Foundation and Early Years: 1969 - 1975

The Open University was established in 1969, based originally on an idea of being a ‘University of the Air’ using broadcasting media to reach mature students at home. The original plans for the academic structure of the Open University were that it should be based on small units called ‘disciplines’, rather than conventional university departments, presenting courses through BBC television and radio broadcasts and printed texts.

The Design Discipline was founded as part of the University’s new Faculty of Technology (now Faculty of Maths, Computing & Technology) in 1970. The Faculty was the brainchild of Professor Geoff Holister, its first Dean, and it was due to his vision for a new, wider approach to technology education that the subject of Design was included. He appointed the first Professor of Design, John Chris Jones, who had previously been running the innovatory Design Research Laboratory at the University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology. At the time of his appointment, Professor Jones had just completed his seminal textbook, Design Methods: Seeds of Human Futures.

Nigel Cross explains his analogy of the design process as a game of two halves in a BBC-OU TV programme recorded at the Alexandra Palace studios in 1975

Professor Jones’ first recruits to the Design Discipline were Chris Crickmay, Nigel Cross, Simon Nicholson and Robin Roy. Their first teaching contributions were to the Faculty’s Foundation Course in Technology,The Man-Made World, which began its first presentation in 1972. From the beginning, Chris Jones encountered difficulties in matching his vision for new forms of multi-media education with the early, rather restricted set of options that had been quickly developed for the Open University. However, he and his team did manage to introduce some innovations, such as loose-leaf collages of text materials, the use of audiocassettes, radio phone-in tutorials, and the students making their own video productions (using the newly available Sony reel-to-reel video recorders) at summer schools.

Eventually, the difficulties and frustrations became too much for Chris Jones, and in 1974 he resigned. The other Design Discipline members had already begun production of the first Design courses. Nigel Cross and Robin Roy (with Dave Elliott who had joined from within the Technology Faculty) produced the second-level course, Man-Made Futures: Design and Technology for first presentation in 1975. Simon Nicholson and Chris Crickmay produced Art and Environment for first presentation in 1976. Both of these courses were, of necessity, innovatory, and subsequently influential in UK design education.

Open University television programmes at this time were produced at the BBC’s original studios in Alexandra Palace, London. A lingering image of those early programmes is of academic presenters in tight suits and kipper ties; of course, the Design academics were more stylish than that.

A Developing Discipline Turns up the Heat: 1976 - 1988

'Technology and Society' one of the blocks in the course Man Made Futures, a second level course from 1975

A search had been underway for a new Professor of Design, and eventually Lionel March was appointed in 1976. Professor March was then at Waterloo University in Canada, but previously had been at Cambridge University Department of Architecture. There followed a period of expansion in Discipline membership, with Lionel March recruiting Philip Steadman, George Stiny and Ray Matela. Professor March also introduced a strong emphasis on research. However, in 1980 he resigned, to take up appointment as Rector at the Royal College of Art. Like Chris Jones, he had been unable to get to grips with the new teaching methods of the Open University.

Unfortunately, at this time the Open University was going through one of its occasional financial crises, and there was a freeze on making new appointments. (The outcomes of the first two appointments of Professor of Design might also have been influential.) The Design Discipline therefore remained without a Professor through most of the 1980s, with Nigel Cross appointed as Head of the Discipline. Eventually, external funding from Lucas Industries led to the appointment of a Professor of Engineering Design, George Rzevski, in 1988, and in the same year Nigel Cross was promoted to a personal Chair in Design Studies.

Evaluating the Sinclair C5: A Design summer school at the University of East Anglia in 1986

As before, amidst uncertainty at the top, other members of the Discipline got on with their research and with producing new courses. Some members of the Discipline had been influential in setting up an Alternative Technology Group (now the Energy and Environment Research Unit) in the mid-1970s, and Robin Roy founded the Design Innovation Group in 1979. Philip Steadman headed a Centre for Configurational Studies. There was now a very active research culture in the Discipline. Research and teaching have often interacted in the preparation of new course materials.

A segment of the original article from the front page of the Times describing a fire in the department in 1987.

Following the original ethos of the Faculty, and in tune with questioning the implications of conventional technological development, a new third-level, design-based course calledControl of Technology was launched in 1978, and some of the Discipline were influential in the new version of the Faculty’s Technology Foundation Course, Living With Technology, launched in 1980. A new course in Design: Processes and Products replaced Man-Made Futures in 1983. A third-level course in Design and Innovation was introduced in 1986, andComputer Aided Design was launched in 1987. Typical student numbers for these courses were around 300 - 500 per annum (with 6000 per annum on the Technology Foundation Course). Members of the Discipline also contributed to courses across the University, for example in the Arts, Mathematics and Social Sciences Faculties and the Business School.

For twenty years the Design Discipline was housed in ‘temporary’ accommodation on the Open University campus – in wooden buildings known as Wimpey huts. On a Sunday afternoon in 1987, a mysterious fire broke out in the Discipline’s hut, Wimpey 3. The fire was reported in The Times and although the mainframe VAX computer room was burnt to the ground most of the offices escaped with just smoke damage. Amazingly, all the data were recaptured from the badly damaged computer, and the Discipline celebrated with a fire damage party, with music by the newly formed in-house lounge-rock group Wimpey Three. The group’s set list included versions of classics such as ‘Smoke Gets in My Eyes’ and ‘Light That Fire’ – a reworking of The Doors song, hinting at various explanations for the origin of the fire.

Sustaining the Future: 1989 - 2007

The 1990s saw a greater interest in design throughout society, with corresponding increases in the number of students taking Design Discipline courses. Professor Rzevski led the production of a course in Mechatronics: Designing Intelligent Machines, first presented in 1994. Two new courses appeared in 1996: a third-level course in Innovation: Design, Environment and Strategy, and a second-level course in Renewable Energy. The same year saw the launch of a new version of the second-level course Design: Principles and Practice, which had over 1000 students enrolled.

The 1990s also saw the Design Discipline included for the first time in the national University Research Assessment Exercises. Entering in the Art and Design subject category, the Discipline did extremely well, reaching the highest-grade assessment level in all three of the exercises, 1992, 1996, and 2001.

In 1997, recognising that the original idea of a ‘Design Discipline’ no longer reflected the reality of its expansion both in size and in range of interests, the Faculty and the University agreed that the name should be changed to the Department of Design and Innovation.

The start of the new millennium saw more growth in the Department, including the return from Newcastle University of Chris Earl, who had been a PhD student with Lionel March, as Professor of Engineering Product Design. Greater diversity was being introduced in the teaching patterns of the University, and Department members responded with new, shorter courses being offered at the Faculty’s first level in subjects such as Design and the Web, andTechnology for a Sustainable Future. Some of the new courses are presented on-line, and all of our courses now include computer-based elements, media such as DVD and Internet resources. The Open University has evolved from a ‘University of the Air’ to a ‘University of the Internet’. New research funding has allowed an expansion of research facilities, and our teaching and research continue to enliven and revitalise each other, including new initiatives such as outreach to schools in the teaching of robotics design.

Reconfiguration: 2007 -

In October 2007 a major University restructuring resulted in the creation of a new Faculty of Mathematics, Computing and Technology, with a merger of departments. As part of this, the Department of Design and Innovation was incorporated into the new Department of Design, Development, Environment and Materials. Design remains a strong focus within this new Department and is a recognised grouping. The Department of Design and Innovation has now (from October 2007) become The Design Group.

The publication of the UK Research Assessment Exercise in December 2008 was a major triumph for design research at the Open University. We were ranked third out of the 71 Art and Design submissions made. Our research quality profile was assessed as being 35% ‘world leading’ (4*), 45% ‘internationally excellent’ (3*), 10% ‘internationally recognised’ (2*) and 10% ‘nationally recognised’ (1*). This profile, as well as placing us among the UK’s top three design research groups was also the highest rating of all the Open University’s RAE submissions.

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