UK designschool

A Whirlwind Design Trip

Systems & Tools 01 September 2015 | 10.16am

I was given the opportunity to attend Design School in London from the 26th of February to the 28th of February. A long way to go for a short course. Would it be worth it? Would I require more time? All questions I pondered on my ‘short’ journey to London.

olymp tower

Upon arriving at the venue, the very impressive ArcelorMittal Orbit at the Olympic Park in London, we were separated into teams of six. We were advised that the theme for Design school would be Urbanism. A rough structure of the course was highlighted to us and we quickly started acquainting ourselves with the team who we would spend a majority of our time with over the next two and a half days. Our team consisted of people from various offices; London, Leeds, Campus and Perth and we were all from various backgrounds. Our team included a civil engineer, an environmental engineer, three structural engineers and an electrical engineer.

We were requested to bring in an item that represented design to us. Once the teams were settled and had socialized with each other, we were asked to introduce the person we were partnered with, inform the group where they were from, what sort of Engineer they were, what design meant to them and to describe briefly their design items. There were numerous design items presented some of which included universal chargers, mechanical pencils, a Swiss army knife, even a compressible stool. A few important aspects of the design items that stood out to me were practicality, safety, aesthetics, products or services that fulfilled its purpose and products or services that met the brief.

One of the activities was to build a bridge with items that were placed on the table. The only brief was that we were limited to use items on the table alone, the bridge had to span a set distance, and it would be loaded until failure.  We had numerous discussions and planned the bridge to the best of our abilities  and built it between the six of us in the team. Once the bridges were built and our allocated time ran out, we went around the six groups and tested each team’s bridge to failure. It was amusing to see some of the quirky designs, and intriguing hearing the design intent behind them. Once completed, Dan Lister, one of the course facilitator talked about how the initial brief was very limited, and he was hoping that there would have been more questions asked. Question the brief! Highlight ambiguities! Know what’s required before the task commences.

UK designschool

Another such activity was building a small wind driven car out of a set amount of materials. The teams would race their cars with each other. Again there was a short brief, but the teams were quick to question the brief straight away. The teams built the cars in the 30 odd minutes provided and then raced the cars. It was evident that under the windy conditions outside, there were only two team’s cars that performed efficiently. Dan talked about constraints to design in general and the implication of constraints such as site conditions. Always know your constraints! Test them when possible! Design to the conditions.


We were also taught a variety of different thinking techniques such as mind maps, Edward De Bono’s six hats of thinking and lateral thinking processes to name a few. We were advised to try some of these techniques in our activities and brain storming tasks. They were useful and in a weird sense, intriguing from an Engineering perspective where design and process can sometimes be rigid and structured.

There were a number of presentations throughout the course as well. There was one in particular that stood out to me. It was the Bridges to Prosperity by Alessandra Villa. She talked about the charitable design and build project in Panama where they built a small suspension bridge from local products for a small village. She talked about her desire to help the people but to also educate them. Her passion on the project was second to none, and to the 36 of us in the room, it was a presentation that held us in awe.

Other presentations included the structural build of the ArcelorMittal Orbit tower where ideas and complexities of the unique design project were shared and discussed, the lighting design behind the tower by Florence Lam, an Arup fellow, who’s desire for perfection in her design and the importance of a ‘sense of feeling’ highlighted to the group. There was a presentation, “In Praise of Messy Cities” by an external architect Usman Haque who has successfully completed a diverse range of community engaged projects around the world. He talked about the efficiencies of designs, processes and the elegance of products.


I was given the remarkable opportunity to attend Design School. 40 hours on flights to attend a 20 hour course, whilst it initially perplexed me, was definitely an experience that was worth it and one I will never forget. I got to meet Engineers from various office, interact with them and throughout the course we debated, discussed, and pondered numerous aspects of design, work, ambition and goals. Design School may have only lasted two and a half days, but the knowledge, motivation, design techniques and the appreciation of diversity in people and thinking that stemmed from the course is something that will stay true to me while I continue to grow and learn as an Engineer.