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A R T square-50cm-spacer.jpg S C H O O L square-50cm-spacer.jpg F U T U R E S

An early draft of an article published in The Journal of Writing in Creative Practice
Volume 14, Number 1, 1 January 2021, pp. 13-26(14) by John Wood
See The Living Art School (work in progress) and other articles
square-50cm-spacer.jpg JWCP 13.3 John Wood Figure 1

square-50cm-spacer.jpg Figure 1. Reconciling Four Modes of Thinking


Art School | Hand Thinking | Head Thinking | Heart Thinking | Humour Thinking | Metadesign | Writing


The late Sir Ken Robinson attracted great interest for noting the education system’s lack of support for imaginative and creative skills. This omission has important ramifications throughout society as a whole, especially given the challenges of the Covid-19 pandemic, not to mention environmental emergencies that threaten our very survival, as a species. Although our predicament calls for a co-creative and transformative response, this amounts to a paradigm change that is beyond the capacity of our current systems of governance. The article therefore calls for a review of education policy that would include some deep reflections on the ecological purpose of learning. It suggests that, in order to augment the scholastic and analytical traditions underpinning the modern university, policy makers should invest in the modernisation and development of the traditional art school. This should cater for a much larger spectrum of human needs and capabilities. These might support ethical, co-creative thinking at all levels, including feeling, acting, and experiencing at many simultaneous levels, including head, heart, hand and what the article calls ‘humour’.

Everything Must Change

Despite the agony of Covid-19, some aspects were a blessing. By putting growth-centred economies on hold, the world had the chance to re-imagine itself. Unfortunately, governments seem unable to deliver practical, joined-up lifestyle options that are transformative enough to forestall catastrophic climate change. For political leaders, ‘vision’ is usually understood by fiscal measures, short-term targets, compromises and deals. Their key advisors are economists and scientists who provide relevant data about the past and the present. Although scientific thinking is important, evidence-based analysis seldom leads to joined-up lifestyle options. According to Donella Meadows, the best starting point for paradigm change is to share a big vision that transcends the current system (Meadows, 1999). Perhaps Art Schools could bring a more playful and imaginative approach to the table. By ‘Art Schools’, I refer to the academic institutions that nurture, inform and validate the practices of artists, designers, craftspeople and their respective specialisms.

Beyond ‘Design Thinking’

Over the last fifty, or sixty years, Art Schools have been quietly absorbed into our modern universities. However, although they conform to the same institutional entry and examination protocols as their more scholastic counterparts, there are key underlying differences. Whereas the research tradition emerged from the mediaeval monastic culture, Art Schools inherited the more ‘hands-on’ practices of the Crafts Guilds. Broadly speaking, where the scholastic research tradition emphasised solitary rumination and the fastidious copying of books, Art Schools created a culture that called for more situated, collective and creative modes of being, doing and making. Nonetheless, although the Art School has been at the centre of mercantile innovations delivering some of the largest economic returns in history, its graduates are seen as freelancers, At best, they are members of a ‘minor’ profession (Glazer, 1974).

The Seniority of Studio Practice

Arguably, the reason for the low status of craftsfolk and designers is because institutional power is validated by crude categorical reasoning, rather than by the more elusive skills of picturing. The marginal status of the Art School is due to the hegemony of alphabetical writing. Ironically, if we plot writing onto an evolutionary timeline, we will see it as a recently acquired skill. Homo sapiens has been shaping tools and weapons for several million years and it has been painting murals for tens, if not hundreds of thousands of years. By contrast, alphabetical writing emerged as an adjunct to accountancy, only between five or ten thousand years ago (MacGregor, 2011). Its enduring hegemony and glamour probably derives from the historical role it played in facilitating imperialism, piracy, and corporate power. Indeed, legal contracts, fiscal governance, insurance scams, tax-evasion and unit-based money itself, all evolved alongside, if not from, writing. Today, a handful of the wealthiest men maintain their power using algorithms designed to make money trickle up, rather than down.

‘P’ is for Purpose, ‘I’ is for Responsibility

Although these systems may run on advanced digital computers, the alphanumerical logic behind them has remained unchanged for thousands of years. It was predictable that the UK government’s First Report of the National Advisory Council on Art Education (Ministry of Education, 1960) and The Structure of Art and Design Education in the Further Education Sector (Department of Education and Science, 1970), hereafter referred to as The Coldstream Reports (Ministry of Education, 1960; Department of Education and Science, 1970) would have required a written component in the Art School syllabus for awarding full honours degrees. Art school heads acted in accordance with this assumption and soon began to recruit ‘complementary studies’ lecturers who were au fait with the arcane etiquette of scholastic writing (Raein, 2004). This is not to denigrate the genre, but more to remind the reader that it was designed for a different educational milieu and purpose. Of course, introducing academic writing into the art and design curriculum was likely to upset many ‘old school’ lecturers, who couldn’t see the point of avoiding the word ‘I’, or writing in the passive tense. More temperate studio teachers accepted these foibles as harmless rhetorical devices that conveyed a sense of scientific objectivity. Few noticed the pedagogical mismatch in ethical terms. Whereas scientists manage their accountability via empirical evidence and axiomatic reasoning, artists, designers and crafts folk need to manage their responsibility through their practice. Encouraging them to use scientific writing styles widens the ‘social distance’ between themselves, their inquiries and their readers can discourage an honest and empathetic rapport with readers (e.g. as client, end user, or future employer). Anyway, in hindsight, it was a needless transition. As Julia Lockheart shows, the Coldstream report makes no mention of ‘writing’. Writing has never been mandatory for honours degree students (Lockheart, 2018; Lockheart, 2016).

‘P’ is for Purpose

Although, in some respects, the dissonance between art and science remains, it has become like a crack in a wall that is periodically covered with another layer of paper. Of the many valiant attempts to bridge the chasm between pictured realities and written codes, many were lone enterprises that failed to find peer recognition. In 2002, Goldsmiths University of London invited St. Martins and the RCA to join them in the launch of ‘Writing-PAD’ as an online resource network. Coordinated by Julia Lockheart, it continues to provide a resource intended to help academics in art, design, or craft to develop a writing methodology that is more suitable for supporting studio practitioners. It is notable that the ‘P’ in the acronym ‘PAD’ stands for ‘Purposes’ in Art and Design. It is an important reminder that useful aspects of writing may not have been noticed or anticipated, therefore writers can reframe and revise them as required. Writing is an art that can be re-fashioned, re-crafted or re-designed when required.

Declarative Writing

If studio-based artists, designers and crafts people are to gain maximum benefit from alphabetical writing we need to know its strengths and weaknesses. It is notable that writing’s original raison d’etre reflects the last five or ten thousand years of imperialism. In making the shift from orality to pictographic writing, thence to alphanumerical writing, emperors created a ‘super-tool’ that proved invaluable for acquiring labour and for managing large organisational hierarchies. As these hierarchies grow, their chains of command grow longer. This process is accompanied by a reduction in what I have described as ‘network consciousness’ (Backwell & Wood, 2009). In compensating for this process, the rhetoric developed by leaders became more declarative and less procedural. For example, bureaucratic forms of writing will alienate readers from the specificity of hands-on practice. On the one hand, its generic and modular structure make it inclusive and interoperable. On the other hand, it is designed for the lowest common denominator. This forces it to turn values and qualities into codes and quantities. Nonetheless, these lifeless husks are the basis of all unit based currencies, library classification systems, databases, hypermedia and the World Wide Web.

Procedural Writing

Understanding how to read and write in declarative, legalistic and categorical ways is useful in a world regulated by documentation. However, when governance in large hierarchies is top-down, the syndrome of the organisational ‘iceberg of ignorance’ (Yoshida, 1989) reduces their alertness and agility by replacing local willingness and imagination with rules and standards. This is not to claim that learning in Art Schools is always of the highest standard, but that it asks learners to make judgements that are self-reflexive, subtle, intangible, situated and procedural. Unfortunately, university grading systems are designed to shoehorn these many dimensions of freedom into a one dimensional performance indicator, the assessment grade. University Examination Boards are a triumph of fairness and accountability over the enduring purpose of learning. In extreme cases, individual students are represented at formal examination boards as codes, rather than by their real names. I am told this is to avoid ‘personal bias’ by tutors, even though they have already awarded numbered grades based on their personal judgement. I enjoy recalling these meetings, as they still make me laugh out loud.

Hand Writing

It seems likely that fact-based and declarative genres of teaching in the scholastic disciplines evolved from the granular nature of alphanumeric writing. Heidegger, for example, referred to 'thinking' as reasoning that takes its cue from the critical and, therefore, halting interrogation of (alphabetical) words and their meanings. By contrast, the Art School cultures would have focused on ‘thinking’ that relates to visual and manual acts of making, in terms of their direct effect on the world. Donald Schön’s study of how designers and architects ‘think’ led to the conclusion that it is purposefully embodied in, and ‘for’, the actative processes of making. His term ‘reflection-in-action’ (Schön, 1985) endorses Polanyi’s assertion that all knowledge can be understood as ‘tacit knowledge’ in the sense that it emerges from making and experiencing within a specific, local and material context (Polanyi, 1969).

Hearts and Minds

Whereas, from within the ’Art School’ cannon, these observations may seem almost self-evident, the scientific research tradition has emphasised the cerebral aspects of ‘thinking’. As the 17th century mathematician Blaise Pascal famously put it, “The heart has its reasons, of which reason knows nothing” (1669). More recently, we have seen this apparent dichotomy reduced into convenient categories, such as ‘left and right brain hemispheres’ (e.g. McGilchrist, 2009), or ‘fast and slow thinking’ (Kahneman, 2011). Similarly, corporate enthusiasts seemed content to appropriate the ‘thinking’ aspect of ‘designing’, thereby leaving out the more practical and somatic elements. We will need to invent new links between action and imagination if we are to change our paradigm. If artists and designers are to be paradigm changers, they will need to grasp big theories, texts and research data. But they must also continue to listen to their ‘gut feelings’ in ways that are direct, immediate, performative, situated, emotional or, even, heartfelt and visceral.

Four Faculties of Knowing-Doing

In reimagining the Art School, I have made a sketch that denotes four modes of ‘reasoning’. This might be used as a template for new academic departments or faculties. Together, they act as a very rudimentary map of the sites of human thinking, knowing and practising that represent the virtues of the Art School tradition. The tetrahedral structure reminds us that the four themes are offered in no special order. Indeed, the four nodes of the tetrahedron (Head, Heart, Hand and Humour) are interconnected by their six defining relationships. This is an idea under development, so I will not say more, except to explain that the idea of ‘Humour’ was chosen because it sits at the very nexus of the creative act, or what Arthur Koestler (1964) called ‘bisociation’. In his theory, creativity derives from a combinatorial process that sometimes delivers novel outcomes and, or, spontaneous laughter.

Total Design

The quest to achieve collective metamorphosis (c.f. Wood, 2015) at both a personal and a professional level was part of the rationale behind the BA(Hons) design degree that we launched in 1989, at Goldsmiths University of London. We removed the traditional specialist boundaries and put ethical and environmentalist perspectives centre-stage. Initially called ‘Total Design’, the undergraduate programme invited students to re-design themselves, their professions, and the World at large. This was followed, in 1995, by the MA Design Futures programme, which was assessed entirely by written submission (albeit with illustrations). Although we showed interest in any ‘practical’ work they were doing, we told them their grades would be based exclusively on their text. These experiences led to a novel approach to ‘design writing’ that I call Relational Learning.

Relational Learning and Self-Evaluation

One of the things we noticed was that many of our masters students had an undiagnosed problem with reading, and, or, writing. Therefore, at the beginning of the academic year, we would ask each cohort for their permission to assume that we are all dyslexic. Often, the fear of academic writing would be expressed as an anxiety about having to present written ideas in what is assumed to be the ‘correct’ order. This can be confusing and unhelpful for creative thinkers. The grammatical conventions in any given language are arbitrary, yet can have a strong influence on what can be said. Yet, one of the seldom discussed aspects of scholasticism is that the forms of writing they adopted reflect a religious belief system within the monastic culture of learning. At best, these conventions of writing have little practical relevance to learning and teaching within the Art School. At worst, they encourage rhetorical devices that are unlikely to have much connection with the veracity or helpfulness of the content being presented.

The Mediaeval Legacy

In the monastic culture of the middle ages, before the era of printing, the form of the Book became idealised in accordance with the architectural layout of cathedrals. This encouraged stylistic elements, such as consistency, comprehensiveness, detachment, explicitness and completeness (Panofsky, 1968); attributes that can still be discerned in some academic styles of writing. These traditions tended to expect alphabetic writing to be a faithful record of the order of words as they were spoken. This is likely to be an important factor for students of, say, literature, or anthropology. Choosing an effective word also played an important role in oratory and the development of rhetoric. However, learning rhetorical techniques is likely to be distracting for students whose primary practices are rooted in studios and workshops. However, the skills of rhetoric are of dubious value unless backed up by a deep understanding of the topic, and its relevance for the audience and their context.

Situated Writing

In responding to this problem, we introduced some radically different protocols for learning and assessment though writing. Instead, we encouraged messy note that was overtly auto-didactic, at least in the early stages of writing. As assessment has become a blunt instrument for educators, we devised a six-dimensional learning and evaluation framework that encouraged students to learn how to learn, independent of the course. Our criteria for assessment included their self-estimated level of ambition within a particular project, curiosity management and the rapport and empathy established with the learner’s designated reader. These enabled us to award numerical grades, as required by the institution, but based on criteria designed for adaptation well beyond graduation. Presented in four pairs, these made an explicit differentiation between the learner’s ‘inward-facing’ and ‘outward-facing’ interests. This encouraged students to weigh up the benefits, both for themselves and for their nominated ‘reader’.

Writing-As / Writing-to / Writing-for

As a long-term strategy (i.e. beyond the timescale of the course) it was designed to help them establish effective working relations with actual external client/s, collaborator/s, and/or stakeholders. It also encouraged them to weigh up any future possible ethical conflicts likely to stem from their twofold roles as individual citizen and professional expert. By enabling them to balance ambition with accomplishment, the framework encouraged risk taking in a way that would not penalise them in terms of marks. Fig. 2 shows a simplified 3D representation of ten key learning criteria and relationships, to be visualised by the learner.

JWCP 13.3 John Wood Figure 2 square-50cm-spacer.jpg JWCP 13.3 John Wood Figure 3

square-50cm-spacer.jpg Fig. 2 Four Key ‘Agents’ square-50cm-spacer.jpg Fig. 3 The 6 Relationships

AThe learner’s own role as expert designer or consultant (usually an aspirational role).
BA reader nominated by the learner (usually an actual person as potential client/employer etc.)
CThe artifacts, procedures or recommendations created on behalf of the client/end user/reader
DAspects of the whole context that are shareable between two, or more, of the 4 agents.
1The learner’s description of how they have managed the relationship between A and B
2The learner’s description of how they have managed the relationship between A and C
3The learner’s description of how they have managed the relationship between B and C
4The learner’s description of how they have managed the relationship between A and D
5The learner’s description of how they have managed the relationship between C and D
6The learner’s description of how they have managed the relationship between B and D

Practical Implementation

In 2013, Professor Dora Isleifsdottir invited me to tailor it for the masters design programme at the Icelandic Academy of the Arts. It became a two-stage version in which year one students choose a colleague, mentor, or supervisor as a suitable beneficiary for their findings. This becomes the template for doing the same thing in year two, except that the learner (‘A’ in fig. 2) re-defines herself as an appropriate professional and nominates the recipient (i.e. ‘D’) as an actual person from an appropriate industry, agency or institution. Interest in the Relational Evaluation and Learning Framework is growing and I hope to adapt and implement it within other contexts.

From Products to Relations

From 2005 to 2008 the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) & Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) funded a 3-year project entitled ‘Benchmarking Synergy-levels within Metadesign’. As synergies are generated through combination, and because combinations exist as relations, our relational learning model was helpful. In practical terms, synergy can be defined as the free asset that we get by combining existing assets. However, it is possible that we fail to notice synergies because of ancient habits of thinking that are difficult to overcome. Homo sapiens has been crafting single objects as tools and weapons for millions of years, so maybe this taught us to objectify the world by seeing it (and drawing it) as a ‘form-in-itself’. In terms of writing, shifting the focus from a traditional design of ‘products’ to ‘relations’ is likely to shift emphasis from concrete nouns to verbs and the way they change how we feel and act. This may have been what Buckminster Fuller had on his mind when he said, “I am a verb”.

Ineffable Synergies

Again, describing the shift from ‘things’ to ‘actions’ also changes the received concept of ‘design’. In effect, working with synergy already exceeds the idea of design, if we understand design as a predictive capability. Although synergy provides an abundance of new assets, the combinations that produce them almost always defy our expectations. This was recognised by Buckminster Fuller, who defined synergy as “the behaviour of whole systems unpredicted by the separately observed behaviours of their parts taken separately”. This has another implication for anyone seeking, shaping, or cultivating synergies. When our Metadesigners team began looking for simple synergies in products, we quickly noticed that any lack of synergy in our team would compromise our ability to find synergies elsewhere. This also makes it difficult to write about synergy. For example, synergies are ubiquitous and they often defy familiar boundaries of naming and classification. In other words, they may exist in domains that are hard to describe. However, if we cannot name them using regular discourse, we must try to ‘language’ them into our purview.

A Metadesign Agenda
To learn from the way ecosystems work(living systems are smarter than we know)
To think in a more comprehensive way(we need to join up more of the dots)
To operate at the level of paradigms(improvement of separate parts may not work)
To 'language' new possibilities(paradigms are partly sustained by words)
To create synergies through re-combination(synergy is a free bonus from Nature)
To work co-creatively across disciplines(no one is smart enough to see the whole picture)
To encourage flat-structured teamwork(fixed hierarchies eclipse willingness & responsibility)
To work as entrepreneurs & entredonneurs(this can reconcile top-down & bottom-up initiatives)
To make complex systems more navigable(users need to find their way around systems)
To develop radically optimistic approaches(negative thoughts make miracles less possible)


The Metadesign Research Centre

In 2019, we chose one of the oldest art schools in the UK for the launch of our Metadesign Research Centre. The original Swansea College of Art was opened in 1853 and later became part of what is now the University of Wales, Trinity St. David. This distinctive art school heritage seemed fitting, given that what we define as ‘metadesign’ emerged as much from a crafts guilds heritage as from the monastic tradition of writing that informed the scholastic ‘research’ culture. One of our aims is to integrate visual and word-based thinking in a more coherent way. One of our ongoing tasks is the completion of a handbook of metadesign that offers a framework for useful practice in Art Schools of the Future. Watch this space.

Further Reading / Sources

  • Backwell, J., & Wood, J., (2009), “Mapping Network Consciousness: syncretizing difference to co-create a synergy-of-synergies”, chapter in New Realities: Being Syncretic, 11th Consciousness Reframed Conference Vienna, 2008. Series: Edition Angewandte Ascott, R.; Bast, G.; Fiel, W.; Jahrmann, M.; Schnell, R. (Eds.) 2009, ISBN: 978-3-211-78890-5
  • Department of Education and Science. (1970), The structure of art and design education in the further education sector. London: Her Majesty's Stationer's Office.
  • Ministry of Education. (1960), First Report of the National Advisory Council on Art Education. London: Her Majesty's Stationer's Office.
  • Glazer, M., "The Schools of the Minor Professions", Minerva, 1974
  • Kahneman, D., (2011), Thinking, Fast & Slow. Straus and Giroux. New York.
  • Koestler, A., (1964), “The Act of Creation”, London: Hutchinson
  • Lockheart, J. (2018). ‘The importance of writing as a material practice for art and design students: A contemporary rereading of the Coldstream Reports’, Art, Design & Communication in Higher Education, 17:2, pp. 151–75, doi: 10.1386/adch.17.2.151_1
  • Lockheart, J. M. (2016). Doing language together: collaborative writing practice for design teams in higher education (Doctoral dissertation, Goldsmiths, University of London).
  • MacGregor, N. (2011). A History of the World in 100 Objects. Penguin UK.
  • McGilchrist, I., (2009). “The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World”. USA: Yale University Press. ISBN 030014878X
  • Meadows, D., (1999), Leverage Points; places to intervene in a system, The Sustainability Institute, accessed 14 August, 2009
  • Polanyi, M., (1969), “Tacit Knowing", in "Knowing and Being", Routledge & Kegan Paul, London 1969
  • Raein, M. (2004), Integrations of Studio and Theory in the Teaching of Graphic Design. Art, Design and Communication in Higher Education: The Journal of the Higher Education Academy Subject Centre for Art, Design, Media. 3:3, pp.163-174.
  • Schön, D., (1985), "The Design Studio", RIBA Publications Ltd., London
  • Wood, J., (2015), "Collective Metamorphosis; a combinatorial approach to self-transformation", a chapter for Transformation Design (ed. Wolfgang Jonas), BIRD (Board of International Research in Design, BIRKHÄUSER).

John Wood
Professor of Contextual Practice
The Metadesign Research Centre
For the Attention of Dr. Julia Lockheart
University of Wales, Trinity St. David,
Swansea, SA1 5DU, Wales

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