Design, culture, craft, crime and research


Riders on the storm: navigators of new enterprise communities



This Tuesday evening I was invited to be one of four Ideas Experts at the showcase event of Nightriders in Glasgow. Initiated and hosted by Snook, Nightriders is a mentoring and support programme for emergent entrepreneurs “designed to help people see in the dark and navigate their way through Scotland’s enterprise support landscape”. It was an inspiring and uplifting evening, and there is a Storify which captures the spirit of the evening and the reactions of those who attended.

It should be easy to navigate your way from a sound idea to a viable sustainable business. But the reality is that it is far from easy. In Scotland there are around four hundred bodies and programmes set up to support new enterprise. Nightriders has been established to help those who have a business idea, but don’t know where to start. And it draws directly on the experience of the Snook founders who had find their own way through the tangle of advice and support to establish one of Scotland’s leading Service Design companies.

Nightriders is a novel approach to enterprise support that harnesses the power of networks, design thinking and business skills. It is not seeking to replace existing programmes or support structures, but rather “we are focusing on building confident communities who will take their ideas to the next level on their own or with these existing organisations”. That’s all well and good and reads like good copy – but when one of the Nightriders said ‘This is the most confident I’ve ever felt’, and you could sense she was speaking for them all, then it’s a claim worth taking seriously.

Scotland is currently enjoying something of an enterprise revolution, with a remarkable turnaround in entrepreneurship in the last few years. Scotland wasn’t just a poor performer in terms on new business startups in the UK – but in Europe generally. But things have changed. Between 2012 and 2013 there was a 19% increase in new business registrations, and the current total of 340,000 businesses operating in Scotland is the highest since records began. Indeed I have celebrated the achievements of some of Dundee’s creative entrepreneurs in another post on this blog.

Interestingly, we have entrepreneurship going full throttle in two different age groups. Gen Y wants to control its own destiny, and sees start up culture as the indy alternative. This is an enterprise culture that is well analysed and discussed. But far less attention is paid to the enterprising Boomers. The baby boomer generation accounts for over 1.8 million people in Scotland – but 40% of them have yet to save for their retirement. With the corporate and public sectors trying to shed these older more expensive employees, there may well be over one million people financially unprepared for their retirement. Increasingly, we will see baby boomers, retiring into work. For both of these age groups entrepreneurship is driven by both individual and social motivations. From the evidence of this week, Nightriders is meeting the needs of these diverse new enterprise communities.

Nightriders works by linking business skills together with design thinking, all underpinned by the power of networking. In doing this, it provides a highly refreshing contrast to many business start up programmes that focus purely on business skills for an individual entrepreneur. What was remarkable in Tuesday was witnessing the fearless approach of the Nightriders, presenting ambitious but well thought through proposals.

Too many businesses are simply not designed. They may be planned. They may just happen. But the priority must be to apply the thinking, ideas, methods and tools that we all use every day – those from design and networking – to helping create sustainable enterprise.

There is a considerable challenge we face – particularly in the so-called creative sector. 75% of visual artists in Scotland earn less than £5,000 per year. There are indeed many reasons for this, not surprisingly the over-supply of artists in the first place. But on the evidence of this survey reported on this week in The Scotsman, the vast majority of those working in Scotland’s creative industries do so as hobbyists rather than sustainable entrepreneurs. With the right kind of support, that could fundamentally change. Nightriders represents a new model of support that meets the needs of Scotland’s new enterprise communities.

Invasion of the one person maker enterprises


Interesting blog post over at the Royal Society of Arts that picks up on recent UK employment data. An edited extract is below.

“New data from the Business Population Estimates highlights a remarkable amount of growth in the number of one-man makers… The population of manufacturing firms with zero employees (i.e. just the owners) has increased by nearly 40 percent over the past 3 years alone, mostly in the last 12 months. By 2013 there were 50,000 more one-man makers than there were in 2010. This stands in stark contrast with the other manufacturing firm sizes, which have all shrunk in number… But what’s causing the boom? One explanation is that the proliferation of 3D printers is finally taking hold…”

OK, if it was me I would have preferred the phrase “one person makers”, but let’s move onto the substantive argument here. There is very little data to go on, but to claim that 3D printers have created 50,000 new one person manufacturing enterprises seems speculative in the extreme. However, I would say that there is something interesting happening and that technology has something to do with it – but enabling it, not causing it.

I’ve made the case before that in our world of Kickstarter, social media, flexible production systems, Amazon, Etsy and the like, then it has never been easier to finance, promote, manufacture and distribute. A recent article in the Harvard Business Review – Economies of Unscale: Why Business Has Never Been Easier for the Little Guy – makes this very case: “in a world with economies of unscale, we are empowered to take advantage of an extensive array of new, amazing services to build sustainable companies.”

From my perspective, one of the most significant aspects of the new enterprise landscape are the opportunities for collaboration and co-operative enterprise. We are not simply witnessing the invasion of a hoard of solo businesses all out for themselves like neo-Thatcherite zombies. In my home city of Dundee, collaborative networks and workspaces like Fleet Collective and Vanilla Ink provide co-operative frameworks that enable and support individual enterprise. And of course we find them throughout the world. Ironically as the UK Co-operative Movement lurches into an ever-worse crisis, so the principles of co-operation are being applied in new and highly relevant ways by a new generation of makers. These new entrepreneurs are not out for themselves. They are out for each other, recognising the value of sharing expertise, skills and celebrations of success. And money.

Kickstarter isn’t driving change – but it’s enabling that change to transform the financing of enterprise, pulling the gift economy into the mainstream. The latest data from Kickstarter suggests this is not trivial finance. To date over $1 billion has been pledged on Kickstarter, and design projects alone have brought in $127 million of support. The success rate for design projects is a remarkable 38%. Kickstarter’s first month of operating in the UK (which is the only data available) shows something else very significant. For US projects, 78% of backers have been from the US and 22% outside of it, yet in the UK 39% of backers have come from within the UK and 61% have come from outside of it. The gift economy transcends immediate family and friends. It transcends the idea of nation. The gift economy is global.

The new making economy is very diverse, and increasingly female. More than half of the 573,000 people who joined the ranks of the self-employed between 2008 and 2013 are women. A new generation of self-employed multi-tasking enterprising mothers have been dubbed mumpreneurs, and are driving change and new patterns of work and childcare in many communities. So, a trivial development perhaps? Well, not trivial when data suggests mumpreneurs contribute £7.4bn to the UK economy each year. Again, this is all tied in to collaboration and mutual support.

Yes, 3D printing does represent an emergent revolution in the world of manufacturing, and this will surely transform opportunities for makers in the years ahead. But it is the far more significant and well established revolution in the world of entrepreneurship that is promoting and sustaining new business in the manufacture of crafted, bespoke and small batch production. In co-working spaces and on kitchen tables people are collaborating and supporting each other to make a living making things. And that collaboration and support is fanning out across the world. It’s an internationalism of making – in the making!

Design Transitions

The Design Transitions book (co-authored by Joyce Yee, Emma Jefferies and Lauren Tan) captures stories of how design practices are changing from different perspectives and context, featuring 42 stories covering 6 design disciplines and 16 countries. The book is about conversations on how design is changing.

At the Design Transitions book launch, held in London in December, there was a panel discussion with some of those included in the book: Dan Harris from Fjord, Lulu Kitololu from Asilia, Tori Flower from We are what we do, Joanna Choukier from Uscreates, Andrea Siodmok from Design Synthesis and me. This is included in full in this video:

Craft in Conversation: Added Value

Internationally renowned jeweller Jane Gowans and I would like you to join us in conversation about how craft adds value – and how to add value to your own creative practice – at an afternoon symposium in St Andrews, Fife on 1 March 2014

The symposium is a special event to accompany the exhibition Added Value – a British Crafts Council touring exhibition, presented by Fife Contemporary Art & Craft at St Andrews Gateway. The exhibition questions the value of high quality contemporary craft within the contexts of branding and luxury. Invited to conceive a symposium, Jane’s vision was a creative response to the exhibition which complements its core theme. Craft in Conversation will discuss the ways in which craft can enhance industry, community and wellbeing alongside collective and individual creative practices.

Jane invited me to chair the event and work with her in developing a programme that is both inspiring and engaging. We have pulled together a programme that we believe will give you some vital insights into the value of craft, and some vital tools in adding value to your own practice. The afternoon is divided into three parts:



We begin the symposium with three expert speakers who each present perspectives of how craft adds value in different ways.

  • Adding Value to Creative Wellbeing Dr Frances Stevenson – Head of Textile Design at Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art & Design - will present key findings from a 5 year research project on craft’s contribution to creative wellbeing.
  • Adding Value to Community Jill Skulina - Dundee based maker and artist - will draw on her extensive and diverse experience of using art, craft and creative practices in a community context.
  • Adding Value to Industry Fi Scott – creator of Make Works – last year undertook a 3 month tour of 116 makers and manufacturers in Scotland and has unique insights to share on the future of craft in 21st century Scotland.



Following these presentations you have the opportunity to join three 20 minute conversations with individuals behind some significant new initiatives in Scottish craft and creative practice. These include:

  • Richard Clifford - Director at MAKlab, Scotland’s Digital Fabrication Studio in Glasgow
  • Sarah Stewart – Designer at Scottish Linen, a new contemporary brand based on a traditional Fife manufacturer.
  • Lisa Cresswell – Design researcher in the Design in Action team, University of Dundee.

Adding value to your practice

The final part of the afternoon provides a framework to develop a personal strategy that adds value to your creative practice.

  • Lauren Currie is Director and co-founder of Snook, Scotland’s leading service design consultancy. Lauren has run workshops all over the world, including an acclaimed session at Craft Scotland’s inaugural conference.

Jane and I are confident that the event will be provocative and inspiring – but above all positive and constructive. And did I tell you it’s free?

For the event to work as we hope, participant numbers are limited, so if you are interested please register at the Eventbrite page.

Jewellers in name only?


Last week Robin Bell, a jeweller in the Vanilla Ink collective in Dundee wrote a provocative well argued post about the declining skills of jewellery graduates in the UK. After some discussion, I joined the fray. You can read the whole discussion here. This is not an academic discussion, so no links or references; if you want those I’m happy to provide. I confess: I was angry at first because I had been inaccurately represented, but writing this post was useful in developing a balanced view on the critical issue of where – not just jewellery – but design education is going.

I welcome the opportunity that Robin has given us to discuss a critical issue: what is the role and responsibility of an Art School in the early 21st century? Does it exist primarily to equip students with vocational skills, or does it have another role to play in our culture and economy?

Some contributions here have, perhaps necessarily, been anecdotal and personalised. Views were attributed to me, for example, which simply run counter to everything I have ever believed or expressed, but no matter. Anecdote and personalisation get discussions nowhere. I am interested in debating where art schools are going, and to do that we need to understand fully where they’ve come from and where they are now. If we don’t attempt to grapple with the economic imperatives and cultural politics of the Art School, then we cannot propose viable alternatives.

I am not writing this from a defensive position, so let me be clear from the start: Robin’s assessment is largely correct. I think it’s important for us to understand why this is the case, then to discuss how things can be different.

I believe in public education as the most vital resource we have. That is why I work in it. Some things we do for very good reasons. Some things we don’t do as well as we could for other reasons. I apologise for this being a long post, but a bit of disentangling is necessary.

Design Schools are one of those wonderful British Victorian inventions, proposed in Parliament in 1832 just before the abolition of slavery. Progressive ideas were clearly on a roll back then. Britain may have been the workshop of the world, but it was a workshop producing rubbish designs. Design Schools were established to provide the very specific skills needed by our new economy, and in every city they were tailored to the needs of local industry. In Stoke, the art school provided the model makers and pattern designers needed by the potters, in Birmingham it met the needs of the jewellery trade, in Sheffield it was metalwork and cutlery design, in Leeds it was weaving, knitwear and printed textiles. Art & Design Schools had a vital and highly focused function: to provide vocational skills training.

In the twentieth century, this role necessarily began to change. The rise of youth culture from the 50s meant that Art Schools became more of a creative environment for people who “didn’t fit” conventional education. They didn’t want vocational design skills or even become visual artists. So they set up The Beatles and The Clash instead. From our Art Schools arose a new culture.

When Art Schools dropped the old National Diploma in favour of honours degrees, then their role began a significant and profound change. Degrees are not about acquiring a vocational skills based training. Their function is to enable students to acquire and develop the skills of critical thinking and to apply this to knowledge within a given discipline. That is the very specific purpose. Now the discipline itself can be the location for professional and vocational practices, but expertise in those practices is not acquired through studying the degree. For example, you would be ill advised (in all senses of the term) to seek professional medical help from a medical student. I used to hang out with a fair few of them, and frankly they would be pretty low down on my list of people to turn to. Similarly an individual completing their law degree would not be the first person I would consult about a thorny contractual dispute. The degree does not equip them with professional expertise, only disciplinary knowledge and broader intellectual skills that can be applied and refined within a professional context. That is what degrees do.

The next big shift came in the late 80s and early 90s when we moved from an elite to a mass higher education system. Up to this time higher education was enjoyed only by the privileged few. And what a privilege it was! Those of us to enjoy it were actually paid by the government to be a student. Many art and design courses enjoyed student numbers in single figures, in some cases with staff numbers almost matching.

In 1981 there were 4,900 students on fine art degree courses in the UK. Twenty years later there were 14,000. From 2003 to 2010 the total number of art and design students rose by around a quarter to 173,825.

According to the Design Council, 185,000 people work in design in the UK. You don’t have to be a statistician to figure out that if around 25,000 students are graduating in design every year, and only 185,000 people in total work professionally as designers, then most of those 25,000 people will not work professionally as designers. Yes? Or did I miss a meeting? So this means that for the majority of our graduates an education based on vocational skills would be a profound waste of their time and money, which is why over the last two decades we have shifted the curriculum away (to some extent) from a skills focus.

Now, let’s consider something else. Let us for a moment assume that all those thousands of jewellery students graduating every year did so with fully rounded and comprehensive professional skills. Impossible of course, but let’s just assume it happened. What would the result be?

Almost certainly the result would be the total annihilation of craft based jewellery businesses in the UK. It’s a supply and demand thing. The data I’ve seen over a number of years indicates that as student numbers rise, in the absence of any barriers to entry within the craft economy, so incomes fall. We have seen precisely the same thing in the design consultancy sector. If you flooded the market with professionally trained jewellers then the competition would be so intense that prices would fall, and viability for anyone would be unsustainable.

But of course that won’t happen because of another development that we need to consider. All this growth in student numbers is what people wanted: they voted for it. It’s what I want. I see no value in a return to an elite system of higher education. None whatsoever. But they voted for something else too, in election after election from 1979: low taxes. The UK (including Scotland) votes time after time for a low tax economy. Now, what happens if you expand student numbers AND reduce taxes?

Well first you have to get money from elsewhere. Overseas students help to subsidise UK higher education. So thanks China for that. But only to a limited extent. So from the 80s began the slow inexorable privatisation of higher education. If taxpayers won’t fund it, then the students have to. That is why our students are in so much debt.

Allied to this we need to economise, change our methods and teach differently. Some of the methods we used in the past were frankly appalling and needed a total overhaul. Yes, years back students were at times assessed totally subjectively. That cannot happen now, nor should it ever again. The “sitting with Nelly” model of teaching may have worked when students just marginally outnumbered staff, but as a method it is no longer fit for purpose.

The module that two of my colleagues delivered recently to second year jewellery, textiles and interiors students getting them to design new services around mental health issues is exactly what we should be doing. At the core of the module was students’ material-based design thinking but applied in a different context. We want them to think as jewellers, but to apply that unique way of thinking to health care. So we have and we can continue to apply creative education to new highly relevant challenges and opportunities.

But the thing I have banged on about relentlessly for twenty years (and thanks to Crafts magazine for recently reprinting the piece I wrote for them on this back in the 90s) is the unique value of craft thinking, and the need to nurture and support this. Place it in new contexts, sure, but continue to champion its value as a source of knowledge, insight and value about our intimate relationship with the material world. This is the bit of our education that involves shiny and non-shiny objects.

It is also the bit of our education that is far less easy to do with less money. I enjoyed being the external examiner for the Jewellery Masters at Stockholm’s Konstfack. Great facilities, well resourced, good staffing, excellent quality of work. Also all the students, including those from overseas, paid no fees. Scandinavian countries consistently come out top in all global league tables on education and child care. They are high tax economies. If we want affordable, high quality, adaptable and convivial state provided higher education then tax payers have to pay for it. There is no alternative to that. But if they’re not prepared to, then we have to deliver it differently.

I have no idea what Art Schools will be like in 2025. All I know is that they will be totally different to how they are today.

I understand that London’s Condé Nast College of Fashion & Design will be awarding degrees in a year or so. They are one of a number of new private colleges and universities taking advantage of the new privatised climate in higher education. So, will Dundee have its own DC Thomson College of Graphic Arts? I would suggest there is a good probability of a private college in Dundee that will provide professionally focused degrees in creative disciplines, linked to a network of mentors and intern providers, and their graduates will be highly employable. Fees will be higher than English Universities but lower than in the US, so probably around £15,000 per year.

But let us imagine another model. Let’s carry on with the state provided Art School and acknowledge both its limitations (in terms of teaching professional expertise) and its strengths (research-focus and transferable skills). Professionally focused creative education is based primarily at a postgraduate level (as it generally has been in all disciplines) but this is delivered in a for more distributed way. Scotland’s University of Craft & Design is a virtual entity for the whole country. It stitches together craft and design businesses (who provide technical access to students), online delivery, community education providers and some existing University centres. You could, for example, be based in Vanilla Ink and do your jewellery masters, attending online courses from GSA, the odd seminar at DJCAD, and getting professional mentoring from people at Fleet Collective. This way the collective expertise of the creative economy is harnessed, valued and paid for!

We ALL have a stake in the future of creative education. It is being reformed and reshaped in front of our eyes. It is incumbent on all of us to provide positive, constructive ideas of the forms it could take in the years ahead. Let us acknowledge that Art Schools cannot do everything, and perhaps even should do less. Let us instead think of a new type of inclusive creative education embedded in communities and linked to positive ideas for changing the world around us. As Nelson Mandela said: “Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.”

Design Leadership: Time for New Perspectives


On Monday 11 November I deliver a lecture to Master of Design for Services and MSc Design Ethnography students entitled Design Leadership: Time for New Perspectives for the Strategic Design Thinking module. This post provides students with further resources to explore themes raised in the lecture.

Two books are critical. The first is The Handbook of Design Management, edited by Rachel Cooper, Sabine Junginger, Thomas Lockwood. This provides some excellent well researched perspectives from corporate design management. The emphasis here is in examining those factors that determine design’s leadership role in the corporate environment. The second book is Design Transitions by Joyce Yee, Emma Jefferies and Lauren Tan. This book looks at contemporary design practices, with a particular emphasis on service/social design, and current design thinking, based on profiles of companies and interviews with specialists. One of its many unique aspects is the truly global span that it achieves in terms of its research and analysis. It is also written in an accessible style while embracing a range of issues and developments. Design Transitions is an essential read for all students and practitioners of design. There is a website for the book, and an older site set up to document the process of researching and writing it, and which has a few of the interviews and profiles in the book on it (including mine).

Aside from chapters in these two volumes I also refer to the following:

Since this lecture is the opening talk in a module entitled Strategic Design Thinking, then one has to bite the bullet and define what design thinking is. I haven’t much to add on this issue to what I’ve already posted here, when assembling my ideas for a talk at EURIB in Rotterdam during 2012. This emphasised the importance of Nigel Cross to any discussion on this theme, and ended with the following:

While design thinking can be applied by managers, communities, users and others to think creatively through problems in a variety of states of ‘wickedness’ this does not remove the need for critically engaged, reflexive professional designers. Indeed it creates a far greater demand for them to act as facilitators, leaders and enablers. They bring the specialist knowledge and ‘feeling’ that is rooted in the aesthetics and craft of design, without which design is ethically unmoored, and creatively soulless.

The ‘twitter poll’ I refer to in the lecture is described more fully in an earlier post. In part this post was focussing on the shortcomings of the design management literature in adequately exploring design leadership as a properly inclusive concept. Towards the end I write this:

Design leadership is fundamentally about empowerment, it is about vision, driving change through design in the wider world, and is about the primacy of values. We find it in the corporate world, and we find it in the community. Design leadership helps us to create iPhones, and it helps us to create and sustain knitting groups. We see design leadership in start ups and in schools where teachers empower their pupils to learn and to gain self-respect through design and technology. Design leadership is about focussed determination. And it is about empathy, emotional intelligence, honesty and the primacy of others. Not ego. Design leadership is practiced by women and men, of indeterminate ethnicity, of all social classes. It is exemplified by amateurs, activists and professionals. So to define such a concept through a partial and selective perspective evident in some current design management thinking is at best flawed.

I still stand by this. However, after posting that I had some very encouraging feedback, which led me to write a further post – less critical and more positive in its outlook: the craft of design leadership. It concludes: “Tomorrow’s design leader is a resourceful social expert, who crafts change co-operatively.”

What is the value of service design?


Nile is an experience and service design company based in Edinburgh. Our Master of Design for Services students produced this short film for them. As Nile says: “this video was created for everyone in the (Service Design) community to share and use. It details some great work from service design companies working in the UK and abroad, and aims to help to communicate the value of a service design approach to business audiences.”

Understanding this value is a key objective of this year’s Service Design Global Conference that is taking place in Cardiff during 18-20 November. Organised by the Service Design Network, the conference is exploring the issue of transformation: “understanding how service design connects with all areas of an organisation service design can support transformation on a much larger scale and achieve greater impact”.

Alongside a great programme of speakers, there is a workshop programme that includes a RIP+MIX session facilitated by Hazel White and myself of Open Change and University of Dundee. Our workshop was the first to sell out, but you can find further details on RIP+MIX from our website.



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