We are all made of stars… and so is our stuff

February 14, 2013 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Design and Society 

Moby famously sang that we are all made of stars. And yesterday evening at the Institution of Engineering and Technology (IET), Professor John Wormersley, Chief Executive of the Science and Technology Facilities Council, echoed Moby’s mantra (okay, maybe that’s a bit of stretch). Professor Wormersley spoke about how the search for black holes and the higgs boson impacts society and the economy.

Professor Wormersley’s talk was engrossing for a number of reasons, not the least of which was the fact that he emphasised the link between ‘big science’ (think of the discovery of the Higgs boson at CERN last year) and the implications for our daily lives, society and the economy.

While for many people (me included), our knowledge of theoretical physics may come mostly from reruns of The Big Bang Theory on E4, Professor Wormersley noted that we rely on the numerous outcomes and chain reaction results from ‘big science’ in our daily lives: the internet (originally Tim Berners-Lee’s method for information management for scientists at CERN), wifi (which was enabled through Hawking radiation), and MRI scanning (which comes from knowledge of superconductors). In short, we need theoretical physics to help develop and improve our economy, our health, and the environment.

Yet ‘big science’ is often viewed as a risk because it is in an investment in the unknown, the unexpected and can often fail. But, as Professor Wormersley pointed out, we must be willing to take that risk.

So, Professor Wormersley’s thesis got me thinking about design. Just as Wormersley emphasised the need for and the link between theoretical and applied science, I think we need both theoretical and applied design.

But how can we teach and understand and then reap the benefits of theoretical design?

We can interrogate the design brief. Instead of just applying our knowledge of design and the design process (observing, analysing, prototyping, etc. ), we should use design to question our motives and why things are the way they are, without necessarily expecting a certain outcome.

This is where projects like The Great Recovery come in. The RSA’s Great Recovery project is about how we can promote and foster a circular economy and for now, we’re focusing on making connections between science, design, manufacturing and policy. But, we don’t necessarily know what the end result will be – though there actually is some ‘small, medium and big science’ going on in our workshops related to the project) as we don’t know necessarily what the end result will be.

You might even call it ‘big design.’

 

Design Champions Needed

Aside from the student march in central London yesterday protesting a proposed rise in student fees, many conversations around the implications of the CSR and the imminent and immediate budget cuts have significantly died down. On the design front, there was a flurry of discussion around the demise of Cabe announced as part of the budget cuts, but there has been much less talk about the possible end of another, much smaller design champion, Design for London.

Operating under the London Development Agency (which itself is under threat) Design for London, has adopted a more proactive approach to championing good design, driving forward the Mayor’s policies and objectives and working with the London boroughs to deliver high quality plans, most notably the Thames Gateway and a number of public realm initiatives. Their contributions to new design schemes in Barking, Brixton and Dalston town centres are of particular note. Design for London represents a model for the future of locally-led, collaborative planning and urban design that will result in better places ands spaces for all citizens.

What we desperately need are organisations, communities and individuals that will promote good design through the delivery of practical, locally-led, high quality schemes

RIBA has similarly warned that in the face of organisations like Cabe and Design for London being axed, the Coalition government must work even harder to promote local empowerment in individuals and communities (through the Big Society agenda) but it must also foster support for local authorities to understand and make informed design decisions. What we desperately need are organisations, communities and individuals that will promote good design through the delivery of practical, locally-led, high quality schemes.

In light of this need for design champions, we return to the RSA’s central mission to foster good citizenship by closing the gap between our current behaviour and our aspirations for the future. The RSA Design team argues that design is fundamental to closing the gap between behaviour and aspiration. The process of design demands creative problem-solving and improvisation in the face of the unexpected. Designers observe, analyse and seize opportunities and this course of action (observation, analysis and opportunity) is particularly relevant as all citizens will need to take greater leadership and ownership in their communities, including the built environment that surrounds all of us.

Though not a design consultancy or a design advisory body, the RSA is a design champion of a different sort. We are the only UK organisation that considers design within a broad, multi-disciplinary understanding of society, enterprise, individual human capacity and collective action. We are particularly interested in how design can increase the resourcefulness and self-reliance of people and communities. We promote design through hands-on projects, such as our forthcoming Resourceful Architect project, our Design & Rehabilitation work and our recent 3-day residential Design & Creativity Workshop (which Emily Campbell, Director of Design recently wrote about here).

It remains to be seen who will take on the leadership role of championing good design in the environment and in our communities in the absence of organisations like Cabe and Design for London, but I can only hope that more resourceful citizens will emerge, taking a vested interest in the power of design to improve communities from within.

Making sense

October 14, 2010 by · 2 Comments
Filed under: Design and Society, Education Matters 

Catching up with a summer issue of the New York Review of Books, I was enthralled by Michael Pollan’s article ‘The Food Movement, Rising’ about the new food movement(s) and the intersection with business, government and society.  The article is worth reading in itself, but it was one particular quote, from Janet Flammang’s new book, The Taste for Civilization: Food, Politics, and Civil Society, that struck me most:

“Food is apprehended through the sense of touch, smell and taste, which rank lower on the hierarchy of sense than sight and hearing, which are typically thought to give rise to knowledge.”

Flammang’s book is, of course, about much more than how we experience food, but I am intrigued by the sensory notion she touches on. Of course, Aristotle’s classical hierarchy of the senses is widely accepted (in order: sight, hearing, smell, taste and touch) but the idea that really only two of our ‘big five’ and our estimated total 9-21 senses are considered on the path to knowledge and reason is peculiar. With so many senses at our disposal, we have historically relied on only sight and hearing to advance our minds.

Based on Fleming’s VARK Model, much of education divides pupils into visual learners or audible learners, based on an increased ability to understand through sight or hearing, respectively. Fleming’s Model also highlights two other types of learning styles: reading/writing-preference learners and kinesthetic (tactile) learners, where the latter relies on touching, moving and doing activities. I am intrigued, however, that despite widely accepted models of various learning styles, the number of senses involved in traditional education is limited. There would seem to be huge untapped potential in thinking more holistically about involving all our senses, perhaps by first limiting some to heighten others and see what happens.

At present, there are very few fields of education, or indeed, jobs that rely more on senses other than sight and hearing. Training to become a chef or a sommelier are perhaps the most obvious, where taste and smell are paramount, followed by sight (I’ve not heard of any sommeliers listening to how a wine pours or sips, but you never know…). And there we return to Flammang’s argument – the sense of smell, touch and taste are generally perceived to be ‘of the body’ and the body tends to symbolise our animal tendencies. Sight and hearing are considered above bodily senses because they represent our ability as civilised beings to be ‘of the mind’.

What if our other senses haven’t played a bigger role in advancing our wisdom not because they really rank lower than sight and hearing, but because we haven’t placed as much emphasis and value on using them?

Those without sight and/or hearing have found countless of ways to understand and grasp concepts and the world around them. Braille relies on the sense of touch in lieu of sight and sign language relies on sight in lieu of hearing, but there must be more than just these… Surely we haven’t unearthed all ways of communicating and learning to date? What if a newly conceived version of Braille didn’t just allow the blind to read words and language, but it displayed entire concepts through sensory maps and diagrams?

So what if Aristotle was wrong? (Oh no, did I really just say that?) What if our other senses haven’t played a bigger role in advancing our wisdom not because they really rank lower than sight and hearing, but because we haven’t placed as much emphasis and value on using them? We know that sensory deprivation of one sense can lead to a heightened awareness and understanding through the other senses, so what would happen if we put more effort into using our sense of smell, taste, touch, time, balance, temperature, et al and learning through them?

It would seem that there is a huge opportunity here for an intersection between design, which already relies heavily on an increased understanding of all the senses, education, biology, psychology and a number of other fields. By just thinking about how we could design new ways of learning a range of subjects and concepts through senses other than just sight and hearing, we will open up a range of possibilities for greater human understanding and wisdom.

I personally have done some design work on translating visual concepts into tangible, tactile ones, but I want to go further. Can we learn philosophy through smell? Can we learn a language through touch? Can we learn mathematics through balance? Perhaps not, but I think there is something there… For example, it doesn’t seem so revolutionary to think that we might be able to learn geometry through touch, biology though temperature, or even geography through direction…

When Good Design Goes Bad

September 28, 2010 by · 1 Comment
Filed under: Design and Society 

Here within the RSA design team, we are known for our mantra: design and designers have a vital role to play in making citizens, and therefore society, more resourceful. We argue that a fundamental optimism with respect to progress, change and fulfilling needs is at the core of design. But just as the definition of design is becoming increasingly diffuse, so is the quality of design becoming increasingly varied. This prompts the question: what constitutes good design, how is it measured and what are its effects?

Designers today have a responsibility to not only promote the resourcefulness of design, but specifically good design.

Ben Toombs addressed the effects of good design in his recent post On Everyday Beauty, acknowledging the fundamental link between a sense of civic pride and well-designed, beautiful places and spaces. Toombs’ point is a good one and one that is widely perpetuated in urban design circles and as a way of highlighting the benefits of place-making. But, in her piece, You know more than you think you do: design as resourcefulness & self-reliance, Emily Campbell, the RSA Director of Design, notes that “Good design in itself is not a guarantee of good citizenship.” But what about bad design? Does bad design have a role in perpetuating or facilitating bad citizenship?

Design starts with a problem of what people want and/or need and finds a solution. Bad design takes many forms and in its worst, it can exacerbate a problem rather than solve it. Does this mean, then, that it can even be called design? I’ve been toiling over this idea for years and I wrote about extensively in Design Denied: The Ethics of Withholding Good Design, but I’d like to know what others think…

Bad design is increasingly abundant. In her piece, Campbell acknowledges that an increased prevalence of amateur design, especially provoked by electronic design tools, “breeds quantity more than quality; it adds to the complexity and abundance of our world, rather than producing clarity.” (Of course, amateur design does not necessarily equate to bad design, but it can and often does). So, are there principles of bad design (does bad design even have principles?) that we can learn from to help us inform good design? Is bad design a necessary part of the development of good design (as the ‘try, try again’ philosophy seems to imply)?

Designers today have a responsibility to not only promote the resourcefulness of design, but specifically good design. Campbell is on to something: the professional designer needs to not only increase access to design tools, but also to champion good design and raise the overall quality of design.

Any thoughts?

The Need for Design and Designing for Need

September 23, 2010 by · 6 Comments
Filed under: Arts and Society, Design and Society 

“Design isn’t radical enough.”

“Design is less innovative than business.”

“Designers don’t know how to make.”

What?! But jazzy, animated (literally, in some cases), colourful design is everywhere. Now with the London Design Festival in full swing, design, not just the stuff, but the very word itself, abounds. So, who says that design isn’t radical, innovative or curious? The speakers at yesterday’s debate at the RSA on ‘What should we be teaching professional designers today?’ that’s who.

Indeed, from an outsider’s perspective, design definitely does seem to be everywhere. Actually, from an insider’s perspective, too, but therein lies the problem. Designers have ‘won’ status for design, but with a changing and increasingly diffuse definition of design, much of design has lost the ability to identify and meet need. Thus, the debate asked three experts to tackle the questions: what are the skills that a designers needs today and how can we teach them?

Sam Hecht, an industrial designer and former teacher at the Royal College of Art, distilled the issue right down to its essence. By contrasting design for media (the Milan syndrome) and design for use, Hecht senses a disingenuous relationship between design education and the true need for and importance for design. Design students are enroling in advanced university design courses without ever having taken an object apart to see its parts and see how it fits together. Now, that might not sound too shocking to many of you, but this causes great concern for the professional design industry. Designers should know how to put things together (and you can’t know how things are put together without taking things apart). With a lack of understanding of design as a system of making and a system of use, design becomes utterly marginal. It is artists today, rather than designers are asking why things are the way they are…

Designers should know how to put things together (and you can’t know how things are put together without taking things apart)

Roberto Verganti, Professor of Innovation Management at the Politechnico di Milano, addressed the issue from his own experience of teaching design thinking to businesses. Verganti acknowledged that ‘design thinking’ has become a hot-topic in international MBA programmes and front-page news on business weeklies, but that as designers learn the language of business, design is becoming less and less innovative. Designers must return to their roots: identifying needs, pursuing radical visions and ultimately, delivering ingenious solutions. Hecht and Verganti agreed: designers are losing their language, being usurped by artists. He argued that designers need to be ‘radical’ again (citing Ettore Sottsass and the Memphis Group) and they need to resist the urge to be ‘culturally neutral’ if they are to continue to work with and influence not only business, but also design!

Ellie Runcie, Director of Design Support Programmes at the Design Council, introduced us to the power of design interventions from a policy perspective. Highlighting the Designing Demand and Public Services by Design initiatives, Runcie illustrated how design teaches people to think differently. Designing Demand supports businesses to become more innovative, competitive and profitable by giving managers a sort of ‘designer’s toolkit’ to spot opportunities, respond to a brief and work with clients. Public Services by Design builds capacity for managing innovation in the public sector and asks the crucial question: ‘How can design simplify public services around the needs of citizens?’ Runcie cited Lewisham Council’s successful engagement with the Public Services by Design programme to tackle the problem of homelessness (no small feat). By highlighting the strategic role of designers to think in a systems way (in this case, working with the public sector), Runcie summed up the quartet of essential skills for a designer:

  1. understanding people’s needs
  2. working visually and tangibly
  3. prototyping to manage risk
  4. working inclusively and collaboratively

So, there you have it: designers need to be radical, designers need to think in a systems way and designers need to rekindle their curiosity and the urge to make. Three different perspectives that provoke many more questions about design, its role and how its taught, but no matter whom you talk to or what you agree with, that old Eames adage still resounds: ‘Recognising the need is the primary condition for design.’ Oh, and it helps to take things apart once in a while.