Conformity & Creativity: tensions in portfolio requirements



Fashion, Jewellery & Textile Design


  • assessment

This paper investigates how prospective fashion design students at a University of Technology are required to reflect an understanding of the process of design and the process of construction in their sketches, which are a component of the portfolio they submit for evaluation. I begin by outlining how the portfolio guidelines initiate the anomaly between two desired requirements of novelty and originality / creativity versus the technical / conformity. I reveal how the portfolio requirements encourage students to conform from the onset and argue that this is because the fashion design program continues to train undergraduates to service a traditional and conservative mass market.

In the following section I scrutinize the selection process itself. I refer to the work of Basil Bernstein in arguing that because fashion design is craft based and caters to the formal sector market, what is sought in prospective students’ designs is evaluated according to whether it is functional, practical and attractive. This relates to consistency and utility, and whether clientele can be satisfied. I contend that this depreciates the uniqueness of the object and stresses reproductive rather than expressive elements.

Technical competency is the key criteria used in the selection process and provides a standard by which one craftsperson and expert in the field can assess the work of another. This relates to Basil Bernstein’s notion of affecting the acquired ‘gaze’ (Bernsrein, 2000:165), whereby a practicing craftsperson is able to identify what it takes to distinguish a good from an adequate product (Kritzer, 2006:5). The manifestation of expertise on the part of the selection panel that evaluates portfolios is achieved through a distinctive set of rules and procedures largely tacitly acquired. If it is to be used, tacit knowledge needs to be made explicit, and has in the process of my research been captured, and enabled me to determine what criteria are used to evaluate students’ sketches.

Finally, because good design involves understanding procedural as well as declarative knowledge and involves doing and thinking, and also constitutes an aesthetic as well as skill - with practical mastery as its function, no distinction should be made between thought and action, conception and execution, knowledge and skill.

The idea that two separate entities exist equates skill with timed physical dexterity, and a mechanical exercise that produces superficial results. Because students submitted designs often reflect workmanship of risk and a lack of unity between head and hand, and because skill or the art of doing can only be taught by aid of practical example, perhaps the portfolio requirements could be amended. I suggest that through the transmission of instructions sought after criteria should be stated and that both creativity and conformity as aspects of the procedural, and the socio-historic as an aspect of the declarative be considered. Transparency of expectations may solicit more interesting responses from the students and prove more inclusive.

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