Friday, 31 July 2009

Design and social change- entrepreneurship, economic paradigms and movements waiting to happen

Today I read an article a good friend, and old colleague of mine, Natalie emailed me from Communications Arts magazine, titled Design ignites change: Design as social educator.

I have to admit, I have not read much from graphic or communications design of late. When it comes to discussing socially responsible graphic design, and as the article points out, I often find graphic design sees it a bit too narrowly in terms of working for not-for-profit clients and/or using environmentally friendly materials. Both of which are really important, but social responsibility goes deeper than that. The Design ignites change piece has actually made me reconsider my view on the discipline that I started out in as a designer. Mark, who authored the piece and also runs Worldstudio, a marketing and design agency, proposes some really interesting viewpoints which got me thinking about the viability of pursing socially responsible design.

The article brings up so many issues. I wish I could discuss them all here, but blog posting is not really for essays, and I am only blogging this because Communications Arts doesn't actually provide a platform for readers to discuss the article and provide their perspectives. In short, here are some interesting things I drew from the article.

The designer as social entrepreneur
Mark says:

"We designers have the ability to contribute so much more. As the definition of designer expands we should add social entrepreneur to the list."

Like this because it provides nice evidence for my own analysis on Dott 07, but I wanted to profile it here because it prefaced a simple, yet elegant explanation for what designers are doing as social entrepreneurs:

"Those designers in the forefront are using their design-thinking skills to develop and execute their own solutions to social problems-pushing the boundaries of what design can do."

The author gives the example of Rural Studio, which Mike told me about last week. Rural Studio gets architecture students out of the university studio and into the real world of designing and making/implementing community housing and social projects. These projects are undertaken in some of the most deprived areas of the USA, and designers also grapple with the reality of those less fortune than themselves.

Image from Rural Studio website

Economic paradigms for design
The article also brings up channels for showcasing design work as exemplars of design that ignites social change, and I have to say that as I was reading, I was expecting to be a bit disappointed as I thought the article would launch into something about how we should promote the social work and good, designers do. While it is great to provide evidence of what designers can do, it also begins to turn the attention of non-design audiences toward sentiments such as, "gee, look how pretty that piece of communication is" and reverts design back to its widely held perception of just making things look pretty.

But, Mark spends the rest of his article addressing critical issues that often don't have as much to do with designing per say, but other challenges designers must contend with in order to work in socially responsible design. Now this is the interesting bit.

Mark says:

"How do we create space for designers to do this type of work at the professional level where concern about the bottom line is often the driving force. All too often the professional design community generates a flurry of activity around social issues in the form of a manifesto, a symposium or conference without much follow-through. The road is paved with good intentions, but in comparison to all of the discussion, there rarely seem to be enough tangible results."

This is a question my supervisor, Bob and I have been discussing since we attended the Changing the Change Conference (CtC) in Turin over a year ago. The conference addressed broad issues in design and sustainability, and mostly from a design research point of view, so there were many, many academics, and a few designers, presenting on the potential good, design could do for society and the environment. Bob and I felt one key thing was not being addressed with enough weight at CtC, and that is what Bob calls the "economic paradigm" of designers working in these areas. ie. How do designers make a living while doing this kind of work?

I have to say though, I did see one presentation by Work Worth Doing (WWD) on this issue. WWD founder, Alex, talked about one of their projects, Now House, a demonstration of a low energy home.

Image from Now House Project website

It was in fact a R&D type project funded by one of their clients to explore the possibilities of low energy homes. At the end of his presentation, Alex, spoke of the difficulty in doing this kind of work where at the end of the day, he has to run a business and make a living.

So the question, as discussed with Bob and asked by designers Alex and Mark, burns in my mind. And it's also been interesting to see that this question seems to only be be asked by designers, and not addressed by those studying design in an academic sense. Having come from a business background as well, I have been quite interested in the business models of design, and the viability of projects such Now House and those run by Dott 07. Dott 07 was special, like Now House, because it guaranteed flexibility for designers to explore uncharted territories without the risk of losing funding to do so. But these opportunities are rare and don't come around often, so how does a designer make a living out of doing such projects? Mark says that attitudes need to change:

"... in order to create a sustainable model that not only promotes this type of work, but also encourages it in the marketplace."

Though I think Mark refers to attitudes of designers, but what about clients and commissioners of design? Is it a designer's responsibility to change that too? How far can designers go in doing this? Wouldn't it be great if someone could look at economic models for design to function in this space? The first step, might be to look at the design companies whom I listed in my post Design and social the social sector, who run businesses doing great design work on social issues.

Movements as motion or change in position
The final thing I want to say about Mark's article is that he critiques the fact that "movements" can be well-intentioned but not actually go further than that. He asks of movements such as the Designers Accord (DA) "a global coalition of designers, educators, and corporate leaders, working together to create positive environmental and social impact":

"Will the Designers Accord be yet another well-meaning but ineffective movement in design history?"

Logo from Designers Accord

Wikipedia says a movement is, "a motion, a change in position." I guess depending on your view of what a movement is, it can be a motion ie. a move forward in which DA is when one looks at its widespread support. And/or a movement can be a change in position, which the raises the fundamental ideological question of does it mean to be a designer today?

I think the discipline is really grappling with this now. When design students enter uni with an intention that they are about to spend 3 or 4 years making beautiful objects, this contrasts starkly against the journey of some, who get a little disenchanted with this because in the journey of discovering design, we see that the potential for design is that there is so much more to design (than just pretty objects. Though I agree with the fact we still need designers for this too).

And when this happens, we find ourselves in this fog... asking what exactly are we doing? Do we even call it design? And then when it comes to finding a job, do we take the traditional road which gives us job security and finance OR do we find/create our own thing/business to explore design + make a living + do what we want to do OR do we set up a community with intentions of adding to this movement OR do we take time out to try and figure out what this all means for design, designers and our own identity....

("..." is purposely added to indicate that there are probably many other avenues others might have taken)

On a final, final note Worldstudio is a partner in setting up a programme called Design Ignites Change which "promotes and encourages talented high school and college students across the country to use design thinking and innovation to create messages for, and solutions to, pressing social problems."

Wednesday, 29 July 2009

Service Design Thinks 1

From Service Design Drinks to Service Design Thinks... join us on Thursday 3rd September at the Sense Loft.

Image from

Here are some details on the event.

Beyond ‘what is it?’ towards ‘how do you do it well?’ Service Design Thinks is a forum for conversation and discussion around service design practice.

Building on the success of the growing Service Design Drinks network, Service Design Thinks is run by service designers, for service designers.

Each event presents inspiring perspectives and reflections on service design practice, to spark conversation and debate and ultimately, move service design thinking and practice forward.

The focus is on practical, inspiring stories and observations from people who design services every day. Each speaker will talk for 10 minutes, with time for questions and debate, followed by plenty of time for what Service Design Drinks is best known for - drinking, and talking about service design!

For this first session we’ve kept it simple and pulled together four speakers to discuss the four broad elements of a service design process - research, design, evaluation and management:

Research: Jo Harrington

They’re called hard to reach for a reason: Notes and perspectives on researching ‘other’ user groups.

Jo is a designer and social researcher with a background in working with young people from disadvantaged backgrounds. He currently works for Engine Service Design and is a board member of a homeless charity in London.

Design: Joel Bailey

The explosive website: How digital damages service experience

Joel has nine years experience using digital technologies to transform services. As Service Design Leader and Head of Transformational Government at he was responsible for integrating services across 19 government departments, at the same time as making them more user centred. A glutton for punishment, Joel’s now trying to do the same for healthcare, working with in his role as Director of Service Design at the Team.

Evaluation: Alice Casey

How was it for you?: Techniques for evaluting the effectiveness of user engagement in public service design

Alice is currently a project manager for the Big Green Challenge at the NESTA Lab. Prior to this she worked at the charity Involve looking at how people are engaged in the decisions that affect their lives, and how better public involvement can improve society, policy making and public services. She is also an RSA Design Directions judge.

Management: Karl Humphreys, Momat

Managing as designing: Client side thoughts on the challenge of managing multi disciplinary service design projects.

Karl is a freelance service design and innovation consultant, specializing in creating end to end service experiences. Prior to starting his own practice, MoMat, he worked at BAA as a Service Innovation Manager, and before that at Orange and Nortel Networks designing mobile services and products.

Service Design Thinks is organised by Nick Marsh, Jaimes Nel and Lauren Tan and the talks and questions will be recorded and published at:

Many thanks to the Team for their support in providing generous refreshments sponsorship, and to Sense Worldwide for providing the remarkable Sense Loft as a venue.

Register you free seat on eventbrite and keep up-to-date with all Drinks and Thinks at the website.

The event is actually sold out. Please visit to sign up and leave us a message on the mailing list at the bottom of the page as we might have more tickets soon!

Saturday, 18 July 2009

New Designers, London

Each summer, New Designers, showcases design graduate work from a long list of design schools around the UK. I have actually never been to a New Designers show, but this year, I was asked by the Design Council if I could do a presentation that would give design graduates insight into what it's like working as a designer today.

A friend once said to me, at Uni we are taught just one way to use our design skills and creativity. The aim for my presentation was to show design grads other ways designers can, and have been, using their skills and creativity. I briefly profiled a dozen designers and their work, to show where design could go. The list extended from being social entrepreneurs to bringing design thinking to policy.

I think the presentation went down well. For design grads who have spent the last 3 to 4 years focused solely on product, graphics, fashion etc. it might seem a stretch to take their design skills and creativity into areas as unfamiliar as policy. But on Wednesday night's Awards Night, architect Amanda Levete, opened the night by saying:

‘There is a financial crisis, but there is not a creative crisis. It is an incredibly exciting moment, the moment to be bold, to think big and to think diagonally because hand in hand with creativity goes entrepreneurship...Your trump card is your creativity.’

After going through some inspiring work of designers, I talked about some skills to think about beyond design. Two days before the presentation, Ken Musgrave, Leader of Design Competencies at Dell, wrote on FastCompany's blog, Beyond Design, 10 Skills Designers Need to Succeed Now. In my bookmarks I also have marked, Design Observer's blog post on the Top Ten Things They Never Taught Me in Design School, and designer Rory Hamilton's website, Everything I Know, which Rory says is about getting years of design experience out of his head and into the world.

My presentation was the last of 4 presentations by the Design Council. The other presentations, delivered by Antonia and Tess, brought insights into graphic design and furniture design, and looked at aspects of setting up a design business.

After the presentations, I did a short tour of New Designers with my friend, and Class of 2009 design grad, Rachel. I first visited Northumbria University's Design For Industry stand. My friend Emma said it looked like an Apple store (nice).

We checked out the work of two award-winning Northumbria Uni grads (go UNN!). The first was New Designers Designer of the Year award winner, Nicola Morgan's amazing inter-locking garments.

And Robin Grasby's desk, which was awarded the 100% Design Award and looks like every designer's dream desk, kitted with a ruler running along the bottom, white board, drafting table and cutting mat (I was very tempted to ask where I could buy one myself).

I was also impressed by Goldsmith's exhibit, which didn't focus on design student work, rather on other important aspects of design, such as the design process (and it's vibrant creativity and messiness).

And also asking questions and engaging people in a conversation. One such, was this brilliant poster asking whether design should be political. Or not.

Looks pretty even to me... and looks like a good debate, if there were to be one. Here are some further comments.

They read:
  • Now more than ever! We must take responsibility
  • Design cannot be ignorant of the world it exists in
  • Design can change the world for the better = good politics
  • No... politics should be designed (good point RD, I know you wrote it!)
  • Yes, Gordon Brown is funny looking
  • Design anarchy
New Designers provided lots of inspiration and great vibes from design grads (even in this economic climate). When I got home from the show, I tweeted:

"Back from big day at New Designers. Best wishes to the class of 2009 design grads. The world needs your creativity!"

For other blogging on New Designers see:

Odd Things
Does a nice critique of presentation spaces at New Designers this year. Next year design grads should definitely check out the post and discussions.

Thursday, 9 July 2009

Leeds Festival of Design Activism: Postgraduate Research Colloquium. Thursday 2 July 2009

On a sunny Thursday in Leeds, seven PhD students, two facilitators, two potential PhDers and one interloper attended the one-day Postgraduate Research Colloquium to share, explore, develop and discuss PhD research. Here's what the website said:

The Postgraduate Research Colloquium is intended for PhD students working in the field of Design Activism. It will provide an opportunity to explore critical issues in their doctoral studies and receive extensive feedback on their work from facilitators and fellow students.

Katie Hill, who organized the event intended the colloquium to be a comfortable space where PhDers could spend time talking about their research with other PhD peers. The sessions were PhD-student led, rather than academic-led (the latter being a common model for conferences).

We began the day with a short exercise to think and reflect on life as a PhDer. The exercise was a reminder that we have lives outside of our PhD’s. We listed three great things and three challenges with doing a PhD and stuck our Post-it notes on the wall. An interesting observation was that things like time, freedom and focus were both great things and also challenges.

The day was split up into two sessions. In the sessions, we were given 10 minutes each to present and then had 30 mins for discussion time. Our facilitator Wendy had a neat idea to write on coloured Post-it notes a question, a suggestion and an issue, we saw for each person’s research. This was really helpful as sometimes we ran out of time to discuss everything and each of us could take away a handful of Post-it notes to reflect on.

The day wrapped up with a plenary. Guy Julier, Head of Research at Leeds Metropolitan University, and Clive Dilnot, from Parsons New School for Design in New York, joined our plenary to hear how the day went. Joyce and Wendy, the two facilitators gave a short wrap up on the day.

Joyce told us briefly about the broad scope of work being undertaken by the PhDers in her group. The research ranged from fashion social enterprises, to digital storytelling, to ecological literacy, to critical approaches to service design, to mapping worldviews of designers in relation to sustainable design strategies. This group’s reoccurring theme was about being honest and transparent about the research process.

Research methodology was a theme in both groups. I think most design PhDers have come to know enough people now to see that academic design research is digressing from traditional academic research practice. Every design PhDer I know has been actively exploring new research practices around how design is being investigated in an academic context. This has been a big theme of my own research. I have presented my research process numerous times now with the underlying argument that the subject matter of design requires a researcher to deal with it in a different and much less scientific-way in order to extract, understand and communicate the richness of design.

Joyce recently authored and presented a paper on a handful of design PhDs which use new and different practices of research to undertake academic investigations into design. Her paper was presented at the EKSIG 2009: Experiential Knowledge, Method & Methodology conference last year and was titled, Capturing tacit knowledge: documenting and understanding recent methodological innovation used in Design Doctorates in order to inform Postgraduate training provision. You can download the paper here.

Wendy, expanded on the other group's theme to say that in our group, we also spoke about transcending disciplinary boundaries. We had talked more about the challenges we found as doctoral research in design is still pretty much in its infancy.

Clive closed the session by stating that in just our small group of researchers, our research topics were so broad and varied. If PhD research is to expand the field of design into the twenty-first century, it will not be about taking the path we all know best. Instead it will be taking the lesser known path because the destination we seek for our research- into, for or through design, is something we are never going to be quite sure of during the process.

The PhD Colloquium was followed by the Design Activism Practitioner Conference. I'll publish an update of any reporting from Leeds Met here.

Wednesday, 8 July 2009

A Dott Cornwall update

Dott Cornwall now has a complete leadership team! Today, Design Week announced that Andrea Siodmok will be Programme Director working alongside Robert O'Dowd as Executive Producer (announced in Design Week last month, 17 June).

Shall be great to see Dott Cornwall move ahead as "Dott 2.0" as Andrea says in Design Week today.