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Vocational Training in Product Design: designing and making in Belgium

Vocational Training in Product Design: designing and making in Belgium
Salles de cours donnant sur l'atelier

We have joined a group of European design schools in a project called Carrousel, and each year we invite a group to come to Nantes for a week, and we go to spend a week in another school. So in October this year our second year (of the vocational training program in Industrial Design) travelled to the Belgian city of Kortrijk, or Courtrai if that makes the pronunciation easier, to join the Industrial Design department of the Howest University College. Their Course Leader, David Balkwill, and the model workshop Manager, Hervé Bédouin joined them for the week.

Howest (Higher Studies in West Flanders) has been building a well-deserved reputation as a rather unique course, with a strong focus (you might even say an obsession) on the idea of building what you are thinking about. This is so deeply anchored in their philosophy that the building has been designed so that the workshop spaces occupy the whole of the ground floor (more than a third of the total surface) and all the class rooms, offices and studios on the two floors above have windows looking down onto the model and prototyping activity going on every day.

We had chosen this particular week for the trip since it coincided with the biennale of design at Courtrai, and the city was buzzing with both official events, including a major design exhibition which we visited, but also many smaller workshops and showrooms which were open both day and night.

So we walked a lot, through different parts of the city, and met and spent time with designers and makers from many countries, all gathered for this festival.
For our apprentices, who work in companies designing and making products, this was a fresh and challenging opening to other ways of working as a designer. Some were set up in workshop spaces, designing and making furniture and selling their work at the same time, some were representing major manufacturers in the big exhibition, while others were sharing new ways of working. In particular we met a group of three designers from three countries who were developing their individual approaches to open source design in a workshop/studio space provided by the city and the Belgian design centre.

Howest has developed working methods and tools that make sense. We had a half-day introduction to this using their INNOWIZ approach, literally “innovating fast”, challenging our students to think and build design proposals, then make choices and finally presenting them in 30 second “elevator pitches”. All this was happening in English of course. The winning team received kits of the INNOWIZ cards, listing many of the steps towards building design proposals. Noisy and fun, as you can see in this photo with two of their lecturers.

The students also worked on an assignment with the Belgian Post Office, and discussed final year projects with the Belgian students they were working with.

We came back to Nantes with fresh views both of the way we teach and learn in a design school, and also how designers can become entrepreneurs, both looking carefully at changes in consumer’s desires for personalised and original products, while also extending the hands-on approach we were shown in the school into their professional practice. This was really a week of thinking and building where the French word “atelier”, meaning both studio and workshop, was pulled sharply into focus.

Here’s a simple product that sums this up very nicely. A design for a picture frame, made from card like a pizza box, sold directly via their website by the young designers who make it. One vision of a possible future for designer/makers.

David Balkwill
Course leader for Product design CFA