Brendan McGetrick: student work can remind us what we’ve forgotten about good design

The most passionate innovation is delivered when there is more at stake than money, says Brendan McGetrick

While curating a graduate show, I was reminded how design, when free of the shackles of commercial gain, can be at its most free-flowing and innovative.

The designer placed a headset over my eyes and the room disappeared. She put plugs in my ears and her voice became distorted and distant. The sounds of people talking, children screaming and phones ringing melded into an undifferentiated roar. I felt disorientated and afraid, and was just about to say so, when she put a strange lollipop into my mouth. I tried to speak but could only grunt. Feeling trapped I removed the headset.

The designer was Heeju Kim and she is a graduate of the Royal College of Art in London. I was testing her graduate project Autism Empathy Tools, which aims to help people experience the sensory state in which autistic people live.

I discovered the project while working on Global Grad Show, an exhibition of graduate design and technology that I curate as part of Dubai Design Week. Heeju’s is one of 145 works included in the show, but it shares a spirit with the others. That spirit (empathy teamed with imagination and technical rigour) informs the best design, student or professional. But you are more likely to find it in schools. One reason is the protective atmosphere of higher education. The other is more specific to design schools, where young creatives are encouraged to apply their talents to address unsolved problems.

Student work is personal and leads into unexplored territories

Free from commercial pressures, they channel their energies toward the issues they care about. The work is personal and making it often leads them into unexplored territories and under-served markets.

“Innovation,” when based purely on the priorities of the marketplace, often amounts to little more than recombining existing products. In June, Nielsen released its annual Breakthrough Innovation Report. Among the breakthough products identified were Butterfinger® Peanut Butter Cups and Sally Hansen® Miracle Gel™ home manicure kit. These are clever, commercially successful and, I would argue, meaningless.

The market judges technologies by their practical effectiveness, by whether they succeed or fail to do the job they are designed to do. But always, even for the most brilliantly successful technology, an ethical question lurks in the background: is the job worth doing? Through exploring the work of design students, I’ve come to believe that innovation is most worthwhile when it provides necessities for the poor – food, shelter, public health services – and least worthwhile when it provides toys for the rich – conveniences for a minority.

The term “student work” is often used pejoratively. Never mind that many innovations started as student projects (TV, Google, and x-rays) the assumption is that student work is unproven, therefore ignorable. But surely this lack of identifiable precedent is a kind of proof of originality and potential value.

Which brings me back to Heeju. I asked what inspired her work. “My younger brother has autism,” she said. “I want to share my experience of how I learned to be more empathetic, so others can learn to do the same.” This is the beauty of student design. Intimate and urgent, it takes human experience as its subject. It shows how much more there is to do and provides a critical and hopeful perspective. This sense of hope permeates Global Grad Show and seems to me the source of the most meaningful innovation.