Archive for the 'thinking' Category


Design won’t save the world single-handedly

Below is a letter that was published in May 7th’s Design Week in reaction to an Audi Foundation award article.

I was filled with both hope and despair after reading about the Audi Foundation’s latest venture into the trendy waters of social innovation and service design (Design Week, 16.4.09).

I was hopeful that this project might mean more designers channelling their fresh thinking into challenges that matter, rather than just looking to fill their portfolio with work for sexy brands. Any initiative that encourages responsible design can only be a good thing, can’t it?

However, the article frustrated me intensely as it delivered yet another message about how designers alone can change the world, further inflating old school egos and potentially misleading naive and malleable young minds too.

I share the belief that design can help make a difference, but when you take on challenges like new financial models, healthcare and crime, you have to respect the fact that a large number of talented individuals are already working on these challenges every day. Not only do they work in these industries, they specialise in fields other than design and already make change in these areas happen. They are scientists, civil servants, sociologists, doctors, engineers and politicians to name but a few. Positioning design as the solution to social problems is very dangerous and potentially extends our remit a little too far.

Maybe I’m wrong, and maybe designers will have the initiative to get out into the world and observe these people, engage with the experts, understand the barriers, see what’s been tried before, see why alternatives failed and listen intently. Collaboration has to be key. Then they can visualise the problem, and translate ideas into illustrations, potential products or services. That’s where design really helps – after all a problem well understood is one almost solved. Let’s hope that this is what happens.


Re-programming design education (sketch post)

Hey, this is but a start of a post off the back of a discussion this evening with some folks who want to setup some design debates throughout this year…

We all recognise the effects of good design: those products that work so well for us, those services that are so well considered, those buildings and spaces that just work. We also recognise the effects of bad design. The frustration. The anger. The lack of consideration for our needs.

We live in a very critical and competitive world, so many things broken that need fixing and so many areas where we could just do that bit better. The opportunities for good design are seemingly limitless. But who is grasping these opportunities? Who has the skills? Who will invest the hard graft to turn these opportunities into contexts for great experience or behavioral change? One would hope it would be designers, those funky creatures that love ideas and love bringing them to life. But do they really have the power or the ability to make game changing ideas into reality. I would argue that very few do, and that is our problem. Despite some great raw talent. Brilliant craft skills. Great creative ideas. There just isn’t enough of the other skills needed to make things happen. This, I believe, is the failure of design education.

Design education varies way too much across disciplines. Sometimes it involves too much rigour when companies can’t afford that level of navel-gazing, research and process (product design/architecture/engineering). Sometimes it has too little rigour, and designers gamble with the chances of coming up with a good idea (advertising).

Often, design education just doesn’t provide enough business context for design. Fundamentally, it doesn’t teach enough about the balance of ego vs. empathy. The designer’s desire and personal investment to put a bit of themselves in what they are crafting, their strive for perfection, and their passion for great ideas are essential for driving forward change to take people from where they are and have been, to where they could, should and ultimately will be. But, in order to make a solution fly, they need to balance this with greater empathy for the needs, desires and constraints of the citizen, employee, customer, client, business, colleague or organisation that they are ultimately designing for or with.

We need to re-program design education to create a better balance of ego and empathy in designers by: simulating real business contexts throughout, supplying the tools that designers need to cope with such contexts, and to force designers into the shoes of stakeholders within a project.

Simulate real business contexts throughout:

  • extend the crit, so it’s not just a design review but a simulation of the way a client might behave (changing their minds, commenting on the execution and giving their ‘better ideas’ of how to do it, asking for more iterations), not just a peer review of the work from a creative perspective
  • test ideas against ROI measures: get designers to explain how a solution’s benefits can be traced all the way back up to a company’s strategy and how it meets the bottom line
  • change deadlines, make extra demands, constrain the time and do not allow for exceptions

Supply the tools that designers need to cope with business contexts:

  • get designers used to covering their arses and learning to agree scope and direction up front before policing throughout
  • share stories and tricks about tapping into the psyche of a client, a business or a market
  • keep drilling it into them through real life practice
  • teach research and co-design techniques to get into the head of stakeholders and develop solutions collaboratively with them
  • teach how be a facilitator of a process, rather than always the content provider for the solution

Force designers into the shoes of stakeholders within a project

  • get them to research the user/consumer of the solution to understand their needs, desires, constraints, attitude and behaviours
  • get them to work through business cases: thinking about profit, revenue, costs
  • get them to observe the use of the solution they create and be prepared to iterate
  • get them to work in different roles (client, project manager, trainer, sales person, user) as part of a project

Possible design debate/writing themes

I have been getting involved with a few people eager to have some design debates this year. Part of the reason for this is that we feel that designers don’t debate enough. Partly due to their introspective nature I reckon, but what do you think?

Anyway, here are a few themes that I’d like to write/debate about in the coming months (NB, they are supposed to be contentious). Intention is to write here, on my company blog, in some press, but also do some debates at London Design Festival and the Battle of Ideas conference. Let me know which ones sound interesting to you:

  • Know your limitations –  why designers should scale back their ambitions for transformational change  and just stick to their relevant crafts and produce great solutions to the smaller problems in life
  • Ego vs empathy –  why the balance has to be sought, the move away from expertise in design to collaboration and user-centred techniques, originator vs facilitator.
  • Service design – emperor’s new clothes: why service design is no different from ucd (or good design even), why people are jumping on the band wagon (bad wagon!)
  • The move from product to service and servicable – hire or rent of appliances, fix yourself, get someone to fix, why we need to avoid replacement of our products
  • A world transformed by digital –  more power, self-organising, more participation, more flexibility create, less time, too much information – how digital thinking is coming into our analogue world
  • Function, form, fit – how the three fs must play together to create quality products and services 
  • Change through action not spoken ideas –  the power of the designer to provoke debate with artifacts and tangible representations of what could be, and why we need to get our ideas out there more in this way
  • Snoozability – why stressing usuability is so passé, it needs to be part of the mix so we can all move on and focus on informing the right solution in the first place
  • Brand Britain – A nation of naysayers: how the pessamistic default attitude limits our happiness, our progression and our well being in this nation
  • Should politics be in or outside design? – why designers should stick to their craft and not worry about issues and matters they can’t comprehend