Deconstruction #1: Sophie’s Toothbrush

October 30, 2012 by · 4 Comments
Filed under: Design and Society 

When Sophie needed a new toothbrush, she was overwhelmed by the ridiculous choice of products available that all (give or take the odd tongue scrubber) do exactly the same thing. There are an awful lot of toothbrushes being made, and even more being thrown away. The NHS recommends that you “replace your brush or brush attachment every three months”. If we had all stuck to this advice in 2011, we would have thrown away 224.4 million toothbrushes in England and Wales alone.

So what happens to these toothbrushes when we throw them away? From the look of the one that Sophie found washed up on a beach, not a huge amount happens to them at all. Despite having been battered by the tides, this toothbrush looked in pretty good nick. So when these toothbrushes are sitting in landfill, they are doing just that. Sitting there. Wasted. All 224.4 million of them.

Then Sophie found a toothbrush that really puzzled her: A disposable electric toothbrush. The packaging clearly states to replace it after 3 months. It also carries the WEEE symbol, meaning that the consumer is responsible for ensuring the product is correctly recycled. But how? Sophie had no idea how to go about this. She couldn’t put it in with her regular recycling, and she didn’t want to just put it in the bin. So she took it apart!

Inside the toothbrush, along with a battery she found a motor, just like the ones that we have in our mobile phones to make them vibrate. The funny thing is, the motor wasn’t attached to the bristles. All this toothbrush does is make our hand vibrate.

She decided to send it to her friend Hywel at Sheffield Hallam University who took a closer look.

He found the plastic made up 85% of the weight of the tootbrush, and the motor alone was 10% of the total weight. Within this tiny 10% he has so far found the following ‘ingredients’:


This vast list is before we even get to the polymers used. These will contain fillers that he hasn’t yet measured, but titanium is likely to appear here.

The Royal Society of Chemists place Carbon and Tin as having a medium supply risk, and Tungsten and Neodymium as high. This means that if consumers don’t know how to recycle these small electrical items  they fall through the gaps and these precious elements are locked in landfill, increasing the pressure on supply

The way to break this cycle is through systems thinking where everyone plays a role through the life cycle of the product,  including the designer. Product designers could work with the design commissioner to make it easier to take the toothbrush apart (without the need for a saw!), packaging designers could work with supply chains to make recycling directions clearer, and government, brands and consumers could reassess the need for a disposable electric toothbrush in the first place,

Join us in our investigation into closed loop design. Why don’t you take something apart and see what you discover? (making sure you take the necessary safety precautions of course!) To contribute to our deconstruction series, contact or come along to one of our Great Recovery e-waste workshops, taking place throughout November.

This post was originally published on the Great Recovery blog.


New paid intern opportunities at the RSA

September 4, 2012 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Design and Society, Education Matters 

Two new intern opportunities have arisen within the RSA Projects team. Each of these is paid at the London Living Wage and will last for 12 weeks:

RSA Design Intern – assisting the Design team  in developing and curating content, running events and communicating work through a variety of social media. The intern will be tasked with supporting the team on two projects in particular – the Student Design Awards and the Great Recovery project. We are looking for someone who is enthusiastic about sustainable design, the circular economy and design for social good. Click here to find out more about this position.

RSA Academies Intern – helping the Executive Director of RSA Academies to support the development of the growing RSA Family of Academies. The intern will be asked to take a lead on the creation a more systematic process for communicating with stakeholders, to assist the RSA as it seeks to create a new Academy in Redditch, and to organise various events for schools within the Family. We are looking for someone with a keen interest in education policy and a sound understanding of marketing and communications. Strong written communication skills are necessary. Click here to find out more about this position.

Regardless of the internship position, we always look for candidates who are passionate about pursuing social progress, who are willing to put forward new ideas and test our thinking, and who are driven to develop their own skills and knowledge in a chosen discipline. Wherever possible, we also seek to recruit people who understand the RSA’s overall ethos of 21st Century Enlightenment and who can prove that they would benefit strongly from our opportunities – experience is desriable but a good attitude and a desire to learn are often more important to us.

If you think you fit the criteria and are interested in either of the above opportunities, make sure to apply by 9am on Monday 17th September. The expected start date is Monday 1st October.

Jonathan Ive & the RSA’s Student Design Awards

May 25, 2012 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Design and Society 

By Melanie Andrews

Jonathan Ive RDI – the British designer responsible for Apple’s iMac, iPod, iPhone and iPad was knighted at Buckingham Palace this week. Listening to an interview with him on the Today programme Sir Jonathan said that he knew at the age of seven that “what I love to do is draw and make stuff”. The goal of Apple was not to make money, he said, but to design the best possible products. “There is beauty when something works and it works intuitively,” he said.

I couldn’t help but think of the RSA’s Student Design Awards as we are proud to have Jonathan among our talented alumni. The RSA has been aware of Jonathan’s special design talent since he was a student at Newcastle Polytechnic. We also had a hand in steering him to his future career in California. He won two Student Design Awards consecutively in 1988 for, rather tellingly, a telephone brief for both ‘household and office use’ and in 1989 for ‘the intelligent ATM’. In both these projects he displayed an interest in both the hardware and software design of each which has been the winning formula for Apple products. Winning an RSA internship at Pitney Bowes design studio in Connecticut and a travel award, Jonathan had the experience of working and travelling in the USA for the first time. “I immediately fell in love with San Francisco and desperately hope that I can return there sometime in the future – it far exceeded my expectations” he auspiciously noted in his RSA travel report.

Design has always been central to the work of the RSA. In 1924, as part of its advocacy of good design, the RSA established our student award scheme with the goal of linking education and industry in beneficial partnerships; in a contemporary form, this scheme continues today. I have had the privilege of working on the Student Design Awards for many years. The reason that it continues to thrive and remain relevant is that, during the course of its 88 year history, the scheme has been consistently reviewed, adapted and re-focused to respond to the prevailing demands and concerns of education, industry and society.

We continue to challenge emerging young designers to consider their future professional role and responsibilities more broadly in ways that can have meaningful effects on business, public services and wider societal concerns. The range of thought provoking and challenging student projects we set each year directly address the goals of the RSA while commenting on the changing role of the designer in relation to society, technology and culture.  Through this competition the RSA aims to enthuse and motivate young designers to explore the new ground design is now occupying and to provide ever more exciting opportunities to reward the most innovative and creative responses. Today marks the final day of judging this years shortlisted entries and we will be announcing our winners for 2012 in the coming weeks.

Watch this space!

How design is changing

May 24, 2012 by · 3 Comments
Filed under: Design and Society 

Last week I did a talk at TYPO Berlin, a long running and well respected design conference. It’s called TYPO, so many people think it’s a conference about typefaces, but in fact it has broadened out its definition of design somewhat in the last few years.

I’ve been at The RSA for a few months now, and before that I ran a design agency, Airside, for 14 years, so there have been a lot of changes in my life over the last while. Not only that, but I’ve felt the design industry morph around me hugely in the last 10 years or so, and I’ve experienced my own practice as a designer change too. So for the initial part of my talk at TYPO I decided to attempt to bring some clarity to the changing role of the designer.

I started my design career as a graphic designer 23 years ago, then when new technology became so exciting that I just couldn’t ignore it, I moved on to become an interaction designer. More recently as the director of a design agency, I not only broadened out the kind of design projects that I worked on – from websites to exhibitions, toys and animation, but also started becoming involved in the organisational change of some of our clients. It seemed like a natural step; in the process of trying to understand their business so that we could communicate their message to the target audience, or to create really great content for their website, we started seeing problems and blockages in the organisation itself. It seems that the designers brain is very good at understanding complex problems and redesigning systems, and more and more designers are moving in a direction which reflects this.

The different classifications of design

I came across the diagram above defining the different stages of design, which seemed to me to be a good place to start. On the left, you have style. What something looks like. The craft of aesthetics. Beautiful design makes the medial prefrontal cortex light up, just like sex. Sound, touch and even smell can be used by designers to get the hormones racing.

Moving right, you get to form and function – how exactly will the thing that you’re designing work, and will it work in the right way.  Then we have problem solving – a lateral, agile thinking process. And finally we get to framing, which is my favorite part – questioning everything right at the beginning. In my opinion designers don’t ask this enough.

At the beginning of my career, I only really understood design as style, but now I see that the real power comes when you broaden out the definition along this scale. And of course you need all four of these elements for truly great projects. I think there are a lot of people who still believe that design is only about style, but I’ve come to realise that with more complex projects, you really need all four of these bases covered. And these days I find myself gravitating towards the problem solving and framing end.

I’m definitely not saying that style isn’t crucial – if you do some serious work up the framing and problem solving end and it isn’t beautifully realised, then you won’t have the impact you need.

Traditional design is changing

I came across some more diagrams, from the NextDesign Leadership Network. When I saw them, I realised that they had articulated the change I had been experiencing very well.

This first diagram shows that the way a designer works has been changing. From work alone, or in a single discipline, to cross-discipline team work.

Complexity of design work

And what we face is changing – problems are becoming more complex which is why we need multidisciplinary teams to face them. And we need to have a top level understanding of as many of those disciplines as possible.

Also, the time cycle of design is changing – we are moving from projects that had a beginning and an end to an iterative ongoing process.

This is the journey that I’ve taken so far in my career and I believe much of the design profession is taking a similar journey. For instance, the newer design disciplines such as service design are far more cross discipline, complex and iterative than more traditional kinds of design. It’s a really exciting time to be a designer – all over the world we are seeing social innovation companies spring up that are a perfect marriage of business, technology and design. Design is becoming embedded in areas that would have seemed impossible 20 years ago and we now have an opportunity to make a real difference.

I’m really enjoying my new role at The RSA – watch this space for news of projects that we’re developing – they will of course be iterative, complex projects that require cross discipline collaboration, and begin at the framing and problem solving end, but are delivered with style!



Ingenious Networks

April 5, 2012 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Design and Society 

Last year we published a pamphlet called How to be Ingenious, which explored the effect of very resource-constrained environments on innovation – how such situations can sometimes cause innovation to thrive but at other times throttle it. We drew on examples of bricolage, technology races between countries, the Indian concept of jugaad, and interviews with people we thought exemplified the ability to devise ingenious solutions in different domains: an expert in theatrical improvisation, a software engineer and a survival instructor.

Given the state of our global economy (and ecology), the topic of resource-constrained – or ‘frugal’ innovation – is enjoying focus in public and private sector. The Innovation Unit’s blog pointed me to David Cameron’s tribute to the ‘Delhi drive’ to succeed: “When you step off the plane in Delhi or Shanghai or Lagos, you can feel the energy, the hunger, the drive to succeed. We need that here”. The Economist proclaim that frugal innovation will ‘change the world’. The subject has attracted recent business books (Jugaad Innovation) and one fascinating magazine (Makeshift).

Examples of ingenuity in the public sector exist, but how could they be better supported? Matthew recently blogged about the importance of clusters and networks to innovation, which are arguably even more critical to successful innovation in resource-constrained environments. Chatting with a colleague about the shift from top-down ‘best practice’ to more devolved practice and more ’micro-innovation’ to solve problems, we wondered whether an online platform could collect and showcase examples of ingenious or frugal solutions to common problems: perhaps a kind of Instructables for the public sector?

Pushing at an Open Door

January 26, 2012 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Design and Society 

On Tuesday the Lords discussed on the recently published Restarting Britain: Design Education and Growth from the Design Commission. The transcript of the debate provides interesting reading – partly for the way in which the Lords interpret the word ‘design’, drawing on their personal stories: working as trend spotters in the fashion industry, establishing technical colleges to teach hand skills, or simply owning a Lachasse suit. Below are a few snippets.

The Lords raised the design community’s old grievance that their skills are often misunderstood:

“…many people regard design as largely concerned with aesthetics or with products such as furniture or ceramics. As a result, they regard it as a marginal issue-something that is good and desirable but not essential.”

They affirmed that certain important capabilities are effectively learned through design training:

“Design teaches “a problem-solving approach; the capacity to work collaboratively; interdisciplinary capability; taking into account the participation of the end-user … and the habit, and satisfaction, of creating projects which work … [these qualities] are … hard to acquire from other subjects.”

Most frequently they noted – unsurprisingly given the report’s title – that design is critical to the UK’s economy:

“…our education system needs to be design-linked with technology for the future, for our economy and, most importantly, for jobs”

“One distinguished magazine editor told me that British designers are the creative engine of the French fashion industry. We seem to be able to produce design talent but it appears that we just do not know how to use, develop and nurture it.”

“…we have grown used to hearing it bruited about that the UK’s record of scientific invention and the great strength of its creative industries-product design, architecture, fashion, media, games software, entertainment and advertising-would equip us well enough for the future. However… the uncomfortable truth is that, with a few very honourable exceptions, we have not been good enough at carrying these capabilities through into consistently world-beating products and services.”

The eulogies for design continued, with the accusation implied that the Government was not taking Design-with-a-capital-D sufficiently seriously. Baroness Wilcox hit back on behalf of DBIS:

“While we welcome the commission’s contribution to this important subject, we must dispute the suggestion that the Government do not fully appreciate design as a lever for growth … We do not see it as “whimsical”, which I heard Sir Paul Smith say was the view of design that many people have when they should be looking at the beautiful design of an engine or water bottle. He actually said that design “isn’t all red hair and bare chests” when he was interviewed this morning about the relocation of the Design Museum.”

Leaving the red hair and bar chests aside, her response gave the impression that the Design Commission were pounding on an open door, but the contribution that struck me as most thoughtful was from Baroness Morris:

“I have never known anyone who was against design. There is no army of people out there making a case against it. Sometimes when that happens, because there is no core to the debate, you find that everyone thinks that it is a good thing but no one really fights for it to be as good as it could be.”

She advocated that rather than top-down directives on design education, more demand creation (as exemplified by the Design Council’s Designing Demand programme, I suppose) could be a better route:

“…it is all too easy to say that if we made [design] compulsory for every child in every year of schooling the problems would be solved, but I am not sure that that is the case. The more difficult task is to win the case and make it so good that schools want to teach it and children want to learn it. Sometimes, giving something the hook of compulsion actually makes you take your foot off the accelerator in making it a very good subject.”

Which to me at least, seems like a more designerly approach.

The Virtual Day in Court

December 8, 2011 by · 1 Comment
Filed under: Design and Society 

What’s the missing word?

“Good ██████ keeps the user happy, the manufacturer in the black and the aesthete unoffended.” Raymond Loewy

“People think that ██████ is styling. ██████ is not style. It’s not about giving shape to the shell and not giving a damn about the guts. Good ██████ is a renaissance attitude that combines technology, cognitive science, human need, and beauty to produce something that the world didn’t know it was missing.” Paola Antonelli

██████ is not the narrow application of formal skills, it is a way of thinking.” Chris Pullman

It is of course – Design. It’s a common complaint (at least from designers) that design is misunderstood as a fundamentally superficial activity, but over the last five years the message is getting through. Design is now being championed in previously unlikely places – particularly on issues of public service reform. As Lord Bichard, previously Permanent Secretary at the Department for Education and Employment said:

“Many people think of design in terms of packaging and product design. They don’t realise design tools can go far beyond that, and can cause you to ask serious questions about business vision and service vision. Design is very much addressing the relationship with clients, customers and citizens and is relevant to the public sector, not least around services.”

However there are still fields where good design is unheard and unthought of, though the approach could play a valuable role. In one example, courtrooms across the country are planning enormous change, as the Ministry of Justice makes changes to balance its budget. As the BBC reported last week, one of the primary ideas they are testing is to increase the use of videoconferencing technology in court, allowing witnesses and defendants to give evidence remotely, potentially saving time and money.

Today we publish a report that looks at this exact issue: how could better design improve the productivity and experience of appearing in court? Drawing on an expert seminar hosted earlier this year by the RSA and Cisco during which we heard from academic researchers, legal professionals and designers, we explore how design could improve the development of such ‘Virtual Courts’, which have proved controversial for a number of reasons – some fearing that the technology could undermine the gravitas of courtroom events, or even bring threats to justice.

Our report argues that the planned extensions of the virtual courts pilots should put ‘design thinking’ at their centre to resolve these potential issues, for example by: 

  • Involving all court users (magistrates, defendants, interpreters, solicitors and more) to generate ideas to improve stakeholders’ experience of new technologies in court
  • Rapidly testing ideas with court users, prior to pilots, to reduce the risk of failure further down the line – as well as suggesting more ideas to improve other parts of the system
  • Embedding design thinking into the organisational culture of agencies in the criminal justice system to encourage on-going innovation

The full report is available for download or reading online in the Design section of the RSA’s website.

You Know More Than You Think You Do

November 10, 2011 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Social Brain 

RSA’s Director of Design Emily Campbell just celebrated three years of working here, and future plans, with plentiful bubbly and some highly inclusive gluten free chocolate cake.

Before joining the RSA I had no idea what ‘Design’ meant. I thought it was something vaguely connected to arcitchture and buildings, and had no particular need, or so I thought, to think otherwise. Now I hope I am confused on a much higher level. Largely because of the influence of Emily and colleagues, I see that Design is a way of thinking, of inventively reimagining the world. In fact now when I think about behavioural challenges, I find that cognitive frailties and behavioural foibles often look like Design problems in disguise.

The core emphasis of RSA Design is that everybody can become equipped to think like a designer. In this sense design is not about aesthetics, but about logic. Design is viewed here as a form of resourcefulness. Hence the expression ‘You know more than you think you do.’ Any thinking person, and even those who don’t think much, can be given some experience of the perceptual and creative tools of a designer. The RSA believes that by taking on the mantle of a design perspective, you can unlock your own capacities to fashion systems and solve problems.

I should also confess that until recently Buckminster Fuller was a name I only dimly recognised, but after reading the following quotation(of which there are many) in the New Yorker I was keen to find out more about his work. 

‘But Fuller was also deeply pessimistic about people’s capacity for change, which was why, he said, he had become an inventor in the first place.

“I made up my mind . . . that I would never try to reform man—that’s much too difficult,” he told an interviewer for this magazine in 1966. “What I would do was to try to modify the environment in such a way as to get man moving in preferred directions.”’

This is sagacious insight, and gave me pause. But of course choosing between people and the environment is a false dichotomy. What matters is to undersand deeply how the two are connected, and work with that understanding to change the world. We know more than we think we do, and should face our challenges with that understanding.


Hats off for Whitley Academy!

November 9, 2011 by · 1 Comment
Filed under: Education Matters 

Britain’s biggest name in hat design, Milliner Stephen Jones RDI, spent a second day a Whitley Academy last Thursday, delivering an inspirational talk and workshop to a group of sixth form art & design students. Stephen – who has designed hats for the likes of Princess Diana, Beyonce Knowles and Gwen Stefani – is one of the celebrated RSA ‘Royal Designers for Industry’ (RDI). He has been committing his time to working with the Whitley Academy students as part of the RDI ‘75 Days’ initiative, where RDIs collectively share 75 days of their expertise with the RSA.

The brief  Stephen Jones set for students was to design a hat that represented each student’s character and interests. This was an exercise in building self-confidence and self-esteem as well as developing design skills, and it was a huge success. A competitive edge has now been set as Stephen returns to Whitley Academy on 30th November to help them complete their work, and he will judge the finished designs at a catwalk event to be held in the school hall.

A brilliant example of how designers can contribute inspiration and quality to design education, and also of the enrichment that partnership in our RSA Family of Academies can offer.

The iPod of Thermostats

October 26, 2011 by · 2 Comments
Filed under: Design and Society 

It’s a hideous cliché for product companies to say that their product is “the iPod of…” breadmakers, shopping trolleys, remote controls or whatever they make (though just another indication of how Apple have raised the profile of good design). But one product launch that took place yesterday had more right to use this title than most. Tony Fadell was a senior executive of Apple’s iPod division until 2008, but has more recently started Nest, a product development company.

Nest’s first product is the iPod of (sorry) thermostats. It’s simple, intelligent (its main selling point is that it ‘learns’ from the way you live) and wouldn’t look out of place in a Foster + Partners home (if they made homes). It’s an interesting example because thermostats are exactly the kind of product that are traditionally heavy on features and light on desirability and ‘human interface’.

Developing the last point, cognitive scientist and designer Don Norman used thermostats in his Design of Everyday Things (one of the inspirations for Thaler & Sunstein’s Nudge) to illustrate how the human interface of a thermostat often fails to match a homeowner’s mental model of their central heating system. Norman writes that people often think of the thermostat as either a valve (in which turning the dial up increases the amount of heat flowing through the system) or a timer (in which turning the dial up makes the system respond more quickly). Both are wrong, and both illustrate a problem with how people understand thermostats (for more see this post from Rattle Research and this post in response by Dan Lockton).

Why does this matter? Well, while possessing products that are well-designed might fulfil some of our desires, it also has an impact on big social and environmental problems. ‘Space heating’ is the highest percentage (61%) of domestic energy consumption in the UK (domestic energy is itself 32% of the UK’s overall) and with sky-high energy prices, more falling into fuel poverty & climate change, it becomes more important than ever that we can clearly understand and manage the energy we use. The way that we interact with our home’s central heating system directly affects our energy consumption.

Nest seem to be motivated by trends like these. They reckon that thermostats control about 50% of a US household’s energy bill, and that a well-designed and properly programmed device will be an attractive proposition to consumers. We’ll wait and see I guess (there’s price premium of about $100 more than competitors), but it could be another example of great product design not only making consumers happier, but also helping to solving social problems. As Nest’s website says: “Technology should be about more than newest, loudest, prettiest. It should make a difference”.

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