Category Archives: creativity

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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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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The Other March of the Makers

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Image courtesy of makerversity
This article originally appeared in a shorter form on Creative Economy 2015.

George Osborne should be pleased with himself for coining the phrase ‘the march of the makers’. He has certainly rolled it off his tongue plenty of times, and it has usefully reminded us all that we shouldn’t forget about manufacturing, which has for so long been cast into the policy wilderness. But the government’s support for the ‘makers’ has been more about attracting investment into the automotive industry, or moderating energy prices, rather than bolstering an army of craftspeople tinkering in sheds. For the creative industries, the term ‘makers’ signifies something quite different from what the Treasury might think. Not steel magnates, chemical suppliers or factory owners, but artisans and inventors.

Although statistics around this amorphous movement are hard to come by, there are clear indicators that something important is happening.

The phenomenon of the communal workshop is taking off, under various names: there are now thousands of ‘hackspaces’, ‘maker spaces’, or ‘fab labs’ globally. The Fab Lab began life in MIT’s Media Lab in 2001, and there are now some 307 worldwide. Prominent UK maker spaces include Makerversity, bunkered under Somerset House, the Blackhorse Workshop in Walthamstow, and Fab Labs in Manchester and Liverpool, Edinburgh and Glasgow. There is also the hybrid concept Maker Library Network, embryonic at the moment but growing. Taken together these efforts are partly about providing much needed work facilities for small or single-person businesses in the creative/ manufacturing sector, and partly about allowing the wider community to delve into what is usually the outsourced function of making and fixing.

Other signs of the maker revolution include trendy blogs – for example http://makeworks.co.uk/, http://makeitbritish.co.uk/ – about the pioneers/ rebels who are obstinately still making stuff in the UK. Internationally we have seen the rise of Etsy, the online marketplace for makers that launched in 2005, and by the end of last year had 30 million users and US$1 billion of transactions. These grassroots-driven platforms are slowly shaking off the crusty old (male) notion of manufacturing as a dirty industry devoid of human hand – and often drawing the connection back between craft and manufacturing.

We’re also seeing the emergence of new ‘blended’ businesses – which are often labelled ‘tech’ – but are in reality more of a hybrid between design-digital-craft-tech-fabrication. The Brighton Fuse project highlighted this new blended kind of activity nicely, but in general it’s something we don’t seem to have the right policy/ industrial language to describe yet. Over the last couple of years I’ve met digital start-ups that quaintly describe themselves as ‘foundries’, and businesses (very often in ‘tech city’) that work across what we would traditionally think of as manufacturing, craft, the arts. These businesses embody the spirit of experiment that characterised the first industrial revolution far more than those established manufacturing businesses that are the descendants of it.

What can we learn from these places/ collectives/ trends?

Is it a passing fashion – or is there some deeper systemic change going on? Perhaps, as we move into the digital world, we’re all craving an enhanced connection with the material. It’s also interesting to note the open source/ sharing approach of this movement: might we see hackspaces as the coffee houses of the 21st century? With a predominant demographic of digital/ social media natives, it’s certainly a far more open and social community than the traditional manufacturing sector.

The ethos of the movement is congruent with a wider rebellion against traditional economies, the people-powered move towards ‘collaborative consumption’. And it is a timely reminder in a period of increasing privatisation of city space that cities work best when they are about sharing resources. All in all – this should be seen as a good thing. This is about rebellion against outsourcing and having no idea how the things we depend on in the western world are made. It’s about democratising production and distribution. And it’s about providing spaces that nurture creative activity in an inclusive way.

So – as an alternative spin on Osborne’s policies for makers – how can this resurgence of making be nurtured?

Well, for once, it’s probably not worth demanding that we ‘put it on the curriculum’. Not only because that’s what every business group in the country is trying to do, but also because an assessment-driven environment would be lethal to the culture of tinkering. However, the following would all help:

Above all else, the maker movement needs space. Creative makers are increasingly being priced out of city centres even though the ideas and inventiveness they bring are what make cities exciting, successful places. Planning regulations need to resist the rush to residential and generic commercial development, and local authorities should be prepared to do more to provide and protect the kind of light industrial workspaces that are needed.

Many of the best publicly provided facilities, from kilns to soldering irons, are found in school and FE college design and technology labs, and these should be made more widely available at out-of-hours times. Other community facilities could also be put to use – might libraries’ mandate to provide public access to knowledge extend to ‘knowledge of making’?

More broadly, industrial policy needs to be hauled into the 21st century. I would be amazed if many civil servants had thought deeply about the maker movement, or the idea of the fused/ blended business, their significance and their relationship to traditional manufacturing. We need to update our language, our thinking and our departmental structures, to shake off the false dichotomy between ‘the creative industries’ and other parts of the economy. If innovation policy only focuses on the narrow measure of economic growth via the unhelpfully termed ‘high-tech’, it will miss much of the innovation that promises to revitalize not just the creative economy, but towns, cities and the country as a whole.

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Looking for the real Paris

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The last time I visited Paris, my travelling companion was decidedly disappointed by the place. He complained that the city had none of the life and sparkle and bustle he’d been led to expect. I knew what he meant and I suspect it’s a common experience. Paris is a great city to visit if you’re interested in the history of Paris – but it’s rarely the slightly twee, romantic, ‘gaye Paree’ that’s so often depicted in films.

Recently this seems to have become more of a public concern. The newly elected (socialist) city mayor, Anne Hidalgo, has pledged to tackle the housing problem that is forcing a middle and working class exodus to the hinterlands. This social homogenisation of the city is unfortunate for many reasons, and one big one is the negative impact on its vitality and creativity.

This article on the Matador Network went further, accusing Paris of being a ‘cultural wasteland’:

Paris boasts few artists of international recognition, it has a Ministry of Culture that seems to do anything in its bureaucratic power to keep Paris from progressing, and French nationals occupy every notable cultural post… Paris proper seems to be slowly atrophying, a muscle that has long ago stopped being able to afford to pick up a pen or paintbrush.

The piece suggests (among other things) that the city’s cultural policy is too tied to memorialising its glorious past – because there are millions of tourist euros to be earned that way. (It’s striking that another of Hidalgo’s first major announcements is a revamp of the 125 year old Eiffel Tower.) But this means that the living city is slowly ossifying into a monument to a former period of great creativity, rather than continuing to be a fount of creativity today.

Parisians themselves are aware of this flagging, of the gradual disappearance of edgy arty bars, independent cafes and randomly curated shops that are the outward evidence of emerging creative communities. A friend reported after a recent trip:

There was a real melancholy about the place – people were saying how it feels so staid against cities like London that are constantly changing. In London we lament the loss of the true East End character to the hipsters, but in Paris they are still sitting about in cafes in Montmartre like they always have, and they’re bored of it.

There are two things I think about all this. First, London should be wary of any superiority in the creativity stakes. Its own inexorable property price rises may well be driving it the same way, as this Guardian piece by Alex Proud points out. But – second – I wonder whether Paris has become a victim of its own impossible reputation, and is being unfairly judged. There are a number of reasons to suspect this is the case.

Paris, and the life of Paris, has been mythologised like no other city, in paintings, books, and films, and by actual historians – who can’t let it alone but are constantly ‘re-reading’ and re-telling its significant moments. The imaginary city – the one tourists have in their head when they flock there – is a rich accumulation of all these things, layers of fact and fiction and speculation. The real city is disappointingly solid and one-dimensional by comparison. I was quite prepared, on the occasion of my last trip, for the unavoidable difference between the Paris of the mind – exotic, chic, the city of lights, of dancing girls, intellectuals and artists in garretts – and the realities of a modern capital city. But still it’s an anti-climax to find that the place you’ve been hoping to at least catch a glimpse of doesn’t really exist.

So, we then should ask ourselves, did it ever really exist? Or has it been exaggerated by story-tellers all along? Looking back to its periods of great flowering – the Belle Époque, the fin de siècle, the early 20th century – undoubtedly a lot of interesting stuff happened in a relatively short period of time. All sorts of inventions and breakthroughs started life in Paris: in technology (the Eiffel Tower, escalators, diesel engines), art (countless rebellions and movements), design (art nouveau), psychology (think Bernheim, Charcot, Freud), commerce (advertising, department stores) – and all this alongside rapid social change. It is just this, and the fact that the arts at the time were socially so prominent, that makes historians and art historians obsess about it. But hindsight probably exaggerates the sense of compression, and powerful narratives around certain remarkable places (Montmartre) and events (the Worlds Fairs) seep into our picture of the whole period.

A third thought: this great explosion of progress was not unique to Paris. Rather it was a feature of a particular moment in history. Other European capital cities were being catapulted into the modern world in the same way at the same time (we just idolise them much less, for some reason). And few of them in their contemporary state – carefully governed, regulated, constantly surveilled, expensive to live in, and subject to the pressures of global capitalism – embody much of their former creative, disruptive selves. We shouldn’t over-penalise Paris for being the same.

Finally: the accusation that the current cultural administration is backward-facing and protectionist doesn’t distinguish it from previous cultural administrations. The arts in France have traditionally been ruled by an inherently conservative bureaucracy (against which certain artists rebelled of course). Something like Art Nouveau – the powerful imagery that frames our thoughts of this exotic time – grew out of a government-backed project to revive the French luxury goods industry by resurrecting ‘the Rococo’ (the favoured royal house style from over 100 years previously). It was a very historicist project, and it was specifically about protecting the Frenchness of French industry.

So: although it’s terribly depressing that in real life none of us can do an Owen Wilson (ie be transported back in time to hang out with Gertrude Stein, Hemingway and friends, courtesy of Woody Allen), we must be careful to separate this from reasonable criticism of the city. And perhaps visits should come with some sort of advisory warning: if you’re looking for the Paris of your imagination, it’s more likely to be found in a library.

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Talking Furniture: what Art Nouveau tells us about the French

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I’ve just spent the last few months in 1890s France (or at least in the library studying 1890s France, for the purposes of an MA). This is a period more glamorously known as the fin-de-siècle, a generic French term which has stuck to this particular ‘end of the century’, perhaps because the turn from the 19th to the 20th century saw such momentous change, and Paris was its artistic hub. The fin-de-siècle has a very particular allure in my opinion: close enough in time and technology to be very well-documented, but long enough ago to be a startlingly different place. Socially: modern and medieval in equal measure. And indisputably a time of grand visions the like of which we’ll never see again. It was also an interesting moment in the history of industrialisation.

I was reading about design – and the dominant movement at that time of art nouveau – and I was struck by the loaded ways in which objects were described by contemporary critics. People got really upset (or ecstatic) about the design of things as (seemingly) insignificant as chairs and wallpaper. Interior design was such a matter of national significance that a mainstream journalist was heard to say that one particular art nouveau room ‘reeked of the vicious Englishman, the morphine-addicted jewess, or the crafty Belgian.’ It’s hard to imagine anyone describing design in such xenophobically charged terms nowadays – or even caring that much.

Although it’s not mentioned in the above quote, actually the most problematic nation for France at this point was Germany. Not because of what came later, but because of what had just happened. Germany had wiped the floor with France both militarily and economically in the late nineteenth century, and their population was growing alarmingly fast, all of which came as a rather unpleasant surprise to France. And it led to all sorts of German-centred neuroses: around power, health, virility, and the question of how and with what France could still assert its superiority in some way.

I think the answer for the French was art nouveau. For hundreds of years they had been used to seeing themselves as global ‘tastemakers’, and the one asset they could still flaunt over Germany was their general cultural refinement. The art nouveau design movement flowered all over Europe, and its most sophisticated practitioners were probably actually in Belgium. But the country it really left its mark on was France: in Paris (think of those quintessentially Parisian metro stops). The identity of Paris is bound to the fin-de-siècle period – it’s what we all think of when we romanticise it – partly because art nouveau became the hook on which the French hung their national identity at a critical moment in their history: the solidification of the Third Republic. And if you look into French art nouveau this way, through the lens of a German-centred inferiority complex – you discover some quite striking things.

They were obsessed with the idea of French ‘grace, charm, and elegance’ as being innate national characteristics. This was partly in opposition to what they saw as being the hyper-masculine, heavy, Germanic style, and anything perceived as being ‘heavy’ in this period gets very short shrift from French critics. But they were also drawing here on the house style of Marie Antoinette, ‘Rococo’, which, for the French Republic (ironically), was their only available shorthand for power and glory. In order to assert their position as artistically superior they fall back on a time when they actually were: when the French court set the trends that the rest of the world followed.

Critics gloried in the refinement and femininity of French design (and for some odd linguistic reason the language is even more markedly feminine in French than in English). But there were downsides to the Rococo being a feminine style, especially in the context of the national embarrassments of military defeat and economic stagnation which led to a major crisis of masculinity. So they also made sure to comment on the ‘strength’ and ‘vigour’ of French art nouveau. This leads to some quite unusual design statements, where an ode to the grace, elegance and lightness of an armoire will be followed by the reassurance that ‘underneath these forms are muscles.’

They were preoccupied with health and fitness. This was partly a genuine reaction to the increasingly sedentary lives of the people of an industrialised nation: this is when we see the rise of the first bodybuilding magazines. But it was also quite common at the time for writers to use the body as a metaphor for the country. A critic called Hippolyte Taine claimed that their recent fall from power revealed that the French body was truly sick. So the worst criticism that connoisseurs can level at a designer is that of producing ‘unhealthy’ forms. They also liked to read their political ideals into their furniture, which they believed were qualities like ‘reason, logic, moderation’, qualities they definitely did not see in Germany.

It would be quite hard to draw a picture of a table embodying such qualities as health, vigour, femininity, reason or moderation: which shows you that these weren’t factual descriptions at all, but symbolic commentaries. And ones which revealed some important national anxieties.

Unfortunately for France, which put all its eggs in the artistic excellence/ luxury products market, the real industrial powerhouses of the twentieth century turned out to be those that focused on excelling at mass production. France, defensively, fell back on its ‘tastemaker’ laurels at exactly the moment it should have been innovating.

Whilst all this is interesting for being an unusual analysis to put on art nouveau, what is perhaps more valuable is to think about modern-day parallels. In the 1890s, the renewed focus on national production in France came at the same time as some particularly unsavoury outbreaks of nationalism proper (the Dreyfus affair and General Boulanger for those who know their French history!) This rings some bells in terms of the UK today. Recently we’ve seen increased support from government for UK manufacturing at the same time as the rising popularity of isolationist parties and this stupid question of ‘leaving’ the EU. You could see these things as different manifestations of the same spectrum of sentiment: patriotism at best, racism at worst. Now, as then, these nationalist wobbles are in the context of a period of rapid technological change. If the history of France and art nouveau should teach us anything, it is that this is not a time to batten down the hatches and rely on old formulas.

If you want to read a much longer discussion of this subject, you can download the essay I wrote for my MA here (the last one).

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Function follows form: politics and the National Curriculum

As the newspapers never tire of telling us, there are many problems with politics and policymaking. Some of them involve hapless MPs claiming expenses for pork pies in station cafes. Some are much more deeply rooted, and challenging to our national prosperity. Here are two of the latter, and an analysis of how they are currently playing out in the fight over a little corner of education policy.

The first problem is politicians tend to think in electoral cycles. They are mainly interested in tackling, or being seen to tackle, today’s problems, and of those the ones that grab the most column inches. Short-term urgency takes precedence over long-term importance. There are some laudable exceptions to this rule, but they are rare. This is a problem if, as is the case in education, it takes a lot longer than five years for the real effects of a policy change to become clear.

The second problem is the person with the final say, and often the person driving policy direction, is someone who frequently has a very shallow understanding of the matter in hand. In few other fields would we leave complex decision-making to partisan non-experts.

I recently had the privilege to watch both of these inadequacies have their fun with the Design & Technology curriculum, currently under review.

The first issue has manifested itself in the reluctance of the Ministerial team to hive off cookery as a subject in its own right, because of the need to change ‘primary legislation’ this decision would imply – which is time-consuming and labour intensive. Furthermore the interest in bigging up cooking (which I actually don’t disagree with in principle) is a direct response to the ‘obesity epidemic’. Which is of course a very current and pressing problem. Both of these things combine to mean that we are apparently trying to counter the obesity (and other lifestyle diseases) epidemic through the medium of D&T.

This is all a bit untidy and confusing, but the second problem, of expertise, is really far more serious.

The way I see it, different subjects teach you how to think in different ways, often through making you perform particular tasks, of increasing difficulty and complexity. For example, in history, writing essays teaches you to marshal your thoughts and facts into an argument with a narrative. In chemistry, conducting experiments teaches you how to test a hypothesis and evaluate empirical evidence. In design and technology, designing and making teaches you how to arrive at a solution that meets a number of needs or requirements: to problem solve.

The unfortunate thing about the proposed curriculum for design and technology is that nowhere does it acknowledge that designing and making – the practical activities – have associated cognitive skills. The emphasis is all on the ability to perform a series of practical tasks, rather than developing capacities that will serve for a lifetime. ‘Students just need to leave school knowing how to weld’. This is all very well if what we need, now and for ever more, is welders. But unfortunately, all the evidence suggests that over the coming century, we need people who (as well as being able to operate machinery) can deal with problem-solving in complex situations.

D&T and Art & Design, when taught well, provide some precious curriculum space to teach this, to instil an alternative way of thinking, an essential counterpoint to the rule of the 3Rs. But the discussions being had over the new curriculum fall far short of this level of sophistication. It has come down to arguing over which kinds of structural systems ought to be taught at Key Stage 3. It is really quite shocking how far we are – given our national heritage of innovation in education – from designing a curriculum that will turn out innovative, creative people equipped to critique and engage with the designed world in the 21st century.

And this is where it gets really circuitous: part of the reason we don’t have a curriculum that will generate creative and inventive problem-solvers, is that it is being designed by people in government who – even after a great deal of input from professional associations and industry experts – fundamentally don’t recognise design as a conceptual mode. It is being designed by people whose only framework for addressing a problem (and it is remarkable how often they turn out to be Oxbridge PPE graduates) is by writing a lot of words down on paper and then arguing about which ones should be there and which order they should go in. Not by people who ask at the outset, ‘what really is the problem we are trying to solve here?’ and ‘how are we going to interact with the man-made world over the next 100 years’ and ‘does this D&T curriculum bear any relation to those challenges?’

In dogs and monarchies, too much inbreeding leads to defects and weakness. Unless we start thinking quite radically about how to diversify the experience of our elected representatives, we risk governing ourselves into a corner.

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Design Means…

Made in Peckham, by Hendzel and Hunt

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.

Exploding cake, by Blanch and Shock

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.

Advent Calendar Cabinet, by Hendzel and Hunt

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.

Many thanks to Lior Smith and Marion Lean for organising this debate.

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