Nigel Ball

Course leader, product design

Nigel leads our BA/BSc Product Design course. We spoke to him on the eve of the Process 40 exhibition at our gallery, which celebrated the 40th anniversary of the launch of the course.

Nigel Ball

What first attracted you to product design?

I actually came here to Sheffield Institute of Arts as a sixth former when I was 17 or 18. I read a course description and the moment I read it I thought, 'that's what I want to be', so my careers tutor told me to come and have a look here, which was great advice.

As soon as I saw what they did, I knew it was for me. I did a foundation course here, and 16 years later I came back as a lecturer, on the next floor of the building.

Tell us about the Process40 exhibition.

It fulfils two roles. The first is to mark 40 years of the course, and the second is to celebrate what we do as product designers.

Many people see the outcomes of product design in terms of products that sit on shelves in shops, or things they buy and use at home, but it's not entirely clear how these products come into being. How does a product designer take something from an idea to a finished product that's been manufactured in a factory?

This exhibition celebrates all that hidden work that goes on behind the scenes - making, testing, trying things, working with materials, sketching, drawing, using computers. There's a rich mixture of different processes that designers engage in and we want to share that more widely.

At Process40 we're displaying six design projects by people from the course - three current students, and three examples of commercial work by people who graduated from the course. The student work and the commercial work follow a very similar process, showing the original sketches and prototypes and so on. It shows how the work we give to our students mimics exactly what real professionals do in the job.

What do you think is key to the success of the product design course?

Continuity. We have a really great staff team with a consistent and strong vision of what the course should be like.

We have a focus on commercial practice - we see the course as a preparation for people to go out and work professionally as a product designer. We remain faithful to the idea of designing products, predominantly for mass production, designed for industry and designed for markets and the needs of consumers.

You can only do that if that philosophy is shared and supported by the staff. All the people who work on the course have worked as product designers before moving into teaching.

"People like seeing the shiny outcomes, but as an employer they want to see what's under the surface. "

We put a great emphasis on the hands-on experience of making, trying and testing - the process behind design. And that's the kind of thing employers want to see. People like seeing the shiny outcomes, but as an employer they want to see what's under the surface. What skills does this person have as a developer of ideas? That's what we provide on this course.

This is backed up by superb technical facilities, particularly for making. I was showing a group from Kenwood around the other day, and they were very impressed with our 3D printers, because they're better than what they have.

There are 40 years of graduates from this course out there. What do they tend to do after finishing the course?

Students leave the course with transferable skills that can be used in a range of disciplines, but most of them go into design.

There are two main routes. One is consultancy. We have graduates who have set up their own consultancies and others who have gone to work in design consultancies, from small regional businesses to big ones like Springetts in London.

The other route is manufacturing. Some go to work for small and medium sized businesses, and others for blue chip companies like Cadbury, Dyson and Mothercare.

Our graduates are all over the world. We have people who stay within a mile of the campus and people in Australia, America, Japan, Hong Kong, Saudi Arabia and all across Europe.

How has product design changed as a career in your time as course leader?

I think the biggest change I've seen is that design is taken massively more seriously than it used to be.

There are far more companies looking at design as a strategic activity that they can build their whole future success around. And there are a lot more employment opportunities for graduates as a result.

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