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Surface Design; what is it, how is it changing and what are the ingredients of a successful curriculum?


Surface; Design; Materials; Textile; Pattern


This article suggests that Surface Design is an emerging curriculum area bridging the subjects of Graphics, Product Design, Textiles and Fine Art.  One can see the merging of these distinct educational disciplines in contemporary design trade shows and a market is opening for students graduating with a shrewd awareness of this amalgamation. 
At Somerset College a programme structure has developed which is gradually separating Surface Design from its original ties to Textiles.  Students are now demonstrating innovative uses of diverse materials and finding expanded employment opportunities in architectural related design sectors.  Education must keep pace with industry and, as the UK relies increasingly on bespoke design, we need to assess the way in which we categorise our creative degree courses.


The BA (Hons) Surface Design programme at Somerset College, originated as ‘Surface Pattern’ and was the printed element of the Textile programme.  More recently, projects connected to industry and employer engagement have demanded a broader approach to materials and the textile focus has become optional.  To reflect this change, and to widen potential design applications, the term ‘pattern’ has been replaced with ‘design’.  In essence, this signifies that the course stands alone, with or without textiles, to reinvent and enhance the surfaces that surround us.
My background and current practice concerns the integration of surface design into new architectural builds; to meld conceptual aesthetics with architecture through means such as texture, colour or light.  It is a collaborative process in which the concept is developed with the client.  This may be referred to as ‘art’ or it may be experienced as subtle changes to surface.  What matters, what it has to do, is to change and enhance the ambience of the space.  This is the business of surface design in an industrial context and it may be thought of as functional as well as aesthetic.  Consequently, students are given briefs that come from a pure design perspective where problem-solving and meeting client requirements are promoted as paramount. 

As a programme leader for Surface Design (and for Interior Textiles) I have been the recipient of funding from the University of Plymouth to evaluate the elements that make this programme successful and how the curriculum needs to develop in order to sustain growth.  I will expand on these points in this article.  As well as a specific focus on the nature of Surface Design, many of these findings are of interest across a broad range of design-based subject areas.

The particular programme under scrutiny here is an Higher Education (HE) programme which runs within a Further Education (FE) College.   While this context does impact staff schedules, the student experience remains distinctly HE focussed with a strong emphasis on work-based learning and independent study.  Following a diagnostic period in year one, students select their chosen pathway from a suite comprising of Fashion, Fashion Textiles, Interior Textiles and Surface Design.  There is also a pathway combining Interior Textiles and Surface Design.  It should be noted that while I am advocating Surface Design as a potentially textile-free zone, it currently nestles amongst purely textile-based programmes, even to the point of sharing project briefs.  This may be considered a compromise and I will return to this later.

So what is Surface Design?  No one definition would fit all courses but I find it helpful to distinguish this pathway as ‘image, colour, texture and pattern applied to surfaces within the man-made environment’.  Notice I do not specify ‘interiors’ or ‘architecture’ as students have found relevant outcomes in industries as diverse as health care and transport, with products ranging from paving to lighting.  I have also omitted reference to material types as they are selected by research into the function of the design.
The contemporary nature of this subject area now becomes clearer; there is a blurring of the boundaries between traditionally separate subject areas which allow for a creative, innovative rethink of our surroundings.  If this assessment of human need occurs in conversation with those who build the spaces we inhabit, then the results are of commercial significance.  One could argue that specialisms already exists which cater for these needs but, in response, one should examine the benefits of a programme where diversity is celebrated as a creative force.   For example, my current third year includes students working with a plethora of different materials for an equally broad spectrum of design applications and the peer review potential in such an environment is enviable.   
The practice of visualising concepts in specific locations has proved very helpful in defining market area and, consequently, has become commonplace in project requirements.  In order to clarify the scale, colour and texture of a design, one must first understand its reason for existing.  Project briefs commonly ask that a specific location should be considered not only as the recipient of surface intervention but also as the inspiration.  Viewing (or experiencing) surface design is not dissimilar to viewing installation art; the viewer becomes a participant, knowingly or unknowingly.  The importance of considering the whole journey from initial site visit to public inspection is summed up thus:

"Responding to certain spaces, the artist works creatively within the confines of a given area, often being sensitive to a building’s history and atmosphere.  It could even be an exterior space.  Where possible the viewer can be encouraged to move through the setting to fully experience a work". (Braddock Clarke and O’Mahony, 2005, p168)   

Site-specific projects which incorporate a location visit require an open-minded response to existing surfaces, materials and forms and the potential for learning is increased by this challenge.  Feedback from students is consistently positive owing to the sense of ‘reality’ gained from working beyond the studio environment.
If Surface Design is to span a wide variety of applications, then students must take those potential applications into account as part of the design development process.  After all, one distinguishing difference between this and the Fashion Textiles pathway with which it shares a studio, is that scale is not dictated by human form.  Broad applications equate to endless possibilities and this needs to be monitored constructively to avoid a lack of focus.  To that end the second year opens possibilities through live briefs while the third year encourages targeted market engagement to ensure consistency and quality in the final portfolio.

I mentioned that within the suite of programmes at Somerset College there remains a combined pathway in ‘Interior Textiles and Surface Design’ and that, while this offers increased choice, it is not necessarily a positive force.  Sally Sawyer, a recent graduate now working on a surface design project for a new Flybe training centre, makes the following comment which clearly highlights the view that Interior Textiles and Surface Design should be marketed as separate pathways; 

"I don't think that Interior Textiles and Surface Design sit well together as a joint programme.  I have been asked so many times what it means and whether or not I make curtains!   Surface Design, to me, is about architecture, buildings, streets, towns, environment etc.  Surface Design should encompass all materials and so the connection in the title with Interior Textiles gives the wrong impression" (Somerset College graduate).  

At this relatively early stage in the programme’s evolution the students are mainly, if not all, female.  This is partly a result of Surface Design’s textile origins, where this gender demographic is widely recognised, and partly a result of its current affiliation to Interior Textiles.  However, the appeal of hard surface materials such as concrete, acrylic and glass is gaining increasing attention from a new camp.  Male students considering enrolling on Interior Design, Graphics, Product Design and Fine Art are equally interested in the work they find exhibited in Surface Design degree shows and this reflects the merging of subject philosophies.  If a balance can be struck that allows Surface Design to sit next to Textiles, but with complete autonomy, then the recruitment potential for this subject area will grow while offering a positive return to other specialisms in the form of increased diversity in the studio.   

My observations suggest that there is a direct correlation between broadening the use of materials and increasing male participation within a traditionally textile-focussed department.  In practical terms this means that the curriculum needs to introduce materials and processes which can be demonstrated as being relevant to Surface Design and which are readily available for experimentation.  Materials change design; that is to say that one can find inspiration in materials that suggest new functions.  For example, I currently have students developing soft concrete (filled with yarn resulting in a hairy texture and applied as interior surfaces), flexible polystyrene (jointed sections of recycled cups applied as suspended ceilings), etched metal fabric (multiples of laser cut discs overlapped and applied as flexible wall covering) and mirrored plaster (plaster revealing reflective laminate).  These are not expensive or unusual materials but their context is changed which places the outcome in a category of innovative reinvention.

Smart materials (having one or more properties which can be altered) offer the potential for originality through the investigation of new technologies and I fully support the integration of this knowledge into the Surface Design curriculum.  However, my experience in the studio is that a process of unrestricted experimentation with materials that are necessarily easy to get hold of and cheap enough not to restrict their use, is a positive introduction to the subject area.  This encourages the process of combining materials and thereby the generation of new composite materials which, in turn, suggest fresh applications through their inherent properties.  Smart materials can then be introduced and evaluated later in the curriculum in relation to existing material knowledge.  Furthermore, consideration is given to the way they enhance functionality and so their appearance in student portfolios is directly connected to the way in which surfaces transform spaces:
Depending on the future popularity of use of smart materials and the visible effects on our buildings, our picture in relation to our built environment will change from what we are used to seeing as architecture (Ritter, 2007, p7).

One could argue that Surface Design is, first and foremost, a mindset relating to daily experience of one’s surroundings; and that understanding materiality is a key to controlling that experience.  Students need to be aware of the way in which perceptions of colour and form are inherently linked to surface materials.  Interactivity, and a more extended investigation of the senses to include sound and smell, is another area where there is potential for significant growth in the curriculum.

Over the past year I have begun compiling a ‘materials library’.  This is a reasonably common resource in universities and one that is of major importance in the progression of Surface Design.  My intention is to instigate a system of growth where, in addition to the present collated content, students add materials that they have worked with on the proviso that they are readily available and not burdened by obstructive minimum order quantities.  The exploration of materiality is thus a major defining factor in the evolution this approach to Surface Design.  Danielle Watch, a current year three student, verifies this as follows:

"I found that working with a variety of materials and being asked to visualize functional concepts helped me define what I want to achieve as a designer and to see whether my designs work within a chosen environment.  Working with a range of materials, hard and soft, has pushed me to experiment with different techniques to create new effects.  Many more market areas have opened up through this approach to research". (Surface Design student, Somerset College).

Diversity of materials leads to diversity of processes employed and this, in turn, has another effect on curriculum delivery, namely that some of the processes used are not within the subject knowledge of the appointed lecturer or available within technical workshop areas.  I have questioned the wisdom of this development and drawn my conclusion from observation of student accomplishments and the quality of work produced.  This conclusion is a positive one; independent learning has been enhanced with each student investigating their own processes and discussing their concepts as much with manufacturing companies as with staff.  In addition to this (or as a result of this) confidence and professionalism in the learning environment has increased.  The lecturer as facilitator is essential here in maintaining a Surface Design focus and monitoring the divergent research strands.

Another indirect bonus of self-initiated independent study is its appropriateness in the FE environment.  Not only are students gaining self-awareness and confidence in problem solving but they are also covering areas of research that, in a strictly HE institution, may be largely undertaken by the collective of lecturers.  Lack of staff research time is arguably the greatest hindrance to delivering HE. in an FE. focussed college and so encouraging technical construction and materials research within the curriculum is a positive way of increasing information resources.  Furthermore, if students are required to verbally present their findings as part of their professional practice learning then knowledge is disseminated to both peers and lecturers. 

Sharing knowledge is also a prerequisite of collaborative briefs and workshops that currently span everything from practical design development sessions to business planning.  Lateral thinking is encouraged as a means of testing ideas and the collaborative process is intended to provoke as much as to endorse:

"Collaboration operates across a range from the accidental to the deliberate, from the shadowing or paralleling of work to various kinds of wanted and unwanted interference" (Bidgood et al., 2001, p28).

For a curriculum focussed on something as hard to define as a ‘surface’, this interference helps to clarify the nature of the design and its function or non-function within a given environment.
Surface Design may well have different interpretations in different universities, but what is most encouraging about this growing model is the resultant versatility, confidence and independence of its graduates.  The creative learning environment should be as much like a professional design studio as possible and this is more to do with attitude and values than the building or signing in and out.  Increased responsibility due to the variant nature of individual projects has helped to build a culture of academic rigour and self-evaluation.   As outlined above, there is still some way to go in refining and publicising a clear brand, but the journey is an interesting one and the future looks very healthy.  



Braddock Clarke.S and O’Mahony. M (2005) Techno Textiles 2; revolutionary fabrics for fashion and design, Thames and Hudson, London
Ritter.A (2007) Smart Materials; in architecture, interior architecture and design, Birkhauser, Basel
Bidgood. J et al. (2001) This is What We Do, Ellipsis, London

Contact information:

Neil Musson
Somseret College, A University of Plymouth College
Wellington Road
TA1 5AX                                                                                            


Neil Musson trained at the Royal College of Art and is currently lecturer with responsibility for the BA (Hons) Interior Textile and Surface Design programmes at Somerset College.  He is a consultant to the LED lighting industry and manages MacKay Design Studio providing surface design to architects, primarily working with lighting.  Musson is also a regular visiting lecturer at the RCA.