What do composing the audio-brand for a Chinese TV channel, building furniture from old pallets, and making ice cream in liquid nitrogen have in common? These were all activities described by my fellow panelists Joe Glasman, Jan Hendzel and Mike Knowles at a discussion earlier this week at Goldsmiths University. The rather open topic of the debate was ‘Design Means…’, with a more provocative subheading: ‘Can anyone be defined as a designer?’
Earlier in the day, in preparation for this debate, I had been reading a paper about the vexed question of ‘design thinking’. This concept suggests that there is some unifying capacity that underpins all design disciplines. It has been used – mainly by certain design consultancies – to promote the idea that designers’ skills might be valuable beyond the traditional realms of design: such as business management, for example.
There are indeed numerous examples of designers doing good work outside of the discipline they trained in. But it is still a somewhat flawed concept: one learns to design, and practices design, in an iterative loop of thinking and doing. It is entirely questionable whether the thinking element can be meaningfully divorced from the doing. One can’t move a design problem forward by thinking alone. But when the doing bit happens in such different spheres as cooking, cabinetry and composing, can there still be said to be a common process?
By the evidence of the debate on Monday night, I would say, tentatively, yes. As I listened to Joe Glasman explain the process of composing music and sound for various clients, I understood him to be describing a design process. And there were clear similarities to how the other speakers described their own practice: Mike Knowles of culinary troupe Blanch & Shock on how to make the perfect meringue; furniture maker Jan Hendzel of Hendzel and Hunt on constructing a table and chairs from reclaimed materials. All are directing their creativity and craft expertise to a desired (and sellable) end, working to certain constraints and briefs.
What so evidently unites them, beyond an inclination to be creative, and a client whose needs have to be met, is the craft expertise underpinning their work. They have all, painstakingly in some cases, amassed their ten thousand hours of practice, and more. This incredible breadth and specificity of knowledge about their domain was immediately apparent in the way the spoke. And also – to me at least – in the quality of their output. This is what qualifies them for the title of designer.
But ‘design thinking’ potentially challenges the supremacy of the professional designer. It implies that non-designers might learn to do it, and that there are ‘design tools’ which could be wielded by anyone, regardless of their professional background. This is particularly relevant in relation to the question of design in policymaking. If policies and public services are conceived of as ‘designed’ processes, that implies the need for some new skills to be embedded across the public sector. But as the public sector is not about to fire all its economists and hire a load of designers (crudely), one seemingly obvious way to get more design nouse into the public sector is (re)training of existing public sector workers.
Is this valid? Can anyone be a designer if given the right toolkit, without those years of practice?
I suspect there is a happy medium somewhere, but another commonality between my fellow panellists was what they saw as a lack of appreciation of their hard-won mastery. Joe Glasman commented that the development of some DIY design tools (such as photoshop) has led many people, clients included, to believe they really can do it themselves, rather than paying a professional. And Jan Hendzel commented that it was always a battle to convince clients of the cost incurred in hand-making beautiful furniture.
I would suggest this is because, at present, design sensibility within the general public is minimal. And I would question whether it’s possible for anyone to develop an appreciation of a skill without understanding it a bit, and having, at some point, had a go themselves. So I think it’s important for everyone to have had some experience of designing, specifically in order to be better commissioners and clients. But this doesn’t make them designers.
Whilst I am inclined to take a very broad view of what design means, I don’t believe that just anyone can qualify as a designer without some hard graft. My favourite definition (perhaps because the latest and newest) is to liken design to physics: an attribute of almost everything, evident everywhere in the man-made world. And while most of us may understand it a bit, and all of us are undoubtedly affected by it, not everyone can be a physicist. Or a designer.