples of visionary design thinking at its very best.

My colleagues Robert Gillan from Edinburgh College of Art, Libby Curtis from Gray’s School of Art, Jenny Brownrigg from The Glasgow School of Art, Fiona McDougall from the Scottish Parliament and myself toured the four shows during this May and June. It was a fantastic, and perhaps too rare opportunity for the art schools to work together in this way. We saw different strengths and approaches, different issues being explored, different opportunities seized. By the time we got to the end of our journey – at the Glasgow show – we were literally overwhelmed by what we had seen. And it’s not just about the quality of work – brilliant though that is. It’s about how our art schools are regenerating themselves to address the new issues and challenges of our age.

Art Schools are one of those great Victorian inventions – creative hothouses to drive innovation and to bridge art and industry. And, a great British invention. The art schools not only helped to create competitive well designed products, but they also produced our culture – both ‘high’ and popular: the Apple iPod, The Beatles, Habitat, Punk and the Dyson vacuum cleaner all have their creative roots in the British art school. In Scotland, our art schools are typified by a continuing commitment to craft values – whether in fashion and textiles or in interaction design. Culturally informed intelligent making underpins our educational approach and defines our distinctiveness. And that is what we see in this exhibition – but now married much more explicitly to the social concerns and sensibilities of those who study design in Scotland, and of those who teach them.

We live in troubling and uncertain times. We look, too often in vain, for a vision of how things could be better and different. Design – as this exhibition demonstrates so powerfully – has the potential to provide visions for the future, and tools to make change happen. And a new generation of designers is showing – and indeed demanding – that design has a vital role to play in the future of our democracy.

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