The Dyson School: Feel Free to Fail

British style maven James Dyson plans to open a free school where teenagers can experiment with hands-on projects and problem-solving design

Before design evangelist James Dyson invented the bagless vacuum cleaner, he swept through 5,126 iterations that didn't work. This freedom to fail, he believes, is missing from the public education system. So, on July 10, Dyson announced plans to build the Dyson School of Design Innovation, a $40.4 million project—funded equally by the James Dyson Foundation and the British government—that will encourage teens to explore engineering through hands-on projects and relationships with mentors in the field.

Set to open in the fall of 2008, the school will provide a free education to 2,500 students aged 16 to 18 in and around Bath, Somerset, where Dyson got his start. It will also conduct weeklong residencies and other enrichment programs for children ages 13 to 16 to nurture an interest in design and engineering.

The latter group, Dyson believes, gets a bad rap among students. "We graduated 24,000 engineers last year," Dyson says with urgency. "Compare that to 300,000 coming out of China and 450,000 coming out of India." For businesses hungry for engineering talent, that's a crisis. That's why companies like Airbus, Rolls Royce, and Williams F1 have already pledged their support in the form of prototypes, guest teachers, and student internships.


  In a departure from the traditional British education, the school will offer a greater number of hands-on, design-based programs, and encourage students to take courses such as Mandarin Chinese, which will be a critical skill in the China-dominated global economy. In addition to traditional academic coursework, students will work in laboratories where they can learn through experimentation.

"There's nothing new about this—it's exactly what (Thomas) Edison did," says Dyson, who criticizes the current educational system for relying on standardized tests and other rote learning techniques, and for treating mistakes as failures rather than as steps towards success.

Dyson has long been a vocal critic of design that embraces style over substance. In September, 2004, he resigned as chairman of the Design Museum in London after serving a five-year term because he said the institution had moved too far toward embracing style over function-led design.


  Founded in 1989 with the goal of celebrating design excellence and educating the public, the museum placed great importance on the role of new technologies and materials, and on the contribution of design to the economy and industry .

Over time, the museum broadened its collection to include more stylistic exhibitions. When the Conran Foundation Collection, a display of inventions and housewares, was closed to make way for an exhibition on the 1950s flower arranger Constance Spry, Dyson decided the museum had strayed too far from what was, in his opinion, important design.

The Dyson School of Design Innovation, in contrast, will focus on function-led, problem-solving design. With a breathtaking six-story building planned for the banks of the river in downtown Bath, the school will include a café, design center, and a library complete with a collection of prototypes. Dyson's hope is that the school will be a prototype for many more to come.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.