Zelda Malan on the importance of teaching ideas to design students

Words by Liv Siddall, Wednesday 29 April 2015

At a time when debates surrounding art and design education and the way they prepare students for the creative industries are intensifying, Kingston University tutor Zelda Malan explains why it’s still so important that creative courses continue to teach ideas. You can add your thoughts using the comments thread below…

Ideas. They’re worth a lot of money, millions if you get the right idea at the right time. The recognition of the worth of a totally brilliant idea is universal. So why is there even a debate about it? Remember that bit in Billy Elliot, that “It’s like electricity, all over my body" bit? Well that’s what it feels like when I get an idea, and I’m betting that loads of people feel the same. And seeing a brilliant idea –one of those Ether of Genius ones – is what being inspired is all about. As senior lecturer on the BA Graphic Design course at Kingston University, when I am faced with putting forward an argument for the continuing teaching of ideas in art school I could go on, literally, for hours.

“The problem is there are less ideas around in some areas than there were."

Zelda Malan

I’m coming out publicly, loud and proud. I am an idea obsessive. I love brilliant thinking. I was won over from the dark side of punk graphics in the early 1980s by the creative work being done by AMV, Lowes and Saatchi & Saatchi. Adverts that made you laugh, cry, feel angry. Lasting images, powerful copy lines that convinced you with logic – mostly because they were based on truths.

A fireman carrying a dead baby out of a burning house. The line says: “I didn’t buy a fire alarm, because I didn’t want to wake my baby." There can’t be a mother alive that doesn’t identify with, or feel the truth and pathos in the headline.

The problem is there are less ideas around in some areas than there were.

“How can you persuade a client that your work is relevant, creative and powerful if it’s not based on clever thinking, but subjective aesthetic choice?"

Zelda Malan

95% of all advertising we witness in the press is aesthetically muddled and conceptually unmemorable. Buzzwords, confused messages, and hype have replaced brilliant thinking in much of the advertising seen on outdoor posters and in TV commercials. Graphic design can be based and sold on aesthetic appreciation rather than the delivery of a relevant branding message.

Process is too often used as an outcome rather than as the best form of design practice, which creates the opportunity for innovative thinking. The danger of ignoring or dismissing ideas as irrelevant or old fashioned means we will see more and more meaningless work being done by designers and creative teams with little power to effectively communicate. But the growth areas of service design/digital design/interactive advertising have enormous scope for students who can think innovatively and flexibly.

“The danger of ignoring or dissing ideas as irrelevant or old fashioned means we will see more and more meaningless work being done by designers and creative teams with little power to effectively communicate."

Zelda Malan

I have always taught the value of ideas to communicate, to excite, to inspire and, above all, to be remembered. That’s the problem with work which doesn’t have an idea at the core, isn’t it? How can you persuade a client that your work is relevant, creative and powerful if it’s not based on clever thinking, but subjective aesthetic choice? Who will notice it, let alone remember it?

“Buzzwords, confused messages, and hype have replaced brilliant thinking in much of the advertising seen on outdoor posters and in TV commercials."

Zelda Malan

In a time when the lines between graphic design, advertising, service design and interactive design are disappearing, it is more important than ever that students are taught how to solve problems and produce innovative conceptual communication in any media.


I am very glad I teach on a course for whom ideas are so important. I am very glad that there are still design groups who value ideas as much as surface design and that there are still advertising agencies which believe great ideas are worth fighting for.

Source: from: It's nice that