Design’s imperfect proxy

August 2, 2011 by · 2 Comments
Filed under: Design and Society, Education Matters 

Congratulations to the Design & Technology Association, Seymour Powell and the James Dyson Foundation for the excellent event they put together on July 12th to debate the question “Is Creative Britain in Reverse?” Compliments also on the ‘manifesto video’ they launched that night which has gone viral in the intervening time.

The Coalition Government’s curriculum review, likely to strip Design and Technology (aka ‘DT’) of its compulsory status at Key Stage 3 (roughly corresponding to ages 11-14 in the pre-GCSE period of school life) was the occasion for this debate. Eloquently setting the scene, Deyan Sudjic mused that ‘Design puts you at the centre of things, not the periphery’. Others in the film talked persuasively about how badly we need design. While Ellen MacArthur couched it in the environmental imperative to ‘use things, not use them up’, David Kester declared design ‘absolutely essential to our economic growth and success’.

Neither I nor anyone else in the audience that evening would likely demur. The rub happens when you substitute DT for ‘design’. First I heard that DT ‘teaches children to think for themselves’, ‘gives children a reason for applying their literacy and numeracy’ and gives them ‘a broader set of choices’ about the future. Hmmm. Then I heard that ‘the design education system will collapse if DT is stripped of its compulsory status’. Skepticism is now making me wince, because it’s all true about design, but DT is an imperfect proxy.

Finally I heard ‘We would not have our creative industries if DT had not been introduced into the curriculum’. Ah yes: the creative industries. By this giddy phrase do we not mean design and art direction, film, tv and media production, publishing and music, not to mention the arts per se as they can be commercialised? And do these activities not depend just as much on ‘artistic’ intelligence as they do on Science, Technology, Engineering & Maths? Enter the elephant in the room, Art, and that other subject in the National Curriculum, Art and Design. Is the panel happy, I asked, with the divorce from Art that the National Curriculum perpetuated? To be fair, the panel weren’t happy; certainly Dick Powell vigorously acknowledged that the divorce was wrong.

Back to DT, the imperfect proxy for design: RSA Design and RSA Education have jointly commissioned two pieces of work to begin to answer the inauspicious question ‘What’s wrong with DT?’ John Miller’s essay, here, analyses the reasons why DT has failed to break the bounds of its pre-National Curriculum antecedents in Art, Craft & Design and Home Economics, and has not become the place where students explore how to create a better world. 

We asked Ian McGimpsey to answer the question in a different way, by reviewing the academic literature on DT since its establishment in the National Curriculum. His review, here, suggests that DT has tried to be too many things to too many people, rather than focusing on its own worth and integrity as a subject area. By claiming to be supremely inter-disciplinary, and a solution to Britain’s global competitiveness via an often tenuous relation to STEM, DT has been preoccupied in over-justifying its place on the curriculum to the detriment of the subject itself.

Rather than defending DT, can we use the new curriculum freedoms, afforded by the Government’s diversion to assessing performance in ‘E-Bac’ core subjects, to reform DT? To re-couple Art with Design and to give purpose to Craft, Technology and ICT under the banner of design. Because it’s true: understanding design will give children a broader set of choices about what we do with and in the world. Just don’t call it DT.

Here’s looking at you, Kid

November 19, 2010 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Design and Society, Education Matters 

Click on this link to see a short video of our 3-day design workshop for people with spinal cord injuries. Yanki Lee, Pascal Anson and I  set ourselves the daunting task of explaining a useful amount of design in three days to people who’d not designed before.

Arranged in the  categories of Observation, Analysis and Opportunity, our assignments  included photographing 100 examples of the same thing, devising a cocktail to represent another participant and translating a work of fiction into a restaurant concept.

We baffled the group several times, but we got there, and everyone designed quite a few things in the process. One participant told me the experience was like a film that you don’t understand until the end – then it all comes together.

What’s going on in this picture?

November 8, 2010 by · Leave a Comment
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At an expert seminar in May about our Design & Rehabilitation project, keynote Danny Brown said something useful about design. A product has to fulfill a basic function, he said: you  have to be able to sit on a chair; a cup has to hold liquid; clothes have to keep you warm, etc.. Then all of these things might need to be made for a certain budget and from a certain set of available materials. But within those constraints of function, material, cost etc. there’s room to negotiate lots of variables, and this is the designer’s space.

The photo was taken by Yanki Lee on Day II of our 3-day residential design workshop for spinal cord-injured people last week. On this day, devoted to Analysis, we insisted on design as logic, not taste; on designed or man-made objects as collections of decisions and compounds of layers. Layers can be functional, we explained, or they might be material; then in addition there might be layers of association and significance. In design, every layer has a reason and represents a decision.

At this point our 8 participants had just returned from a hunting and gathering session in the neighbouring streets, charged with finding, photographing or buying something they could break down into its man-made decisions and layers. On the floor there’s a package for some take-away barbecued chicken under scrutiny by designer Pascal Anson; on the screen a photograph of a motorcycle. In response to relentless interrogation, each participant performed an analysis of his or her chosen object.

The chicken box was relatively straightforward. We asked of it, What is it? What’s it made of? Why? How is it made? Why is it made like that? Why is it yellow and red? Why are the figures dancing and jumping? Why the border of blue and white stars? How many type styles are there? Why? Its presenter later described this session as the moment he ‘got’ design.

The bike was more complex. Four of our participants were motorcyle enthusiasts, as are many people with spinal cord injuries. Its presenter may have felt comfortable showing a familiar object, or that this Harley would be so well-known and understood that it required little analysis, but the interrogation was draconian. The group swiftly dispatched the functional and material layers of the bike in favour of the rich layers of meaning its designers had contrived, and the bike itself had acquired by use over the years.

 It’s cool, the participant said. Why? we replied. It has a great engine. Really, is that why it’s cool? If it’s got such a great engine, why do the handlebars look like they belong to a Chopper? Middle-aged men like this motorcycle. Hmm. I thought you said it was cool. Are middle-aged men cool? Why is this their bike? Let’s look at it carefully. Why the rounded forms and swooping seat? Because you sit back to ride it. Why do you do that? Easy-rider. What’s Easy-rider? Why does the mudguard have those red & white stripes? Because it was in TGI Fridays. What’s TGI Fridays got to do with Easy-rider? And so on. This participant later declared that as a result of the workshop he wouldn’t look at things the same way again.

In this workshop we aimed to explain design, and to teach a useful amount of design and creative resourcefulness in three days to people who have no training in it. This day of Analysis followed Day 1: Observation, and preceded Day 3: Opportunity. Watch out for the 2-minute film on the RSA website in next week, and the full report at the end of the month. Well done to Dean, Tim, Matt, Liz, Jason, Luke, Morag and Simon, and thanks to the Back-Up Trust.

It ain’t broke; merely punctured

October 29, 2010 by · 2 Comments
Filed under: Design and Society, Education Matters 

The phrase that’s stuck in my mind since our debate on design education in September is Sam Hecht’s deceptively simple observation that students seem to have lost the ability to understand why things are the way they are. For Sam, understanding the fact that every (man-made) thing is a product, and every product is part of a system, is pretty much the whole of design. The reason, he said, that Min Kyu Choi was able to design a sensational folding 3-point plug, is that he understood the ‘whole system’ of plugs, including of course, their use by humans. Industrial Facility manage regularly to transform this plain-sounding philosophy into things of a simplicity that is wondrous.

Here’s the transcript of the whole event. The workshop that I’ve been developing with Pascal Anson and Yan-ki Lee for eight people with spinal cord injuries has some of Hecht’s plain speaking style: a whole day devoted to taking things apart into their elements and layers and rigorously analysing why they’re the way they are. Because it’s not about taste, argues Pascal, but about logic; and not enough people know that about design.  

In the wake of the Comprehensive Spending Review, with engineering, infrastructure, transport and STEM elevated as the privileged beneficiaries of public largesse in hard times, we need designers like Hecht and Anson badly; the ones who can articulate the logic of design to give it parity with the logic of science, but without making design sound deadly mechanistic. Without them how will we sustain a broad and complete understanding of design when engineering has higher status than language?

The question of why things are the way they are doesn’t only elude design students. Consider this anecdote that Jonathan Glancey told me a year ago: two ten-year-old boys walk into a bike shop pushing a bicycle. When asked by the proprietor how he can help, one of the boys replies, “Wheel’s broke”. While it is immediately obvious to Glancey and the proprietor that the bike has a flat tyre, the rudimentary mechanics and locomotion principles of a bicycle are so foreign to these boys that they have no vocabulary for the simple problem they face.

In The Case for Working with your Hands, Matthew Crawford describes how unfashionable manual skills like making and drawing have become in an education system that aims to supply the cutting-edge institutions of capitalism with “pliable generalists unfettered by any single set of skills”. His opinions have been formed by taking motorcycles apart to understand why they are the way they are. Crawford’s argument for “the cognitive richness of skilled trades” (a lot more accessible than Richard Sennett’s The Craftsman, certainly in the early chapters) has sharpened the debate about craft today.

And about time too. I complained back in March that the craft polemic seemed to be all about basketry and weaving, when I wanted it to stretch from writing and playing an instrument right through to “heating engineers and plumbers and signwriters”. Even Minister of State for Further Education etc. John Hayes cited Crawford when he came here on Tuesday to give his talk The craft so long to lerne: Skills and their Place in Modern Britain. Alongside repeated invocations of the Mastercraftsman (a bit hard to picture in his contemporary incarnation) and a calling for “a new Arts & Crafts movement” (which also makes me squint), he did include a litany of butchers, bakers, candlestick-makers and every other artisan. He blew it for me, though, when he conceded in the Q & A that, yes, of course ‘crafts’ extend to the creative industries, IT and healthcare. “Let’s all enjoy the concept of craft”, he said.

I don’t necessarily disagree – anything can be done well or badly -  but I no longer know what this expansive definition means we should do. Except apprenticeships: that much is clear.

Thinking well with our technology

September 22, 2010 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Arts and Society, Design and Society 

Buildings, bridges and towers; water and waste infrastructure; transport systems; colossal pieces of public art; masterplans for campuses, towns, cities and regions of the world. I know they call Goldman Sachs employees the Masters of the Universe but is there any part of our constructed tomorrow that Arup’s 10,000 staff around the world do not touch?

Design for Life at Arup’s on Fitzroy Street last night marked their first entry into the London Design Festival, and a new commitment to design signified by the appoitnment of a internal design council chaired by Sir John Sorrell. Sorrell opened the proceedings with an acknowledgement of engineers’ quest for solutions to some of the world’s most complex and difficult problems. Timely, then, in our current search for strategic design - design with a macro-view, design that connects all the resources and drivers and people, design that is sustainable because it anticipates the future and doesn’t end in the production of an object or building.

The speakers were the sculptor Antony Gormley and the sound-artist Hans Peter Kuhn. Gormley described his pursuit of “imaginative objects; things that can turn a site into a place, into a designed landscape – like a picture”. The example was ‘Exposure’ the newly-completed gigantic human figure, parametrically constructed with the help of Arup’s Tristram Carfrae to squat on a dyke in Leylstad, 1.2km out to sea from inhabited land. Through design, he said, we can invite people to think about human futures.

At first surprised and a little disappointd that an artist should be recruited to headline a design event, I had to concede that Gormley talks about his decisions so rationally and presents his process as so deliberate, that it sounds a lot like design. In explicit deference to Arup, he closed with the thought that “we need to think well with our technology”.

Helsinki design double

September 16, 2010 by · 2 Comments
Filed under: Design and Society 

A lucky delegate at the Helsinki Design Lab Global 2010 event, I started the year in everyone’s favourite design city. Marco Steinberg assembled and uncommonly heterogenous group of a hundred or so for this conference subtitled Government Meets Design: distinguished bureaucrats and plucky entrepreneurs with a nose for the future from all over the world, a mechanical engineer from Bangalore, a senior director in the World Health Organisation, an ex-US Ambassador to Berlin, several academics.

Steinberg, our confident and congenial master of ceremonies, was unflagging in his pursuit of a shared understanding of strategic design, or “the architecture of large problems” of the kind that governments own. Among the things I’ve not heard said in quite the same way, Steinberg drew a distinction between traditional design that shapes objects, and strategic design that shapes decision-making. Foremost among his examples were the marvelous Elemental ‘half-houses’ in Chile, interpreted in Steinberg’s account as not about creating better housing, but about creating social mobility. A traditional approach to design might have got residents a better house; strategic design got them a better future.

A traditional approach to design might have got residents a better house; strategic design got them a better future.

Stainberg also defined design as “pattern-recognition” linking nicely back to his account of its 18th century origins in the contrivance of patterns for textile production and so on; and he claimed we are “stuck on symbolism” – particularly the ubiquitous pyramid in which we configure everything from nutritional value to management hierarchy to human needs. “What is the new symbol that can hold the whole?” he asked, “It’s not a pyramid.”

I joined an Education panel for a discussion that responded rather moderately to HDL’s radical call to re-think what and how we teach, but for a memorable interjection from Ramchandra Kulkarni about empathy. We teach 18th century competencies, he said; we teach people to be competetive rather than to collaborate, to plunder rather than nurture. In the face of shared issues – globalisation, ageing, environmental deterioration – we need to teach empathy.

I was grateful for an introduction to Stewart Brand’s theory of pace-layering from Eric Rodenbeck, the brililant founder of interaction design studio Stamen in San Francisco, and data-virtuoso. In Rodenbeck’s digest, fashion, commerce, infrastructure, governance and nature/culture are in a pace-spectrum from fast to slow in that order. “The power is in the slow parts, but the fast parts get the attention”. Design happens in the fast fashion & commerce parts, and have a “whiplash effect” on government and infrastructure.

Other highlights included Roseanne Hegarty of homeless charity Common Ground in New York’s unshrinking and concise analysis of how 5% of families with all the problems at the extreme end of the curve gradually lose support of communities and become dependent upon the government. Later, when Alan Webber asked the Changing World panel where they go to look for the future, someone said “The immigrant communities in the US; the places where the world is coming in”.

Steinberg chaired the final session on redesigning leadership. An advisor on health to the US government proferred the alluring idea that leadership is “command of collegiality”. Hmm. I wrote down “leadership = showing other people how you do what you do well”; then, a bit better I think, “leadership = starting what others can finish”.

Back in London and the first stirrings of the London Design Festival, I went to the the opening of the Hel Yes! pop-up restaurant in Wenlock Road, featuring Helsinki food and drink for one month only. The environment is deeply artful; nature and technology combined in fibre-optic owls and birch-sapling gazebos, many hints of autumnal forest, fairies and fungus.  We know from Aalto’s way with wood and Wirkalaa’s way with glass that the Finns can really make nature modern. Not only that, but as Marco Steinberg put it to the assembly: maybe there’s a new competetitveness to being small and nimble like Finland.

What is embedded design?

June 25, 2010 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Design and Society 

The transcript of this seminar held last month at the RSA is now available here. The trend for embedding design means that more and more organisations are employing designers as a source of unspecified but strategic problem-solving capacity. The underlying question was, if you take away design’s obvious ‘effects’ – products, publications, brand marks and communication devices – what are we left with to call design?

Lucy Kimbell’s answer was a nice distinction between the traditional ‘problem-solving’ definition, with an end-point anticipated, and design as ‘enquiry’ - a virtuous, rigorous and yielding process in itself. Tony Coultas said design occupies the space between policy and delivery, and directly linked improved customer experience with efficiency. Our embedded anthropologist Simon Roberts described himself as dealing in ‘soft’ sensibilities rather than hard outcomes, and warned against any assumption that organisations behave rationally. Ben Reason showed how you can embed design from the outside; you don’t have to be on staff to ‘internalise’ design in a way that goes beyond procurement, and Lynne Maher, relative veteran of embedded service design pointed out that even scientifically proven medical discoveries take longer than you think to become adopted as practice.

The discussion between 35 guests centred on three themes: the nature of embedded service design (what is it and where did it come from?); the assessment of value and efficience (does it save money? Should it?) and the challenge of scale  (how to repeat isolated or local successes).

Embedding Design

Design the guardian of human size

April 30, 2010 by · Leave a Comment
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Membership of the international advisory board for Premsela’s Designworld project gives me privileged insight into the country that is the envy of all others for its use of design. For a thorough and spirited essay on this subject, enjoy at Michael Rock’s “Mad Dutch Disease/I heart NL” lecture given at Premsela in 2004. At Tuesday’s meeting in Amsterdam Zuid, where Premsela occupies a mid-20th century monastery, we were asked to help define their proper ambitions to Internationalisation and Globalisation, carefully distinct.

At first I was tempted to say that Holland’s international reputation is a bit like Britain’s - fuelled by the star status of individual practitioners, rather than the whole-culture reputation of, say, Japan or France or Italy or Germany. Then our thoughtful convener, Tim Vermeulen (himself Belgian) mentioned how marvelously and peerlessly simple the Dutch self-assessment tax form is. This is interesting, I thought; now we’re on to something. The reason you have Hella Jongerius and Marcel Wanders and Juergen Bey is no more worthwhile to deliberate – and as over-deliberated – as the reason we have our own assorted design virtuosi and celebrities. But  the reason you have the world’s most usable self-assessment tax form is yours alone I want to know why.


Harry Beck’s original 1933 underground map

The reason we have the world’s best underground transport map is Harry Beck. Well, ok, Harry Beck plus Edward Johnston and Frank Pick and London Transport,  mutually supporting for a decent innings. But the singular genius of the original, by BRS Premsela Vonk (later Eden Design) in 1988, is not an adequate answer to the Netherlands tax form question. What is the design code that penetrates so deeply that designers and citizens feel it and that withstands the modifications of successors? Harking back to an early Design & Society post, what gives the Netherlands its powerful design nerve?

The other nice idea I noted was that design is the guardian of “human size” in a world globalised by economic integration. I predict Premsela will be majoring on this, and will do it well.

In-house or out: embedding design

As little as a year ago it seemed that in-house design teams, in both the public and private sector, had practically vanished. So had senior civic roles in design: Leeds City Council was often named as the last remaining local authority to employ a Civic Architect. With a handful of notable exceptions – Apple and The Guardian, for example – it seemed to have become conventional for organisations to buy design services in from outside consultancies.

The dislocation of design from patently designed things does make design hard to explain

Last month the Design Council reported a 10% growth in in-house design teams since 2005, while also, quite suddenly, we are witnessing a growing trend for “embedding” design within the structure of public and private sector organisations. This means that anything from a private telecommunications provider to a local authority housing department, which might previously have subcontracted discrete design tasks, might now have designers on staff. Rather than apply their discipline narrowly to specific issues and projects arising – to corporate publications or product development, for example – these new recruits are usually paid to have a holistic view of the organisation; to apply so-called “design-thinking” to its whole structure and all its functions. In many cases, the designers’ role is described quite elusively as “service design” or as a source of unspecified but strategic problem-solving capability.

While many designers will cheer at this new recognition of their deep strategic value, the dislocation of design from patently designed things – from publications, presentations, products and so on – does make design hard to explain.

Is embedded or holistic service design new, or a new name for something that designers have always done for organisations? Along with embedded anthropology and artists-in-residence it is fashionable, but has the interest in embedding design happened for specific social, political or economic reasons? If it has, what are they? How likely is it to stay with us as the wind changes?

In practical terms, what is the job description for an in-house designer with a holistic brief? How does an organisation intent on embedding design go about recruiting designers? How is the effectiveness of staff designers paid for their holistic view to be measured? How does the design of services, structures and strategy respond to cost-benefit analysis? How is the language barrier between designers and other specialists to be overcome? How are creativity and innovation to be managed within large and often cautious or risk-averse organisations?

RSA Design & Society has organised a small, expert seminar to discuss all of this in a couple of weeks, conceived with the National Policing Improvement Agency as part of their bold investigation into the best strategic uses of design by organisations seeking improvement and innovation.

We’ve got Lynne Maher from the NHS Institute for Innovation and Improvement on the language issue; Tony Coultas of Skills Development Scotland and Ben Reason of live/work doing point-and-counterpoint on the virtues of in-house teams and external consultancy; Lucy Kimbell from the Said Business School at Oxford drawing analogies with artists-in-residence; and Simon Roberts of Intel and the Ideas Bazaar on embedded anthropology and social science.

Look out for the transcript of what looks to be a fascinating conversation, dowloadable from the Design & Society pages of the RSA website at the end of May.

Hairshirty: a lovely conceit for the penitential season

“How did it get so hairshirty?” asked my friend Sorrel last week, reflecting on the evolution of design since she took leave of it to run Frieze Projects in 2007.  How indeed? I proffered a combination of yearning for austerity brought about by credit crisis and glutted consumption, and fear of the earth burning up.

The thinktank on “emergent design” organised in Cornwall by Dott and UC Falmouth had its hairshirtiness, although the accomodation was deluxe. It began with an elegant discourse by Nabeel Hamdi on how design and architecture are to address a bigger strategic agenda than is conventionally encompassed by “practice”. He used an intriguing phrase, “the intelligence of informality”,  to describe the structures that naturally emerge in places to permit human processes, and a lovely quote: “I know what a house is, but what does it do?” It all helped to give a (briefly) palpable sense of what might  be meant by “emergent design”, the preoccupation of our confident and upbeat host, Dr Andrea Siodmok.

It strikes me there's an opportunity for design to draw from craft

I and about 30 others examined our consciences aloud about design education, research and practice in a 2-3 minute “soapbox” session.  Clive Grinyer of Cisco claimed that “design is not well-designed for it’s great new scope” and that we have a “looming crisis” in which we must “pull it into shape”. Ezio Manzini’s later observation that design is a “weak discipline” because its tools are ill-defined, echoed the irony Clive had nailed. Assuredly identifying a clear separation between “design-thining” (potentially practised by everyone) and “design-knoweldge” (which is practised by trained professionals), Manzini said this benign fissure appeared when creative responsibility began to be difused to a wider group than designers and architects.  The problem, he declared, is that “design knowledge” needs to be more like a toolkit, and furthermore that the purpose of design research is to create this toolkit.

Manzini’s most frequenly quoted pearl of the day, dispensed in a discussion of design education, was that “there can be no interdisciplinarity without disciplines”. Having looked at a few hundred RSA student design award entries, mostly undergraduate, over the years as a jury member and programme insider, I felt great sympathy with this remark: it’s usually quite difficult to tell what the student’s discipline is, and sometimes it would help if the discipline – the tool in use, the “design knowledge” –  were more salient. But we ask them to do difficult things in which the pure display of design tools – encoureged by the old pedagogical categories of ceramics, graphics, fashion & textiles, and so on  - would go unrewarded. For the sake of argument and as Chair of the academic session, Jeremy Myerson offered the simple solution that undergraduates learn skills or tools, and post graduates apply them in a discursive and interdisciplinary fashion. Simple enough until you consider what the world has started to ask of designers.

A propos, Mat Hunter wittily described how the kind of “next generation toaster” challenge on which he cut his teeth in the 1980s has morphed into the “next generation experience, service, whatever…” as design-thinking became “everyone’s new best friend”. Generally I had been astonished at the confidence with which certain people in the think-tank weilded the phrase “design-thinking”, and his scepticism was comforting. His explanation of how “the act of selling design alters it” was especially thoughtful and well-expressed, and I agree that the much-vaunted “processes” and diagrams describing creative generation over-promise results. In his words, they “corrupt our understanding”, being simplistic. Among the five things Hunter confessed to worrying about were the role of craft and, again, “what’s in the new toolkit”.

It strikes me there’s an opportunity for design to draw from craft in these diffusive times in order to reclaim some definition. But I’m not just talking about designers re-asserting their craft credentials; I’m talking about moving from the inclusive, blurry, co-design notion to introducing more outsiders to the insider’s “design knowledge”. Less design-thinking, more actual design-craft. I think this is vastly difficult, but John Sorrell told me yesterday it’s amazing how quickly children get it when you engage them in a conversation about design.

As we went at it with 80-odd Cornwall designers in parallel sessions on service design, user-centred design and collaborative design, I found it hard to forget the opening words of UC Falmouth’s Deputy Rector, Geoff Smith, a musician and therefore an outsider, earlier in the day: “I admire the way you designers see design as a frame and methodology for every imaginable question. It’s a lovely conceit”.

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