Critiquing design in government decision-making

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Thanks to @MalmbergL for the snap!

This blog is an adaptation of a presentation delivered at ServDes 2016 at Aalborg University in Copenhagen, reporting on early findings from my PhD research. The full paper is available as part of the conference proceedings. Part I of this blog sets out some of the questions and concerns framing my research. Part II reports on findings from a pilot study where I am attempting to start to tackle these questions.

Design is being used more and more – and more strategically – within government. The design community (the bits that are aware of it at least) tend to regard this as something of a win. But with all the optimism I think we’re missing some criticality. If we assume that design turning its attention to social and public challenges is on the whole a good thing, the only sensible questions to ask are ‘how can we do it better?’ and ‘how can we do it more?’ If for a second we suspend any normative judgment about design – it allows us to ask a different set of questions. For my part, I’m aware that, although current ways of ‘doing’ government are admittedly far from perfect, policy and politics is difficult, messy, ambiguous stuff – and this is new territory to design. So if we are going to be actors in this world – how do we do this in a way that is not wide-eyed and naïve? But sensitive to the histories, knowledge and practices of democracy and politics.

Quote from a senior civil servant in the Cabinet Office, interviewed in May 2015

Quote from a senior civil servant in the Cabinet Office, interviewed in May 2015

Part I: asking questions of ourselves

First, how can we make sense of what we’re doing in democratic and political terms?

We tend to think of human-centred design as inherently democratising, in theory, but that comes from applying it in a particular (usually highly localised) context. There are far more mainstream ideas about how to enact democracy on a larger scale. However imperfect in reality, there is an agreed theory of democracy in which power and accountability flow in certain ways. By inserting design into the relationship between the machinery of government and the public, what are we changing about those flows of power?

  • Are we bypassing politics somehow – shouldn’t we be involving politicians in the conversation? Do we risk making promises to citizens that can’t be kept, if we don’t?
  • To what extent are ‘users’ empowered, or merely used? Are we mobilising user insight to deliver something that will benefit them, or to understand where we can take services away without causing too much of a fuss?
  • What’s more democratic anyway – holding an election, or doing some really thorough ethnographic studies?

And what happens when there are finite resources, and disagreement about their allocation is inevitable? Can we design our way out of everything, or is there a still an important role for opposition and conflict – for agonism?

Slide3Second, following on the heels of ‘behavioural insights’, ‘big data’ and other recent additions to the public administration toolbox, design techniques are opening up new strategies and options to government – beyond regulation and heavy-handed intervention – furthering the capabilities of a certain kind of ‘soft paternalism’. Knowing this, is it possible to work within the system and maintain some criticality?

  • Whose ends is design being exploited for?
  • What are we bringing into the reach of government? Why do we think they might be interested in making use of design?
  • Who is defining the target group as a group – what kind of politics are embedded in the concept of – for example – ‘troubled families’?
  • How are we conceptualising the public? As customers? Citizens? Users? Patients? People? And what difference does that make to the methods we deploy?
  • How far are we thinking about the ethical implications of our ideas, alongside their efficacy?

Difficult questions, but ones I think any practitioner (design or otherwise) in this space should hold in mind.

Part II: making sense of practices

Over the last year I’ve tried to start to understand what’s happening when design intervenes in the acts of policymaking, by interviewing lots of civil servants about their interactions with Policy Lab and design methods. (Policy Lab is a team in the heart of government, in the Cabinet Office, that is actively trying to innovate policymaking practices by working with departmental teams and introducing new practice from different fields, a great deal from design). Our conversations have ranged over multiple projects, however the majority were quite ‘social’, in as much as they were actively trying to change people’s conduct in different ways – so very rich territory for thinking about some of these questions.

Slide6What came out of those interviews was – as well as some opinions about design – a rich picture of current institutional norms, culture and practices.

A practice lens is useful here, partly because there aren’t clear distinctions between designers and non-designers in this kind of work. But also because I think in order to make a contribution we first have to understand – to see what’s precious in the accumulated wisdom about how to manage politics in reality, and what’s useful about designerly ways of proposing change.

The civil service in Westminster has some long-established ways of doing things, and these don’t come from nowhere. Whilst some of them may feel a bit archaic, many of them embody the very issues of accountability, flows of power, democracy, ethical action, etc that I have set out above. They come from a particular environment and set of conditions, which in turn derives from centuries of working how to peaceably run the country.

The dynamic and power balance between the machinery of government (the civil service) and the people behind the wheel (the political party in office) is not straightforward. Civil servants ‘serve’ two masters – their political bosses, and the public. There are all sorts of ways that the machinery of government can speed up or slow down change. This is often seen by politicians as simply being obstructive – but from the perspective of citizens it’s about ensuring some sense of continuity and stability across successive administrations.

There is a tendency to characterise policy as being about rationality and politics as about ideology – but in reality it’s all politics. It’s all about negotiation. And there are innumerable policymaking practices that embody the need to manage relationships when working between ministers/ Parliament and the civil service – and some people become very good at this. Rather than anything so clear as a set of rules, it’s more like a carefully choreographed scene constantly being played out – and those who are artful can make small innovations within the form. It’s this artform that design practices are engaging with.

Slide7So what happens when we introduce design practices? My interviews gave me some insight into where the points of friction are – which also highlights I think where some of the opportunities are.

The first big clash is around the different epistemologies that underpin design, and policy. What constitutes knowledge, and evidence? How do we know we know something? And what constitutes knowing enough to proceed with a course of action? For policymakers, traditionally, knowledge is more of an absolute thing and is generated through, for example,

  • reviewing certain kinds of written evidence, mainly about what has happened in the past
  • educated people thinking really hard
  • asking an ‘expert’
  • quantitative data

This all means that often analysts and advisors in government know a lot about what is happening, but they know less about why – and they aren’t well-served to have new ideas about different kinds of solution. Design, by contrast, assumes that knowledge is always provisional, contextual and situated , and you can best know things through

  • doing, or testing,
  • immersing yourself in an environment,
  • or asking a real person about their experience of something.

So consulting the citizen, for example, whilst an obvious strategy for designers is not at all obvious as a valid way of generating knowledge – to policymakers.

There’s a second distinction – about what knowledge is for, and what makes it useful. Designers are normally interested in knowledge and insight that helps us move forward to doing something that works. For policymakers, the usefulness of knowledge is framed by two things:

  • a constant awareness of what will be acceptable and interesting to politicians
  • the ‘robustness’ of the evidence in question

So design ethnography, for instance, is both intriguing and problematic for policymakers – they like the insights, but not all of them might play well politically, and it’s not robust enough to do anything with. The insights from 6 ethnographic interviews isn’t enough to move ahead with a policy that will affect thousands of people.

So: do we try and blend design and policy practices to generate all these different kinds of knowledge to keep everyone happy? Or do we try and shift policymaking culture to work with other ways of knowing (which might be more suited to acting in complex situations)? And this is a question for all of us because it really comes back to the political requirement to demonstrate certainty about a particular course of action.

95_BaileyThe second point of friction is about performance and personality.

In order for senior civil servants to perform their key task of handling situations, and manoeuvring in order to strategically position the civil service in relation to politicians, there are certain accepted ways of appearing to be competent. Design seems to be challenging to many of these, primarily because of the need in design to admit that you don’t know, and perhaps dwell in ambiguity for a while. It’s very difficult for policymakers to admit to politicians, and for politicians to admit to the public, that they don’t know the answer. Which limits the amount of reflection and exploration it’s possible to do. Quashing ambiguity and providing certainty is usually privileged over taking time to find an appropriate solution to a problem.

And this trickles down into the ways people behave and conduct themselves – even the ways they have conversations. I think this is changing in other bits of government – but the policymaking culture in Whitehall is hierarchical, and competitive, and privileges people who are clever in certain ways. You might say it’s a culture dominated by the ideal of ‘rational man’. More feminine, collaborative, self-effacing modes – which is often what we see in social design – are less likely lead to promotion.

Collaborative design practices require a different way of performing and working as a group. So in fact there are benefits in design creating a space where policymakers are allowed to perform their roles in a different way. But getting the license to do this in the first place is hard.

And in relation to space, the third point is about material and aesthetic culture.

All organisations have an aesthetic, a set of ways the institution manifests itself to the senses. For the departments of government, and policymakers, the dominant aesthetic is closely tied to words and text, such as:

  • the circulation of pieces of paper with words written on them,
  • the act of sitting around in meetings with words on paper on the table,
  • the writing of ministerial submissions in a predefined format.

This practice is important again from an accountability perspective – there is literally a paper trail. And words are clearly felt to be reassuring evidence that proper analytical work has been done.

But aesthetic disruption has many advantages, not least in changing the way people relate to each other by changing the format of interactions, and the objects they interact in relation to. Visual ways of working and sharing ideas allow people to think about and understand things in a different way, and prompt a different set of thoughts. It gets people out of typical patterns of thinking.

However there is a question about how to create an audit trail of the decision making that happens in – for example – a collaborative workshop where people are talking their ideas through in relation to a model they’ve made out of cardboard and lego men. And of course eventually those ideas have to find their way into written form.

Slide8Ultimately it’s all underpinned by…

Unsurprisingly, a pervasive influence on practices is the framing of everything by the politics of the moment and place – political culture, priorities and narratives.

For example, in England at present all decisions are taken in the shadow of a very dominant austerity narrative – the bottom line is saving money and reducing the burden on the state in some way. Scottish politics has a markedly different tone – driven by the agenda around political and democratic renewal, and differentiating from England (crystallised in the ‘Scottish approach to government’). This puts a different spin on the ways that design practices are being mobilised.

And the structure of the political institution in question puts limits around what is possible: in a hierarchical organisation it’s difficult to get everyone involved in a collaborative design process. I can clearly see a far more democratic kind of platform where policy negotiations happen publicly through collaborative design methods and include politicians. But that would require a very different kind of institution.

Finally, whatever the political zeitgeist, for me it seems to be a moral imperative for anyone working in this context – and especially designers who might be introducing into government new ways of meddling in people’s lives – to think broadly and critically about the implications of policy-setting – to zoom out of the practices and practicalities and wonder a bit about the bigger picture.

Slide9So to conclude

What I’ve learned so far from my pilot study is that stewarding design practices through a political environment means developing a rich understanding of institutional culture – and maybe we should be aiming for a blended set of practices. And in relation to those bigger questions – here are some thoughts to end with:

  • Political culture, mood and narratives unavoidably set the parameters for the ethos of design practice
  • Bringing the machinery of government and the lives of people into closer contact should prompt critical reflection: is it purely instrumental, or empowering of people?
  • The language and practices of service, and design, derive from the market – perhaps we need a new concept of service, and design, in the context of democracy

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Whose utopia? Designing for a pluralist society

In June I spoke at a symposium at the ICA on design, fiction and social responsibility, called ‘Tomorrow Today’. This blog is adapted from the paper I presented. There is a write-up of the symposium in Disegno here.

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What role for design in shaping a better collective future?

A question those working in the design industry might ask at any moment in time, but perhaps particularly right now. In the UK we seem to be in a state of chronic political uncertainty: a surprising election result, a crumbling opposition, the rise of identity politics, a debate over the future of our relationship with Europe, and the ever-present possibility that the UK itself might fragment into smaller pieces. And all of this of course in the context of wider failures in the leadership and care of populations across the world.

We are also at a tipping point in the world of design, as the discipline – having argued for decades of its applicability beyond industrial systems – is starting to be taken seriously in other fields of application, including government policy, international development and corporate strategy, etc.[1] My own PhD is looking at the phenomenon of design going mainstream in government: new design practices are being improvised and tested all the time, in the design of websites, transactions and services, and in the making and testing of policy.

In infiltrating the world of government practice, design has found itself an even bigger platform for influence, which, of course, comes with responsibility. Clive Dilnot (Professor of Design Studies at Parsons in New York) has repeatedly argued of the need for design and designers to recognise that design in the ‘age of artifice’ necessarily involves an ethical dimension. He quotes Latour: “by expanding design so that it is relevant everywhere, designers necessarily take up the mantle of morality as well.”[2] So in the context of government, in trying to use design to get to a better future, it behoves us to consider what ethos, what philosophy, what politics that design work embodies.

From self, to user, to collective.

Design has a rather long (and in many cases misguided) heritage of setting out ideal futures. Many more of these visions remained on paper than were realised in bricks and mortar. Nevertheless, the history of architecture and urban design is littered with the questionable experiments of men who thought they knew best. As a young architecture student I found many of these giants of the architectural canon hard to stomach. Take almost the entire output of Le Corbusier, for example. Projects such as the Ville Radieuse (image above), his plan for rationalising and improving Paris, are treated as icons of design history. Interesting manifestations of a moment in time, perhaps, but equally (to me) horrifying. There is something too constraining and prescriptive about this utopian vision, and others like it.

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None of these ideal worlds – with their straight lines and abhorrence of mess – can possibly allow for the multiple different ways people want to live, for the pluralism inherent in any healthy society, and for the autonomy people need to feel over their environment in order to be happy. They are the visions of singular – often eccentric – individuals, that leave no room for the visions of others.

Admittedly we have now – in design – developed a different perspective, whereby we recognise that the people who are subjected to designs have a right to be taken into account in the act of designing. However, even if we have managed to be less egocentric, I think we’re still struggling with the challenge of designing for pluralism. We have become fixated on ‘the user’, with the individual and their behaviours.

usersThe terminology of user-centred design is becoming all pervasive in design culture, and not least in government. This is undoubtedly because it has the appeal of a sheen of logic to it: there is an optimal and ‘right’ design solution to be found if only we do our user research then follow some simple design steps (discovery, alpha, beta, live;[3] discover, define, develop, deliver[4]). Whilst the idea that public services might be arranged so as to be convenient and functional for the people they are meant to serve (rather than the institution delivering them), if the notion of user-centred design is unreflexively accepted as ‘good’, it means that certain questions are rarely asked, such as:

  • Which users are we talking about? What if their needs conflict?
  • Is it possible to isolate a single user from the world and practices they are embedded within and constituted by?
  • Are there functions other than use – and groups other than ‘users’ – that are relevant considerations for design?
  • Is it possible to design in a way that acknowledges plural perspectives, and functions beyond use?

The answer is, we very rarely design for a pluralist collective. We are unused to dealing with, or thinking about, ‘the social’, or ‘the political’. And this is something that designers (and policymakers) need to tackle if we want to get any better at making things better.

Conflict or consensus as a model for design

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Natalie Jeremijenko’s Feral Robotic Dogs.

It’s already happening in some small corners of design practice: those working in critical design[5], or adversarial design[6], have consciously embodied a particular political philosophy in their work. They produce design interventions that point up a particular political issue – an inequality, a paradigm that needs challenging, a potential dystopian future – and many have taken inspiration from the theory of ‘agonistic pluralism’.

Agonistic pluralism (as put forward by, for example, Chantal Mouffe [7]) is one answer to the question of whether it’s possible to make political decisions in a way that acknowledges and lives with difference and conflict, or whether the ideal goal of politics is to achieve consensus. It positions itself against the ‘deliberative democracy’ model, which proposes that democratic authority and legitimacy are grounded in public reasoning, and that it is possible to reach rational consensus through public debate. Mouffe, and others, have argued that this ideal debate scenario is unrealistic: “the free and unconstrained public deliberation of all on matters of common concern is a conceptual impossibility”. For my money, deliberative democracy bears so little resemblance to reality that its value as a model is questionable.

The alternative put forward by agonistic pluralism proposes that the aim of politics is the creation of some kind of unity, somehow, but within an inevitable context of conflict and diversity. This requires converting antagonism – conflict between enemies – to agonism – the opposition of worthy adversaries. All parties agree to the terms of debate, accept the fact that consensus is temporary, and understand political reasoning as the constant process of contesting, opposing, negotiating, and generally working stuff out. In contrast to deliberative democracy, it recognises unequal power relations as inevitable, and conflict as legitimate, and does not try to suppress it. It accepts the fact that bringing any public deliberation to a close entails making a decision that will exclude some possibilities and interests.

The advantage of taking this view, is that it demands a vibrant clash of political positions, as a necessary condition of a healthy democracy. So that rather than a political sphere that purports to appeal to all, and somehow appeals to no-one (sound familiar?), diverse forms of democratic participation and citizenship become available.

Design in government: glossing over the cracks, or surfacing dissensus?

Colleagues at Uscreates working with civil servants and Policy Lab on a policy challenge.

Colleagues at Uscreates working with civil servants and Policy Lab on a policy challenge.

Adversarial design takes this philosophy and applies it in what are more or less acts of protest. But what is its relevance for how we use design in acts of governance? Do we think we are rationally proceeding to the most logical solution for a pre-determined set of users? Or might we use something like co-design as a practice of negotiation between different, maybe irreconcilable, perspectives? The former is likely to sound more immediately appealing to civil servants, judged as they are on their ability to traverse ambiguity and reach a decision quickly. It also fits more neatly with traditional linear models of policymaking.

However, anyone who has seen The Thick of It – let alone actually worked in government – will know that policymaking is anything but linear – or even, very often, evidence-based. Civil servants will acknowledge privately that what they do is highly political, is inflected by multiple competing drivers and interests of greater and lesser integrity, and progress requires clever manoeuvring. “Although policy is a big word that covers a lot of things, the centre ground is in making difficult – sometimes impossible – trade-offs between multiple competing aims, with limited resources, in a political context.”[8] The opaque world of Whitehall bureaucrats – the world in which design is making an entrance right now – is just as subject to the demands of agonism as the chamber of the House of Commons.

How we understand and deploy design in this context, then, and what we intend it to achieve, means making some decisions. Do we want to market design as providing solutions, presented as the logical end point of a rational process, and discussed in clear and definitive terms? Or might design (and in particular practices such as co-design) be treated as a form of negotiation between competing interests – between civil servants in different departments, or between government and publics – in the formation of policy ideas and decisions, and in the reconfiguring of actors around a particular problem?

I think we are starting to see design being used in both ways, in Westminster anyway. In the case of the latter, the language around these practices – and even the understanding of what is being done, is as yet much less definitively stated – it is self-consciously presented as emergent, and therefore it is vulnerable to being dismissed as ineffective. But it is also a way of doing design that can deal with the messiness of the world in which it is intervening. As such, it holds much greater potential for getting us, collectively, to a better future.

[1] https://hbr.org/2015/09/design-thinking-comes-of-age

[2] http://pdf.blucher.com.br/designproceedings/icdhs2014/0003.pdf

[3] https://www.gov.uk/service-manual/phases

[4] http://www.designcouncil.org.uk/news-opinion/design-methods-step-1-discover

[5] http://www.dunneandraby.co.uk/content/home

[6] https://mitpress.mit.edu/books/adversarial-design

[7] http://www.jstor.org/stable/40971349?seq=1#page_scan_tab_contents

[8] From an interview with a senior civil servant in the Cabinet Office, undertaken as part of PhD research in May 2015

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User friendly elections


Does this need redesigning?

I seem to have heard a lot recently about how design can be used to increase democratic engagement. This is often a feature of election years – but the angst of this particular political moment seems to have upped the stakes. It came up at the last Design Culture Salon on citizenship and consumerism, at the ProtoPublics sprint workshop last week, and in the Design Commission’s recent essay collection, to name a few instances.  The idea is expressed in varying terms, and could mean anything from making political parties more approachable or creative, to enabling new kinds of democratic participation through digital means, or even devolving power to new political and democratic forms (top of Nicola Sturgeon’s to do list in Scotland apparently). What it often boils down to, though, is making the process of registering to vote, and voting itself, less awkward. There are indeed probably hundreds of ways we could use design to make engaging with the electoral system more user friendly. But should we?

Well of course on the face of it this sounds sensible. This year I was one of the millions who glided seamlessly through the new online registration process (thank you, GDS). But in the back of my mind a little voice is playing devil’s advocate. Is this one of those spaces where design should think before it treads – or at least be very self-conscious about which values it leaves at the door? While I here risk sounding like a privileged white person failing to appreciate the barriers to democratic engagement for other demographics, this gut feeling was corroborated this week by something I heard from two philosophers (also, admittedly, privileged white people), Matthew Crawford and Richard Sennett, discussing Crawford’s new book.

‘The World Beyond Your Head’ revolves around a feature of the contemporary condition I’m sure we all recognise – the problems of constant distraction and fragmented attention. He proposes the idea of attention as a resource (collectively we share an ‘attentional commons’), which is in the 21st century being ‘aggressively appropriated by private interests’. Public spaces, spare moments in our lives, and spare corners of our screens are filling up with advertising, often targeted. This is pitched to us in the language of freedom – those offering us choice are only trying to increase our individual liberty. Possibly, but constant bombardment can also leave us feeling that we have little control. He argues that we should much more actively demand and protect our right ‘not to be addressed’, our right to silence, and space – prerequisites for the ability to think.

In his talk he then made a little conceptual leap to the development of skilled practice (harking back to his first craft-oriented book) as a mode of engaging with things meaningfully, of generating agency, creating moments of sustained attention, of joining the world (not fleeing it) by investing in something difficult. However for the purposes of this discussion I want to stick with the idea of how we choose to ‘spend’ our attention.

Both Sennett and Crawford referenced a theory of attention being commanded by ‘difficult’ things, and positioned ‘user friendliness’ as against cultivating attention. The language of ‘user friendly’ comes philosophically from an individualistic view of the world in which we all have unfettered choice, and are free agents whose attention has to be captured and monetised. Making something user friendly means removing all the barriers, reducing the required investment of time or thinking on the part of the individual, and making it as likely as possible for someone to do what it is you want them to do. The perma-culture of user friendly tells us that we don’t need to know how to engage skilfully with the world, as someone else will smooth out the creases and hand us the packaged version.

So perhaps we should resist the concept of ‘user friendly’ when it comes to politics, democracy – and voting. Democracy has been hard won, politics (by which I mean the constantly unfolding act of negotiating how we live together) is serious, complex and difficult, and citizenship is a privilege. Why should it all be made to seem unproblematic, or rightfully ours, or handed to us on a plate? And on what basis do we think making voting user-friendly would increase meaningful political engagement anyway? This proposition seems to be addressing the issue from the wrong direction. Instead of using design to smooth the edges of a single interaction between citizen and state, perhaps, if political apathy is a problem, we ought to be thinking about how people can become more skilled in the practice of citizenship. Rather than asking how we can just get people to vote, we should be asking rather how we generate sustained attentiveness to the question of being a citizen.

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Holding a mirror to the zeitgeist: the RSA Student Design Awards

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Last week the RSA published a report I co-wrote for them, looking back on 90 years of their Student Design Awards scheme. There are more official blogs here and here about it, and you can of course read the (quite fascinating) report itself here. However if you don’t have time for the whole thing, you can either read pages 11-14, which pretty much sum it up, or read on for some bitesize takeaways, also known as ‘my favourite things that I learned from working on this report’.

  1. Who knew (well probably lots of people), but the RSA was fundamentally about design from the very start, although it wasn’t termed as such. The Awards and its other design work are only one of many things it does today, but in 1754 the organisation was initiated on an agenda of eliciting innovations and inventions from the public that would solve the some big problems facing the nation. These competitions were called ‘premiums’, and clever ideas were sought across the domains of: manufacturing, agriculture, trade, the ‘polite’ arts, chemistry and mechanics. After a while the RSA diversified into other activities, but the idea of triggering creative responses to a brief, and the importance of drawing, and other artistic skills, have always been somewhere in its DNA. This is all the more remarkable given the number of other initiatives instigated by the RSA that have spun out, been taken on by others, or simply ran their course. Design has been quite tenacious, which I think says something about its universality as a mode of human endeavour and practice.
  1. If you ever needed convincing that the idea of ‘the zeitgeist’ is actually a thing – trawling through 90 years of design briefs and projects might just do it. I’m a big fan of understanding design in its historical, social, cultural and political context. I’m less interested in the design itself, and more in what it tells you about the world in which it was made. In the Awards in the ‘20s you can see the vestiges of 19th century belief that the environment had the power to enlighten or corrupt, as – against a backdrop of far too many things of German provenance invading the homes of Britain – artists and makers were encouraged to design domestic and decorative objects that would crowd out foreign imports. Post WWII, it all gets very utilitarian as the nation tried to rebuild itself. Not a decorative porcelain figurine in sight: ‘solid fuel burning appliances’ were called for. The end of the 20th century was dominated by the rise of the computer, businesses worrying about ‘customer experience’, and environmental concerns becoming mainstream. More recently the awards have reflected widespread concerns about the damage inflicted on the environment and society by the designs of yesteryear, as well as the increasing agency and autonomy citizens expect in their own lives.
  1. It’s amazing how what constitutes ‘design’ has evolved over the course of the last 90 years, and I couldn’t help feeling nostalgic for the simplicity of the 1920s, a time when the boundaries of design were more narrowly and definitely drawn, and the knowledge of what constituted designing was more certainly held. The briefs read delightfully: students were asked to produce designs for a book jacket for Fielding’s ‘Tom Jones’; the layout of a bedroom in the ‘William and Mary style’ (whatever that is) and a library for a collection of rare books, including the positioning of certain ‘objets d’art’; the form and surface pattern of earthenware vegetable dishes, tea cosies, clerical vestments and other homely items. At a time when many designers seem almost embarrassed to admit that part of what they do is fundamentally about making aesthetic judgments, it’s rather refreshing to be immersed momentarily in a world where such values were openly debated. By contrast, today’s young designers are wading into a profession where they are required not only to make decisions about the appropriate arrangement of things, but to do a whole load of other stuff first: conceptualise a problem requiring solution, determine the best mode of solving that problem, before going on to plan the execution of that response. This is both exciting for students, and incredibly demanding – and possibly a little scary for the rest of us. Because when the skills required in designing are things like:
    • an ability to understand systems, to determine causes and effects within a system;
    • an ability to choose between alternatives for intervening in that system, and evaluate the likely effects;
    • the knowledge of how to intervene;
    • and finally skills in the arrangement and execution of elements,

…it’s not immediately clear that only those grounded in a craft-based training are qualified to act here, and in fact a traditional design education may omit a few important things.

  1. Finally, we are now, apparently, in the era of ‘the system’. The challenges of the 21st century will be ones of scale and complexity – so really we should all get involved in solving them. This idea is already being embodied by a wave of problem-solving initiatives such as global jams and hackathons, open innovation challenges, and projects that crowdsource scientific and creative work. Perhaps the next stage then for the Student Design Awards is to open up beyond designers?

If you’re looking for some inspiration, you can check out this year’s briefs here.

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What I learned from losing my phone. (A handwritten blog).

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Consume with care

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An image from the new calorie-visualising app, Calorific

There is something peculiarly modern about the obesity crisis, which, according to the McKinsey Global Institute, has reached new proportions. The consultancy recently released a report stating nearly 30% of the world’s population is technically obese. Leaving aside the inequality issue (one in eight are chronically undernourished), this is a problem for society because of the costs associated with the health implications of being overweight, and the impact on the general wellbeing of the individuals concerned. It seems a bizarre and ridiculous state to be in: when the cause of the problem is seemingly so clear – people eating more than they need – why is it so difficult to find a solution?

Part of the reason this crisis of consumption is so hard to solve is systemic – it’s all bound up in the dominant economic model, where production and consumption is the organising principle of almost everything in modern life. Obesity is one unfortunate result of urging corporations and people to produce and consume more and more in order to drive the economy – and now it’s gotten out of control.

The McKinsey report lists a number of tested interventions and their efficacy. Only a couple of these, and they are not the most successful, are based on education. Mostly governments are now considering measures which involve controlling supply in some way – limiting portion sizes, changing the makeup of food, restricting access to bad things. It seems that simply trying to help people make informed decisions, and have an appropriate relationship to food, is something we have given up on in favour of a more paternalistic approach. However none of these interventions have particularly staggering success rates.

It’s interesting to see though, that the problems associated with production and consumption are becoming an increasingly popular subject among designers.

Designers are clearly implicated in the production/ consumption merri-go-round. In fact they are the grease that keeps the whole thing spinning, and have been richly rewarded for doing so. The tide does seem to be turning, however. I suspect that those once lauded as great visionaries, talented manipulators of desire, will soon be viewed less favourably – for complying with business demands for planned obsolescence, and persuading us all to keeping buying lovely new things. There has long been an element in the design community protesting against this kind of work (Papanek, Fry et al), but it’s interesting to see it becoming increasingly an mainstream concern – as noted in a previous blog on the socially-motivated projects emerging from the RCA’s new Service Design MA, and as has been manifested through much of the RSA’s design work in recent years (such as The Great Recovery and Student Design Awards).

Here are a few more interesting design responses to the problem of rampant consumption:

Disclosed helps you understand the values that are embedded in the things you buy, and tailor your consumption according to things you care about.
Calorific helps visualise the energy content of what we eat.
Silo is a reimagining of the restaurant on zero-waste grounds – without compromising the quality of the food. Founder Douglas McMaster makes an excellent point in this article about the inverse relationship between choice and quality when it comes to restaurant menus.
Emotionally Durable Design is the brainchild of Brighton University’s Jonathan Chapman, who explores ways design can persuade us to hang on to our stuff rather than discard it.
– And The Ocean Cleanup works at the other end of the chain, trying to mitigate the environmental impacts of disposability and reckless and prolific consumption.

These projects are little moments of resistance, and attempts to politicise and problematise consumption – which is ultimately what needs to happen. Because the truth is, as much as governments are now trying to find ways to counter the disastrous externalities of consumer culture, it also suits governments and private enterprise to keep populations consuming. Not only to create an impression of a thriving economy, but to keep the peace: expressing our agency and individuality through buying and consuming is altogether less troublesome for those in charge than demanding more political or democratic power.

There’s a great piece of graffiti on the back of a Stoke Newington pub toilet door that says something to the effect of, ‘teach us to think, not to consume’. A nice sentiment, if a bit self-righteous. But in reality we are asked to do both at the same time. Mindlessly consume for the sake of the economy – but stop mindlessly consuming for the sake of… everything else. Which is probably why the symptoms – such as obesity – will continue to resist treatment.

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Wedgwood and LDF: yet more shiny baubles?

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Last weekend, while the 12th annual London Design Festival was gearing up across the city, I went off on an odd sort of design pilgrimage of my own, to Stoke on Trent. Specifically, I wanted to see the Wedgwood Collection, just in case it all gets broken up and sold off in the near future. However the trip prompted some unexpected reflections.

The story of the peril facing the Wedgwood Collection, for anyone who hasn’t been following it, is that the Waterford Wedgwood manufacturing company, having gone into administration in 2010, has been drawn into a lengthy legal battle over its pension liability, and it turns out its most valuable asset is its 250 year old collection of ceramics. So, unless the money can be raised to buy this collection for the nation, and fill the hole in the pension fund (which the Art Fund and V&A are trying to do right now), this rather unusual and historically significant archive will go down with the ship.

This would be sad. Whether you’re into Wedgwood or not, its collection is an amazingly comprehensive range of pieces – from chamber pots to a Russian Empress’s dinner service – of breathtaking skill and creativity. As a whole, it maps out a story of changing tastes and technological innovation in Britain since the 18th century. To walk round the museum is to receive a potted history of design. Many of the things we now take for granted in our kitchens and on our tables wouldn’t be there if it weren’t for Wedgwood’s constant experimentation.

And the significance of the company goes beyond the world of design and manufacturing – its founder Josiah Wedgwood was not only a restless inventor, but implicated in the intellectual life and society of the day in multiple ways. He was a member of the Lunar Society, he intervened in debates on slavery, and the building of infrastructure across Britain, he was a patron of George Stubbs, who painted his family’s portrait, his family friends included Mary Wollstonecraft, he was Charles Darwin’s grandfather. An interesting chap. I can’t think of many contemporary manufacturers with the same polymathic profile.

Social history aside, factories are fascinating places anyway – or they are to me. My love of watching things being made started in childhood – my favourite bit of the local zoo was the room with the man forging tiny animals out of glass. And for some reason I’ve never lost this ability to become completely absorbed in watching skilled craftsmanship. In the case of ceramics, I’m always astounded at how something so pristine can emerge, magically, from such a mess of raw materials. Equally astonishing is the skill and precision of the men and women whose hands know how to make such things. I would much rather watch this slow metamorphosis of formless to formed, than marvel at the finished object.

So with all these various reasons why I should have loved it, I was surprised to find I felt curiously ambivalent about the whole day. But it’s because, in spite of all the richness of design heritage on show, there is a salutary and uncomfortable lesson to be taken from Wedgwood.

There was something horribly sobering about leaving the Museum, with its predominantly well-dressed, middle-aged, middle-class clientele, and where one can purchase an exquisite bone china tea cup and saucer for a staggering £50 (although they are lovely), and then wandering round Stoke on Trent where, to judge by the number of boarded up shops and lack of any life at all in the town centre, most people are struggling to afford a basic cup of tea. Stoke on Trent on a Saturday afternoon sadly typifies what recession has meant for many British communities. And it is slightly ironic, although no less tragic, that the global flows of trade whose early years made Wedgwood, and the Potteries towns generally, a great deal of wealth, have also been the author of their current downfall and deprivation. The great God capitalism giveth and taketh away.

Which brings me back to what’s been happening in London this last week. Clearly, shiny baubles create commercial bubbles, and are not a long term solution to any kind of problem. And yet the Design Festival – as a recipe for economically reinvigorating the city – thrives. I’m wary of the hubris of the London Design Festival. Every year it becomes more and more aggressively commercial – and no doubt more financially secure – with ever greater numbers of swankier sponsors, funding more shows, where more visitors flock and more champagne is drunk, all in admiration of yet more stuff. It’s quite fun, and for a while at least, nice to drink the champagne and look at all the pretty things. But where does it all lead? How bizarre would it be if this glittering display every year were set against the grimness of a post-industrial midlands town? It’s only because it’s set in the relative affluence of London that we can’t see how perverse – and horribly connected – it all is.

To me, there is something truly amazing in the human ability to create – whether that’s eliciting poetic forms from mud, or whatever else – what an incredible capacity. But I can’t believe, 250 years on, we’re still so caught up in the idea of plying our creativity in the same old way, to make and sell baubles for rich people. Haven’t we learnt that lesson? Aren’t there bigger problems to solve?

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