Thursday, 1 April 2010

Dott Cornwall think tank 'Inspired'

Last week Dott Cornwall and University College Falmouth hosted 'Inspired' a think tank to look at design in our times and discuss emerging design practice.

Present were designers, leading design thinkers, researchers, students and academics. We convened at the Bedruthan Steps Hotel sectioned across the hillside overlooking Mawgan Porth Beach. The views were amazing. Here's a taster.

Day 1
On Day 1 we heard presentations from two leading design thinkers, Nabeel Hamdi, Emeritus Professor of Housing and Urban Development at Oxford Brookes University.

And Ezio Manzini, Professor of Design at the Politechnico di Milano.

Both shared a broader and more international context for "Dott-like" (as Ezio called it) design. Following their presentations was a soapbox session. Each delegate got 3 minutes (and yes, it was timed with an hourglass) to say something about design that was on their mind. As you can see from the picture below, John Thackara was up first.

After a well-earned lunch we split into two groups to discuss either design practice or design education and research. I joined the latter and have to say it was a very interesting session. That's a brief overview of what happened on Day 1. Below are some soundbites I gathered from the various sessions.

The opening keynotes
  • Dott recognises that it is top-down and bottom-up. It is top-down in responding to EU policy and bottom-up in responding to the local people and their issues;
  • Nabeel began his presentation by saying that many students come to him to ask, "we like design but how do we make ourselves relevant?" Great question and certainly a very important one for design in our changing world today;

  • Nabeel had a lovely sentiment to express how design could be more strategic. He said rather then just design a house, designers should think about what a house can do;
  • I also liked Nabeel's comment that design (and designers) "disturb" situations. The slightly pessimistic notion of "disturb" reminds us that design and designers can disturb in positive and also negative ways;
  • On the plane from London to Cornwall, Ezio asked us from an English language perspective how we understood the word "territorial." He uses the word in the Italian sense, to frame the nature of Dott-like projects. "Territorial" in Italian recognises the complexity of the physical, cultural, social etc. coming together. But in English we tend to think of "territorial" as being possessive and it generally has quite negative connotations. The interpretations from different languages is really fascinating. I remember buying a notebook in Italy with 'disegno' printed on the front. In Italian this mean 'to draw" a core tool for a designer. Since purchasing the notebook I often wonder what key insights language can reveal to help us uncover more about design (of course language is well discussed in design literature such as in Boland and Collopy's book, Managing as Designing);
  • Ezio talked about Dott was as a "framework". That is Dott as a vision, as a way to connect people and host projects. Ezio showed some "Dott-like" projects from his network DESIS to frame an international context to Dott.
The soapbox session
Here are some themes I picked up:
  • Design education needs to change: Especially as practices of design change. But it is education ready to? It needs to be more inter-disciplinary, but how do we 'walk the talk' in these unmovable institutions? In education let's also consider children today who are going through an education system deficient of creativity (Ken Robinson's TED talk argued for more creativity in education. Check it out here);
  • What's missing from design practice at the moment? Mary Cook of Uscreates brought up ethics. How designers go about engaging with the public and dealing with situations appropriately? Let's also be more aware of the costs of designing, and the sustainability of projects. The financial, resource and time costs are high if a project ends and does not continue;
  • Let’s not lose the link of design to economy: This tends to get lost when we look at design for social issues. It is challenging to build sustainable design businesses to do work only in this area (though I know many who have done so) and also challenging to measure and evaluate design's return on investment (ROI). That is ROI in its classical sense that business and organisations understand;
  • Design’s contributions to social issues: include that of being able to engage people in issues and in policy. Furthermore, designers can bring better usability, sustainability and desirability to public services. Designers can integrate these aspects into the sector's concern for cost, scale and time;
  • What are the roles of others that participate in design projects: such as the clients and project stakeholders? We take them on a journey which can often be challenging because it can be a different approach to what they are used to.
The academic and research breakout session
I feel like I need to write a bit more than soundbites for this one. It was a great session and many valuable things emerged for design education. Ezio early in the discussions said that to be interdisciplinary we need discipline and design is a weak discipline. Jeremy Myerson added that when design polytechnics gained university status they let go of practice but then forgot the theory.

We spoke about how we needed to understand the core of design. Ezio framed it well by saying that design thinking is broad and we agreed that it can be done by many others who aren’t trained as designers. But there is also design knowledge which is the core of the discipline ie. the USP of the designer, the toolkit the designer brings to the table etc.

Lucy Kimbell mentioned that other discipline don’t recognise a design paradigm. This made me think back to the design + businesses debates where designers lamented that they often didn't have a seat at the management table (See 'Are design schools the new B-schools?' at InterSections 07). That comment really frustrates me because we identify with the fact that we are a weak discipline with no recognizable paradigm for how we can be relevant to other disciplines. We also makes little attempt to learn the language of the other disciplines, and this not only divides us from within, but means we have difficulty talking to other disciplines. The challenge of language is not specific to design. Long ago playwright George Bernard Shaw claimed, "England and America are two countries divided by a common language."

When we understand the core of the discipline, designers might be better placed to respond to what Nabeel called “thematic organization” of the world’s "wicked problems" (Rittel and Webber, 1973). Wicked problems require an interdisciplinary approach, and interdisciplinary contributions due to their complexities. Nabeel described thematic organization as a way of framing problems around issues that become everyone’s problem. One could say that Dott 07 was thematically organised in emphasising five issues of health, energy, education, food and mobility. We have all been touched by these issues in some way, so they are our problem. Ivo of thinkpublic once said to me that by "allowing people to identify the problems [they] become part of the solution."

To sum up the point Nabeel and Ezio were making was that if we knew the core of design better, we'd be more likely to step up to bigger challenges as we'd understand what a designer's role could be ie. what a designer could bring the table.

The last part of the session, Jeremy asked what would our research agenda should look like. Some of the delegates mentioned that designers don’t do enough reflective practice or critical thinking. The divide between academia and industry also came up. I shared my experiences of doing this PhD to say that the role of academia and research could be to collaborate with designers to do more of what we all are not doing. A dynamic relationship between academia and practice, on a very practical level, could become a mutual learning experience and contribute to the discipline.

Day 2
On day 2 the delegate group was far bigger and Geoff Smith of UCF remarked that Dott Cornwall was “internationally distinctive and locally relevant.” It linked very much to Ezio’s presentation which showed us “Dott-like” projects happening around the world.

The highlight for me on Day 2 was a presentation by Mat Hunter, Chief Design Officer at the Design Council. Mat spoke about the narrative of emerging practice where the design ethos had moved from designer-centred to user-centred design to co-design to co-production. In short designers went from designing the next generation toaster or poster, but now designing the "next generation healthcare service journey system". The middle part of Mat’s presentation was framed by the notion that “the act of selling design alters it.” And he touched upon a key issue in my own PhD research which was about the articulation of design activity as process model. It’s great to simplify design activity for communication purposes with a client, it but it risks “corrupting” our understanding of design. A lot of what is done in designing Mat says, "is inexplicable" so we need to “watch how we talk about design.” Other interesting points Mat brought up were, where was the craft in all this? And we need designers to lead with a point of view, not just a portfolio and process.

After lunch, three parallel breakout sessions occurred. These were led by two designers and were around service design; community-inspired design; and collaborative design. I attended community-inspired design led by Mary Rose Cook co-founder of Uscreates and Justin Marshall a researcher at UCF. Mary spoke about design-led methods/tools for engaging people on two levels. First was the need to get them into the room (or sometimes go to them). And the second was the need to have people talk to us.

In the final part of the session, Justin spoke about an academic-led project called Bespoke. It aims to increase social inclusion through community journalism in an area called Preston. The project is still underway but many, many issues are arising ranging from ethics, to behaviour change, to policy, to the naming of the project etc.

Reflecting on my time at the think tank, I think it was very much about gathering floating sentiments and commentary as to what appears to be happening in design today. I spoke to a designer shortly after the think tank and he told me he thought design practice had already changed. I know many others believe that design is constantly changing (eg. John Heskett, 2003). But where pushing the boundaries of practice is concerned we'll not always be sure of what comes next. And that's what's absolutely fascinating about having the opportunity to look at Dott and the design community as it applies design in new and different situations. I thought Emily Thomas of Aequitas Consulting summed up quite nicely how we should recognise design in the future where she said, “some of it is a little about the faith, because it’s about the future.”