The valuable contributions that Arts and Humanities graduates can bring to interdisciplinary enterprises

In this blog post, Andy Penaluna shares his personal perspectives on the valuable contributions that Arts and Humanities graduates can bring to interdisciplinary enterprises.

“I consider myself very fortunate to have been taught to be a designer. I learned to see alternative viewpoints, consider what others may think, see ways to connect new knowledge and second guess future scenarios. These abilities were further developed in commercial settings, whether it was in my own studio working with clients from all manner of businesses, or the international publications business I helped to build and grow.

When the AHEH team asked me to talk about why creative graduates will be so valuable to business when we live in such a VUCA (Volatile, Uncertain, Complex and Ambiguous) world, my first thought was, ‘well who else teaches students to deal with these situations so well’?

Over the years it has really hit home to me how little is understood about design education and how emerging models such as design thinking are helpful, but do little more than skim the surface of how designers are actually taught. For example, very little education seems to deal with being able to forecast future issues and problems, and most assessment in education is heavily reliant upon tests and examinations where the (notionally) correct answer is already known. Known answers don’t surprise, and novelty is therefore excluded within a singular solution finding exercise. Add in the stress of an examination and the stress of memorisation, and a big flaw appears. Knowledge is far more temporary than it used to be, and as I shall explain, stress usually results in a rush to answers that are incomplete and poorly considered, especially when it comes to thinking of alternatives.

Designers are taught to deal with emerging situations where things change, so they have to adapt. It is a studio-based learning environment where stressful situations and ambiguous environments mean your brain is getting used to having to absorb more information, to be alert to change and seek out new imaginary stories so that a range of predictions can be made. Designers don’t look for ‘truths’, they seek out likelihoods. Once they gain experience, the stress reduces and working like this becomes a norm, especially if their educator is good at formative feedback that uses questioning techniques to make the student think wider and deeper about what they are dealing with.

In an art and design world ambiguous visual messaging is also the norm. Often spotting those little details that other’s miss, this world without words is ideal territory in which to challenge understanding and see many alternative perceptions. If you can see many alternative futures, you simply are not phased when something changes, because another plan is already partly developed. Seeing other people’s reactions and feedback to your work, in design’s case usually through that may have been set by an outside client in what are known as live briefs, means you can learn to think ‘in other people’s shoes’ as well, so can easily empathise and build solutions that work for them. The term ‘value creation for others’ is central to almost everything a designer sets out to do, and has recently become popular in entrepreneurial education.

My mind nearly always drifts back into thinking about how I was assessed as a design student, and how as a design educator of over 30 years, I sought to develop these abilities, and then to better understand why they appeared to work. This led me to the literature on mind and brain behaviour. After all, as is often said, it isn’t what we think but how we think, especially when emotion rules the mind and can have unintended consequences. The discovery by neuroscientists such as Mark Jung Beeman and John Kounios that insightful thinking and analytical thinking are entirely different things, has helped enormously. Insightful thinking is when those ideas and thoughts pop into your head, often leaving you to ponder why you didn’t think of it before. As this often happens when you have stopped work and are in the middle of a mundane task, I always emphasise the need to write them down, because they are often fleeting and the mind needs to revisit them before they become a memory that you can draw upon.


Talking of drawing upon, another visual metaphor often helps. Do you think like a pencil or do you think like a pen? A pen mark is rarely erased and becomes a fixed permanent marker of thinking, whereas a pencil mark can be light and scribbled over easily, even erased or duplicated many ways in a nuanced developmental strategy of visioning.

These understandings came in very useful when I started to look at developing countries and the way that education can support them more effectively. As a consultant to the United Nations, it became apparent that these nations needed innovation, and that all innovation starts with a creative thought. It soon became obvious that any enterprise has to revert back to creativity when things change (Fig. 1), and that the learning journeys in enterprise and entrepreneurship have to accommodate this. If you are intending to create value for others, the more novel the solution you’ve come up with, the harder it may be to explain. Understanding this helps us to realize how valuable good communicators are (Fig. 2).

A few years ago, when I worked with US Army on their Red Teaming course development, I became aware of levels of stress I’d never considered before, and how that can impact on military leadership thinking. The answers however, were the very same, think wide as well as deep, and think through the minds of others, so that you can take on board the many different perspectives that emerge.

According to a recent EU Joint Research Centre[1] project that I made a small contribution to, “At the individual level, creativity is thought to embrace curiosity and intellectual restlessness, a tolerance for uncertainty, risk, and ambiguity, and the capacity to be adaptable and flexible.” That being the case, education is being revisited around the world as it may not be preparing young people to contribute in a way that promotes well-being and advancement.

In this new world where enterprising people are in great demand, standardisation can work against us, and it is useful to remind ourselves that anything standard and therefore repeatable, can easily become automated. As a result, robots are evolving at some pace, and anyone who thinks like a designer or who has trained within creative studio practice, will have much to offer the businesses that wish to forge ahead.

For me, that’s a no-brainer!”

Designer turned educator, Professor Emeritus Andy Penaluna is the former Director of the International Institute for Creative Entrepreneurial Development (IICED) at UWTSD. AHEH is linked to the European Commission’s EntreComp Framework, and two of the EU’s ten in depth case studies used to develop EntreComp featured his work.

Andy was one of the OECD/EU HEInnovate’s EPIC assessment of entrepreneurial learning project’s leaders and also supported the development policy and practice for 42 countries as an advisor to the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development.

In the UK he chairs the Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education’s work on enterprise and entrepreneurship, and is also an employability and enterprise advisor to AdvanceHE, the UK’s national body for educator development and support.

[1] Available online at: