Design, culture, craft, crime and research

Author Archive

Useful work: the changing landscape of entrepreneurship



“Here, you see, are two kinds of work – one good, the other bad; one not far removed from a blessing, a lightening of life; the other a mere curse, a burden to life. What is the difference between them, then? This: one has hope in it, the other has not. It is manly to do the one kind of work, and manly also to refuse to do the other.”

William Morris, Useful Work vs Useless Toil, 1884


Bill was right all along. The alienated useless toil necessitated by capitalism would eventually give way to more constructive, satisfying and useful work. It would take a great deal longer than he expected and involve far less chintz, but the landscape of work would – in the early twenty first century – begin to shift towards sustainable autonomous production involving considerable numbers of people. Perhaps not as part of the socialist utopia predicted by him, Marx and others – but more as a means by which people in advanced industrial economies could gain flexibility and satisfaction, while coping with the erosion of the welfare state.

There are some profound shifts taking place in the landscape of entrepreneurship in the UK which educators and policy makers need to catch up on. Despite record numbers of new business start ups in Scotland, political debate has yet to seriously address issues that concern entrepreneurs or indeed the wider cultural and economic questions of entrepreneurship. This is regrettable because the latest research is providing some rich insights into why people go into business, what meaning it provides for them, and how working and creative practices are being transformed.

A recent report on microenterprise provides some fascinating insights: the RSA/Populus survey Salvation in a start-up? The origins and nature of the self-employment boom, produced in partnership with Etsy and authored by Benedict Dellot. Below I will pull out some themes from this report, link them to other recent research and identify some implications.

A cultural shift

Since the onset of the recession in 2008 we now have 600,000 more micro enterprises (firms with less than 10 employees) in the UK. Today, one in seven of the workforce are working for themselves, and this trend is clearly climbing. Just over the last year we have seen a 9% growth in new business in Scotland, and over the last five years the business start up rate for Scotland has been one of the highest in the UK. According to Entrepreneurial Spark founder Jim Duffy “Coming out of a recession, a new industrial revolution is starting in Scotland. So many people, who didn’t think they were capable of turning their hand to entrepreneurship, are now doing it.”

That much is certainly true. But they are not doing it because of the recession. They seem to be doing it because they want to: it is (to coin a perhaps overused phrase) a lifestyle choice. The RSA survey suggests that only 27% of startups had anything to do with escaping unemployment, and self-employment had in any case been on a steady climb all through the years of the economic boom. This is supported by other recent research including a survey conducted by Ipsos MORI for the Resolution Foundation, confirming that 73% of those who became self-employed since the recession “did so wholly or partly due to their personal preference for this way of working, and not solely due to a lack of better work alternatives”. While the RSA report argues for evidence of structural social and economic change to account for this, I would suggest that there is a more deeper seated cultural shift that is behind the new ‘start up tribes’.

 The new tribes of enterprise

The report identifies six tribes of self-employment, each of which describes very diverse characteristics and motivations of entrepreneurship – shown in the figure below. Only 33% fall into categories that we associate with conventional business culture – driven by profit, a focussed sense of purpose and desire for growth. Virtually all business policy is predicated on the assumption that startups have the ambition to grow and take on employees. The reality – revealed by this research – is that most don’t. Indeed, very few self-employed people who have started up in the last 5 years have taken on employees. There has also been a notable rise in part-time self-employment, suggesting that this can co-exist with part-time paid employment and other activities. Nearly half the rise in self-employment since 2000 is accounted for by part-timers, or nano businesses, as the report refers to them.


Poorer but happy

Many of those in the RSA survey see work as inherently enjoyable (in contrast to much of society) and 85% say “they are now more creative, autonomous and satisfied in their work” with key advantages being flexibility to deal with their own health and the welfare of family. In other words, autonomy, flexibility and happiness appear to be the qualities of self-employment that are most valued. On the downside, they are earning less money. As the report argues:

“Life for the self-employed presents a paradox: they appear to earn less, work harder and be more isolated, yet in the round are some of the happiest people. The reason seems to be because their work offers greater autonomy, a source of meaning and – perhaps surprisingly – a greater sense of security. All of which suggests that the draw of self-employment lies in what the Swiss economists Benz and Frey term ‘procedural utility’. In other words, people who work for themselves gain more from the way something is done rather than the final outcome of that activity – namely money.”

I would suggest that there is a genuine movement towards creating a culture of useful work and autonomous welfare. The two massive failures of the modern age are the alienation and inflexibilities created by work and the shortcomings of our welfare state, especially in terms of childcare and inadequate pensions. Much of the shift towards self-employment would appear to be driven by an impulse to create meaningful, flexible work rather than profit. This is not to deny the vital importance of the visionaries and the classicals to local and indeed national economic growth, but their needs and significance have to balanced by the very different needs (and contribution) of the remaining two thirds of the self-employed. I will briefly look at three issues below and pull in some additional evidence.

Self employment is about thinking.

The biggest increases in self-employment since 2008 have actually been in professional occupations. In a piece entitled How British workers are losing the power to think, Guardian correspondent Aditya Chakrabortty has drawn on research that strongly suggests an erosion of autonomy in many occupations. “Since the mid-80s, academics have been carrying out regular skills surveys, asking detailed questions of thousands of employees. In 1986… 72% of professionals felt they had a great deal of independence in doing their jobs. By 2006, that had plummeted to just 38%.” Some researchers are suggesting a future workforce in which only 10-15% will have permission to think. “The rest of us will merely carry out their decisions; what the academics call ‘digital Taylorism’, in which graduates will end up on the white-collar equivalent of a factory line.” This would suggest that self-employment is driven by a very basic human need: to use your brain creatively and fully.

Self-employment is family friendly.

The successive failures of UK and Scottish governments to provide adequate and affordable childcare – in contrast to many other European countries – is providing one major motivation for self-employment. One recent survey showed that 65% of mothers with children under ten years of age are considering starting a business from home in the next three years, and 49% “believe that they would be financially better off if they started a business from home”. The rise of the ‘mumpreneur’ (a contentious term), of whom there are estimated to be 300,000, is part of a shift in self-employment away from its historical tendency to be male dominated. Indeed, over the last two years the number of female entrepreneurs has increased by 9.6% in contrast to a 3.3% rise for men.

Make a job – don’t take a pension.

The self-employed are getting older. Those aged 55–64 has risen by 40% since 2000, while the over-65s in self-employment have increased by 140%. The over 55s are now a significant start up demographic and we could perhaps see this group as shifting towards self-employment as a means of dealing with the pensions crisis that is otherwise undermining security into old age. This view is supported by the Resolution Foundation in their separate survey and report:

“28 per cent of the overall growth in self-employment is due to a decline in the rate at which people leave self-employment. Our view is that this is partly explained by the UK’s expanding and ageing workforce. The raising of the retirement age, longer life expectancy and low levels of pension saving may have led to people remaining in employment for longer, and because self- employed people tend to be older than employees, this disproportionately affects this group. Self-employment might be growing as an alternative or complement to retirement, rather than as an alternative to being an employee.”

A policy vacuum

The evidence suggests that this diverse and varied landscape of enterprise is simply not recognised as such by the state, and those public bodies there to support the self-employed. At least that is the view of those surveyed in the RSA report who “still largely feel as though they are overlooked by the state”. More significantly “the vast majority believe the Conservatives have the best policies for their business”. Worryingly, there is also widespread support for a cap on immigration. The Conservatives certainly have more policies and a clear ideological commitment to enterprise and self-employment. The left and the labour movement appears held back by long-established animosity. While the RSA report points out that the most obvious bodies to help provide the collective benefits and support needed by the self-employed are the trade unions, this is unlikely to happen any time soon as the unions “have been one of the most vocal in disapproving of the rise in self-employment, with the Trades Union Congress recently expressing its concern that this type of work is inherently insecure”. 

So perhaps in an independent Scotland the self-employed could be the driving force of a new economy, autonomy and community focused wealth generation and support? Best not hold our breath. In all of its 604 pages, the weighty tome that is Scotland’s Future : Your Guide to an Independent Scotland contains only one reference to the self-employed.

What is clearly needed are conversations to help set a new agenda to support the forms of self-employment that are reshaping work, enterprise and welfare. These conversations should seek to focus around the question of how the UK’s micro enterprises can be taken seriously and influence policy makers. A critical objective should also be to create a vision of how a world centred on useful work could develop and thrive. 


Don’t bully designers


Design requires courage: personal and professional, and perhaps we should tell this to our students a little more. As educators we tend to emphasise just one side of its dualistic nature by highlighting the successes, the award winning achievements and plaudits of commentators and critics. The annual New Designers event in London that I recently attended is a well established celebration of this culture of success. The other side of design requires a slightly thicker skin.

Headlines throughout the world yesterday and today have focused on the Team Scotland parade uniforms for the Commonwealth Games designed by Jilli Blackwood, and not in a good way.

  • “Couldn’t they just go back to blowing up blocks of flats?” asks Stephen Daisley of STV News: “First Glasgow 2014 proposed an uplifting opening ceremony in which the Red Road flats would be blown to smithereens; now Commonwealth Games Scotland wants to kit out our athletes in apparel so gaudy it would make Dame Edna Everage blanch.”
  • “If you thought Australia’s Commonwealth Games uniform was bad, it isn’t a stitch on the host country’s horror design” is the view of Fox Sport in Australia. “Scotland’s athletes will attend the opening ceremony in outfits that appear to have been inspired by doctors’ scrubs and picnic rugs.”
  • “Team Scotland’s got the blues” says Christina Miller at the Huffington Post, arguing that the designer’s skills perhaps don’t lie in the realm of fashion: “The expanse of turquoise fights for attention against the busy tartan that seems to have been draped here, there and everywhere, while the stone bag punctuates what is, quite frankly, a visual disaster. When describing her work, the Jilli Blackwood website says, “… blurs the boundaries between ‘Fashion and Art’ and ‘Art and Craft’” suggesting that yes, Jilli Blackwood might be a successful textile artist, but perhaps her forte is with interiors and art.”
  • “Costume is not for faint hearts”, asserts an editorial in the Herald: “The designer of the Scottish Commonwealth Games uniform has succeeded in putting Scotland on the fashion map – a 19th century fashion map. ‘There will be no mistaking that this is the Scottish team,” says designer Jilli Blackwood. Unfortunately, she is correct. Brigadoon meets Laura Ashley appears to be the theme and shouts from the rooftops that every Hollywood film travesty of Scottish dress is true. The only missing touch is blue-daubed faces a la Braveheart.”
  • “P45 for the “designer. That is just a shocking combination, total embarrassment” is one of the quotes used on the Sky Sports website, followed by “What a shame for the athletes who have worked so hard to get to the Commonwealth Games for a designer to put them in this!!”
  • “It’s the uniform that everyone’s taking about. It’s the kit for the Instagram WTF generation.” The Guardian really doesn’t hold back: “It’s Pixar’s Brave meets Alexander McQueen’s Highland Rape. It’s the gift that keeps on giving – the more you stare, the more you see. You can probably still see it when you close your eyes. Yes, Scotland’s Commonwealth Games uniforms have made quite the impression on the Guardian fashion desk. That’s before we get started on designer Jilli Blackwood’s getup.”

These are just a sample of the many news items currently running on this story. Perhaps we should not be surprised that the media is treating this story in a trivial personalised way, as that is how it treats much of design, especially fashion. A particular approach in much of this coverage (and I’ve excluded some of the nastier stuff) is to rubbish the designer herself through questioning her expertise, her taste and overall professional approach. Mind you, treatment of Jilli Blackwood is relatively mild compared with how Australians have responded to the design of their Commonwealth Games swimsuits.

For any student designer reading this, how would you feel if you and your work was discussed in this way? How would you feel late at night after an evening of reading this kind of stuff about you? Do you think it’s fair? Do you think it’s right? Is there a better, more intelligent and more sensitive way of commenting on another person’s creative labours?

I have found no commentary which seeks to understand or inform readers about the design brief, the strategic design objectives of the commissioning body, the negotiated process of design that surely took place, the constraints put in place, or indeed anything about design itself. No, all we have are cheap barbs about the designer. There is simply no attempt in any of this so-called ‘journalism’ to explain ‘the facts’ of design.

Jilli Blackwood is by no means the first designer to be treated in such a bullying, shabby and ill informed way. “A puerile mess, an artistic flop and a commercial scandal” yelled Stephen Bayley in The Daily Telegraph in 2007. He was venting his spleen on this particular occasion on the design of the logo for the London 2012 Olympics. Designed by Wolff Olins, public reaction to the logo at the time of its launch was almost universally negative, so Bayley was very much running with the mob. But the key point here is that the mob was wrong. The logo was a central design feature in the branding of the games which history has shown to be the most successfully branded Olympic Games of all time. The logo’s flexibility, its very concept, provided a consistent visual focus and identity for the games. It worked.

The whole point of design is that in creating something new, it is an act of courage. Sometimes the process of design gets it right, and sometimes wrong. And very often you have to wait a fair time to figure out which it is. Some design is wholly the work of “a designer” or a design team. Some design involves no designers at all. Most design is a rich and dynamic negotiated process in which “the designer” needs every last atom of her or his courage to negotiate the trade-offs and compromises that are part and parcel of design.

What designers don’t need - what they really don’t need – are smart arses who should know better sniping from the sidelines, especially from fellow ‘creatives’. I am sure Jilli Blackwood is like every other professional designer I know, a person who constantly and critically appraises what she does, simply with the objective of doing it even better next time. The design community can either join the mob and weigh in with their pitch forked personalised ‘criticism’ or create a culture of ‘critical friendship’ which is in evidence in professions such as architecture. Bullying designers through global media is not a way to go.


New designers: all you need is love


The annual New Designers exhibition in London is both inspiring and intimidating. The talent and innovation on show continues to inspire visitors year after year, many of whom are there for the express purpose of employing the graduate designers or buying their work. For the 3,500 graduate designers who are showcasing themselves at New Designers, the quality and range of work on show can be intimidating. If you don’t win one of the 26 prizes awarded (and the maths suggest that exhibitors have a one in 134 chance of winning) then how are you noticed?

The elephant in the room – and the Business Design Centre is capacious enough for several herds of them – is that the majority of the exhibitors will not fulfil their current ambitions of becoming professional textile designers, jewellers, ceramicists, etc. True, most will apply their design thinking and sensibilities professionally, but not in the vocational sense that far too many courses continue to suggest they will. Far too few design tutors appear to understand, or show much interest in, the seismic shifts in work, enterprise and employability that are taking place today. I have written about this elsewhere. As the competition becomes more acute, then our graduates need to become ever more enterprising and entrepreneurial in their approach, especially at events like New Designers. It is no longer enough to display fantastic work and expect one’s talent to be instantly recognised. Something else is needed: love.

In the last two days at New Designers I’ve had a number of conversations with award judges, design consultants and others about what they’re looking for, and the answer is fairly consistent: love and passion. They expect that the design graduates make their work “come alive” with their evident love for what they do and the passion that they bring to it. They want the story: why does this work exist? What does it mean? Where is it going? They want evidence that the graduate understands people and how their practice fits into their world. They want to be told about idealism and ambition. And they want somebody they can get on with. No pressure there, then. Generally, our Dundee graduates are good at this. Yet again this year one of them beat the odds of one in 134 and won a major award, and others have succeeded in gaining recognition, placements, commissions, etc. But it is the ones who naturally exude the love and passion that succeed first.

I am of the view that ALL graduates are capable of doing this, if they work at it. These are key steps.

1. Have a story.

Who are you? Why do you do what you do? What does it mean to you? How did you get to where you are now? What excites you? Where do you want to be? If you are not clear on your backstory, then you cannot engage others. The story needs to be authentic and vivid. But begin by writing it out and practicing different ways of telling it. That story needs to underpin your social media presence.

2. Breathing, body language, smiling.

How you look, how you stand and the confidence you express are all vital. If you’re hunched with a facial expression that suggests you’re chewing wasps then it’s unlikely anyone will want to know your story. This post on hacking your way to confidence is worth reading.

3. Use social media.

An event like New Designers is ideal for using social media to get noticed and to express your passions. Tweeting about other exhibitors and work you see that is inspiring is essential. So is self-publicity and linking twitter to your blog, Instragram, etc. My page on social media strategy explores this in more detail. The Guardian’s piece tweet your way to a better job provides some great examples.

4. Be a battery charger

A good colleague of mine divides people into two groups – battery chargers and battery drainers. The former bring forward ideas and solutions, they have infectious passion for what they do, they energise those around them. The latter bring forward problems, they require support and encouragement, frankly they can be quite draining. So here’s a question for you. How do you think you’re perceived? How do you come over? What can you do TODAY to demonstrate that you’re a battery charger?




Studio Unbound


When the history of social media is written, many years from now, a chapter may well be dedicated to Studio Unbound - a project by Lauren Currie, one of the founding partners of Snook. Launched in 2009 (when Twitter was barely out of nappies and Facebook had yet to master joined up writing) the vision was this:

Studio Unbound is an initiative aiming to introduce students, graduates and educators to the creative power of social media.

We explore the power of digital networking, demonstrating tools that students can use to move ideas forward, form networks with practitioners around the world, and build a reputation before and after graduation.

In highlighting creative people all over the world using social networking to their advantage, Studio Unbound discuss the dynamic, conversational value of new communication technologies and illustrate how ideas of teaching and learning need to move away from the confines of the classroom or studio towards other, often ad-hoc and virtual venues.

Focusing on the ever growing possibilities and opportunities that the digital world presents, Studio Unbound demonstrate that during a time of mass communication change, design courses must change with it if they are to stay relevant.

As a graduate of DJCAD, Lauren’s ideas had a profound impact and were embraced enthusiastically by Jonathan Baldwin, Hazel White, myself and others. I remember attending an early Studio Unbound session run jointly by Lauren and Kate Andrews. It was hugely inspiring. Social media soon became embedded in our curriculum and methods. While other projects have eclipsed Studio Unbound over the last three years, it is perhaps time for Studio Unbound to ride out again into the new landscapes of social media and labour markets. Lauren and I have begun to discuss some ideas, so let’s see how they develop. Snook’s excellent Nightriders programme certainly applies much of the Studio Unbound thinking and focusses it on enterprise development.

In the meantime how can this year’s design graduates make best use of social media to make their futures? My page above focuses on some of the key strategic issues for planning social media and applying it. In addition, I have been pulling together research, advice, examples and ideas around four key themes that are central to applying social media and other digital tools to career and self development. These are currently existing as four Pinterest boards:

  • Career planning – this covers job hunting, online CVs and use of LinkedIn, using social media to develop career relationships, networking, using social media to gain internships, etc.
  • Design enterprise – business startup tools, projects and networks to support new creative enterprises, online business toolkits and resources.
  • Personal branding and social media – developing a social media strategy, tools and further advice, basics of self-branding and marketing and online tools to support it.
  • Self-help and organisation – time management tools, creative support, mental health issues and support, GTD tools and writing support.

So current and graduating students may find this a useful starting point.

Back in 2009 Lauren and the equally engaging advocate of social media – Kate Pickering – gave a great talk to students at DJCAD, which beamed in Sarah Drummond via Skype. In the five years since then, these three women have made a significant and lasting impact on Scotland’s design culture and enterprise. And social media has been one vital and distinctive method in their collective arsenal. Watch their talk below.


Finally – Lauren and I are looking at running Studio Unbound masterclass weekends. Would you be interested? Leave a comment below if it’s an idea you’d like to know more about. Or tweet me at @mikepress

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.


Scotland’s enterprise culture – no longer desperate


Scotland has a poor record when it comes to business start ups. Our entrepreneurial culture lags behind most other industrial countries, and compares far less favourably with the rest of the UK. But since 2011 something has begun to change. Our start-up rate has improved, pushing us closer to the average for northern Europe. According to research reported on in The Global Entrepreneurship Monitor, published in June 2013, “the country now has a higher start-up rate than the ‘Arc of Prosperity’ smaller countries of northern Europe, which had been seen as a target for Scotland to emulate.”

Amongst young people – and graduates in particular – there has been a dramatic improvement. Indeed, most of the new start-up activity can be accounted for by graduates. Significantly, 10% of new start-ups are launched by people from outside the UK – further emphasising the long-standing value of immigrant communities to enterprise in the UK.

All this is indeed positive news, but there remain problems and trends that need to be understood and dealt with urgently. For a country contemplating political independence, Scotland must make considerably more progress in entrepreneurial terms. If it fails to do so, then while its government would belong to the Scots, its economic destiny would be determined by those well outside of its borders.

Scottish start-ups: a youth movement

The role of Scotland’s graduates in accounting for most new start-up activity is encouraging. Clearly, given labour market conditions, many graduates are realising that in recessionary Britain then you make a job, not take a job. In other words, starting up in business isn’t simply an option. It may be the only option. But it’s not a particularly difficult option. In our world of Kickstarter, social media, flexible production systems, Amazon, Etsy and the like, then it has never been easier to finance, promote, produce 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.”

The only downside in this is that, as the Global Entrepreneurship Monitor observes, once the goal of self-employment has been successfully achieved, there is often little aspiration to grow the business or employ other people. Today’s enterprise culture is more about pursuing the values of personal and professional autonomy than wealth creation and growth. It is a distinctly un-Tory approach to enterprise.

The other problem is that institutionally and politically, Scotland has not seen the development of an enterprise-friendly economy and culture as a particular priority. So, while start-ups may emerge in Scotland, to thrive they increasingly have to head south. Professor Jonathan Levie of the Hunter Centre for Entrepreneurship at the University of Strathclyde has data showing that as many as 40,000 early-stage Scottish entrepreneurs have moved to England. While Scotland’s start-up rate lags behind the rest of the UK, allowing so many of its emergent entrepreneurs to move to England, suggests a wholesale policy vacuum in Scotland’s business support infrastructure. 

This vacuum is gradually being filled as Scotland’s Universities have begun to recognise that their emphasis on employability must be complemented by a focus on enterprise. This has led to new incubators and other welcome initiatives to support the enterprise of their graduates. Universities Scotland, the umbrella organisation representing the sector, recently published a report suggesting we look west for inspiration. It highlights Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), whose enterprising alumni have created 25,800 companies employing 3.3 million people and turning over $3 trillion. MIT’s success is as much about entrepreneurship as it is about world-class research, and despite ambitious words, the former remains a weakness in Scotland’s educational culture. As one recent commentary observed, the real issue is much more fundamental than knowledge transfer mechanisms: “How can Scotland’s education system be made more entrepreneurial? The issue most commonly identified is the way that schools, colleges and universities approach failure.” 

It is indeed. Most of our educational culture only recognises and encourages success. It is risk averse. 

Learn from Scotland’s makers

If Scotland really wants to accelerate entrepreneurialism then the solution is clear – look to its thriving craft economy, and learn its lessons. Scotland’s makers are doing it for themselves; they are fearlessly crafting a new economy. And most of them are doing this because they have been educated in a culture that encourages risk and does not penalise failure: the culture of Scottish art schools.

Across Scotland there are some excellent examples of enterprising design, craft and other creative practices: an entrepreneurial strength upon which Scotland’s future must be built. They may be small-scale, and emergent, they may operate on tight margins and face challenges of growth – but they are giving form to a new entrepreneurial spirit, providing inspiration to those following them, and breathing a new cultural vitality into our towns and cities. They are demonstrating that there’s more to visiting Scotland than seeing the landscape and visiting the Edinburgh Festival; there is a sparky, proud and uniquely creative culture that now infuses our once down at heel urban spaces.

Dundee is not just a microcosm of this but, I would argue, is at the heart of a new Scotland in the making.

Every year the Professional Jeweller magazine reveals their Top 100 world jewellers – these are the people changing the face of jewellery, creating its look, defining its spirit. And this year two of the Top 100 were from Dundee, both relatively recent graduates of DJCAD. Jane Gowans has developed an enviable world reputation as jeweller to the stars, providing the jewellery of choice for Emile Sande and others. Harvey Nichols provided Jane with her own pop-up shop at their flagship store, demonstrating how craft-based makers can supply successfully to retailers who operate on the world stage. She has every intention of retaining her studio and home in Tayside while she increasingly supplies to a world market.

Kate Pickering is the second Dundee based Top 100 jeweller, not that she’s best known for her jewellery. Kate has created the Vanilla Ink jewellery incubator that each year supports and mentors 10 recent graduates to establish their businesses. This is a unique enterprise that has attracted not just attention from around the world, but now has jewellers applying to work at Vanilla Ink from throughout the UK and overseas. Kate has made Dundee a highly attractive location to establish your jewellery business. The whole ethos she has encouraged is refreshingly ambitious and exploits to the full the new business support tools of our time. The Inkers couldn’t afford the £6K to hire a stand at their industry’s top Earl’s Court trade fair. But as one of Scotland’s first Kickstarter campaigns, they raised the funds in two months and succeeded in building a local support network that will help propel the next batch of Inkers into their chosen career.

Vanilla Ink isn’t just an incubator: it’s a social network in itself, digitally connected, and innovative. It is a designed business. Universities take note: if you want to establish a ground breaking incubator, forget MIT, just go visit Kate Pickering and she’ll show you how it’s done. And spend what you save on the plane fare on some stunning jewellery.

Working in the same building as Vanilla Ink is the woman who won Young Designer of the Year at the 2012 Scottish Fashion Awards. Hayley Scanlan was recently selected to be the sole UK designer to feature in Topshop’s flagship Oxford Street store. With clients who include Jessie J, Hayley has shown how Dundee is also reinventing itself as the place that the stars come for couture. Who would have predicted that, eh?

But there’s part of Hayley’s story that makes her more than an inspiration for just aspiring fashion designers. As the single mum of two young twins, she has responsibilities that the old models of entrepreneurship like Alan Sugar and Richard Branson simply didn’t have. As she told The Scotsman “You just do it,” she says, shrugging. “I want to do the best I can and no one else will do it; it has to be me. It’s hard sometimes, but I just get on with it. I’m happy, even though I’m on my own. They go to a child minder who is absolutely brilliant; I totally trust her. I do miss them sometimes, but everyone has to work.”

Cities need communities, and today more than ever they need creative communities. Such communities provide collective inspiration, they help each other’s Kickstarter campaigns, they celebrate each other’s successes. And – most critically – they help people through the failures, the set backs and the disappointments. Business start ups are not created and sustained and mentored by the market. No, it is the community that does all that. Gillian Easson should know. She and her partner and collaborator Lyall Bruce have been behind some of the key initiatives that have helped forge a real sense of a creative community in the city.

The Creative Dundee network, the Pecha Kucha nights, the mid week meets, these and other initiatives have helped give form and reality to Dundee’s creative community. From my perspective, they provide art and design students with positive reasons to stay in the city. Because Dundee is a place where you make things. Like a creative community for a new city. Gillian was a key member of the NESTA team based in Dundee. But she’s now given that up and gone freelance. She has taken a risk. That’s what folk do in Dundee.

Dundee’s entrepreneurship is different. It’s not just about making a viable business – it’s critically about making vibrant go-ahead cities that enterprising people want to live in. It is not about making money. It’s about creating autonomous meaningful work, new ways of living and supportive communities that sustain this.

Oh and something else about all the examples I’ve given.

They are all women.

Historically, Dundee was built on the social initiative and enterprise of women. It would appear that 21st century Dundee is following in this proud and unique tradition.

Tim Brown – Change by Design

In our DJCAD Level 2 module Change by Design, we are asking all students to read the book Change by Design by Tim Brown. It’s an excellent book and well worth reading. If getting hold of it proves tricky, then make use of all the online resources below:

For more critical views of design thinking, take a look at my previous blog post on design thinking.



Design and public services


On 25 June 2013 I was invited to take part in a panel to discuss design and public services at the Scottish Parliament organised by the Design in Action project. Other members of the panel included Lauren Currie of Snook and Jocelyn Bailey of Policy Connect. My short speech for the event is below. All photography by Alina Achiricioaei.

Professionals who work in the public sector face a critical challenge: how can we develop new ways of thinking to transform public services? And this isn’t just a question for public sector professionals. It’s a question for those who receive these services – for individuals and communities often know far more about what’s needed than the professionals do. And it’s a question for the voluntary sector which increasingly provides these services. Frankly, it’s a question for us all.

As a society we have to do more with less. And do it better. But it would be a mistake to see our current financial hard times and the sole, or even the main driver of change. The whole point of public services is to improve the quality of life for the people: to reduce dependency, to increase resilience and independence and, over time, to reduce the inequalities that perpetuate poverty, ill health and unemployment.

So, do they work?

Between 1999 and 2010 spending on public services in Scotland grew by an unprecedented 5% each year. But inequalities over that period either increased or stayed the same. Figures released today from the Child Poverty Action Group in Scotland reveal that more than one in every four children in my home city of Dundee are living in poverty, while one in five children across Scotland are living in poverty.

Something wasn’t working in public services even before the financial crisis.

Hugely committed and highly capable public sector professionals have been trying to deliver services that in too many cases are simply unfit for purpose. This is the context described thoroughly by Restarting Britain 2 and of course our own Christie Commission reports. Both advance the idea that what we need is design.

Service design is a new approach that applies the kind of creative thinking companies like Apple have used to develop their products, to the creation of services in commerce and – most crucially for us – in the public sector. Design puts people first: it is about both understanding their needs, and involving them creatively. It is solution oriented. It is a creative approach to problem solving. It is about low risk prototyping not high risk piloting. We try things out, quickly, learn what doesn’t work, apply what does. It is visual and engaging. It is physical. People understand it. And it is something that in the UK we are outstanding at. It is one of our national strengths. British designers are in demand all over the world. So it makes sense to use design’s full power to address these critical challenges.

But in what ways can design improve public services?

In Dundee there’s a brilliant new third sector project – Skill Share. It provides opportunities for people to share, learn and teach skills. It addresses issues of community development, of adult learning, of sustainable futures. And set up by one of our fantastically talented design graduates. It is a well designed, highly cost effective way of sharing passions and skills, bringing people together and encouraging volunteering.

I’m sharing the platform with another one of our graduates who set up Snook precisely to embed design thinking into policy making and public services. In the audience, my colleagues from Taylor Haig are actively using design to enable innovation in the voluntary sector. In Cornwall design has been used to raise citizen engagement with local government policy making. In Lambeth design has led to some major and highly effective changes in mental health services. In Sunderland, services for the unemployed have become far more joined up through design. We CAN transform the public services we provide and the experience of enjoying them through design.

And let me be clear – public services should be enjoyed. Not tolerated. We provide them not to create dependence, or confusion, or frustration. We don’t consume them. We enjoy them as a mark of the civilised values that we hold dear: that define us. We should enjoy our education, it should fill us with fulfilment, inspiration and a sense of wonder. We should enjoy our healthcare, it should improve the quality of our life and reduce our worries. We should enjoy the support given when we are out of work. It should help us focus on our strengths, help us find new direction and put us back in control of our lives.

So what stands in the way of us using design to transform public services?

First, there are key deficiencies in the political process that prevents long term reform and leads to disjointed incrementalism. Tackling this requires that Scotland develops and adopts a national design strategy.

Secondly, the public sector needs to significantly raise its design capabilities and literacy. Scotland already has some of the world’s best postgraduate service design provision both at the University of Dundee and Glasgow School of Art. It has amazing companies like Snook. So we need an alliance of these partners to collaborate more and provide the high level education and training that the public sector needs. Our new MSc in Leadership and Innovation at the University of Dundee shows what can be achieved when collaboration links our expertise in both design and the public sector. The first professional masters course in the world that provides design-led innovation for public sector professionals is a collaboration between our art school and school of education and social work.

Third we need to develop some key national priorities, focus our creative resources on them, and develop effective evaluation tools to quantify their impact. Design led transformation in public services must be evidence based.

So – strategy, education & training and evaluated national priority projects could represent a way of accelerating change.

Let me finish by referring to the Christie Commission report. Calling for the redesign of Scotland’s public services it said that “form must follow function. We must build communities around people and communities.” In the two years since the report’s publication we have already achieved much. But we have a way to go. Scotland has a history of a committed and passionate public service ethos. We have hugely capable professionals at all levels in our public sector. And we have a history of design-led innovation and design education that is the envy of the world. It is about time that we brought these remarkable national strengths together. To transform services.

And, more importantly, to transform lives.







Our new MSc Leadership & Innovation programme


The Challenge

Those working in the public sector face a key challenge: how do we develop new ways of thinking and leading to transform public services? Our new programme is designed to equip you to meet this challenge.

This is the first postgraduate course in the world that integrates design thinking and leadership specifically meeting the needs of public sector professionals. It is a three year part-time programme largely delivered by distance learning but offering intense one and two day masterclasses at the University. Developed and delivered jointly by the University of Dundee’s School of Education, Social Work & Continuing Education and Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art & Design, this programme represents a unique synthesis of disciplines, thinking and learning.

The course team is led by Jon Bolton, and includes Hazel White, Linda Walker, Sharon Jackson, Carey Normand, Gordon Scobbie and myself. This diverse team brings together an exciting mix of specialist knowledge and ideas to help students meet the challenge of change.

The vision

Whether we are delivering public services from the public, private or voluntary sector, we are under pressure to ‘do more with less’. At the same time citizens are demanding new ways of interacting with those services. But this is only possible if we apply radical new thinking to find innovative solutions to these increasingly complex problems.

Professionals of the future need to approach their work with far greater creativity and with more confidence. they will influence and lead with high level abilities; they should be able to collaborate effectively and confidently within complex environments.

This is a pioneering programme that fuses the skills of creative thinking with expertise in advanced professional learning and development. Drawing on the unique knowledge and skills offered by the University of Dundee, the programme enables students to explore transformative ways of thinking about power, resources, partnerships, risks and outcomes, rather than off-the-shelf models of service provision or a single magic solution, and investigate how design can be applied strategically to services.

In developing it we have been informed by the aspirations and ideas of many public sector practitioners, and by over 20 years experience of providing research-driven postgraduate professional education to the sector. your insights and our experience combine to create a programme that will support and inform a new generation of public service change makers.

Flexible learning

We have consulted widely to ensure that the programme meets the exacting needs of professionals like you. We are well experienced in providing flexible, distance learning tools to support your study that maintain and support an active community of learners.

This flexible, part-time programme makes considerable use of distance learning methods – but also provides opportunities for highly engaging workshop and masterclass learning. Throughout the programme we apply our considerable experience of working with students to help them apply their learning into work contexts.

We believe that this pioneering partnership offers a key to the leadership of appropriate, informed and radical transformations in public services.

How to Apply

We welcome applicants who have current or recent appropriate professional experience in public services for a minimum period of two years. Applicants with other experience will be considered on a case-by-case basis. For general admission to the programme you should normally have obtained an honours degree or other qualification recognised by us as equivalent. English language Requirement: IEltS of 6.0 (or equivalent), if your first language is not English.

Further information contact

Restarting Britain 2: Design and Public Services



What public service problems need redesign not cost-cutting? What do you do when you can’t rely on past learning to determine future action? How can we turn government into a learning organization? These were the central questions addressed by the Design Commission in their recent publication, Restarting Britain 2. The report explores the potential contribution of design to the creation of cost-effective public services for the 21st century. Part-polemic, part- manual, the report is the culmination of a nine month inquiry, and the Commission’s response to a substantially increased appetite for more information on the subject of design in public services.

On 25th June I will be part of a panel discussion held at the Scottish Parliament to explore the ideas further. The speakers are:

  • Baroness Kingsmill, House of Lords, Co-chair of the Design Commission’s ‘Restarting Britain 2’ report
  • Prof. Mike Press, DJCAD, University of Dundee, Programme Director, Design and Craft
  • Lauren Currie, Snook, Co-founder and Director of Networks

Hosted by Jenny Marra MSP & Richard Lyle MSP, the event will be held in Committee Room 2, Scottish Parliament 25th June 2013, 6.00pm (Registration from 5.00pm).

If you are interested in attending please register through eventbrite by Friday 14th June:


Transframers – a research tool prototype


Transframers is a tool to support the design research process. It helps you to understand your changing role as a design researcher. It is applicable from research students to large research teams. It helps you position yourself and your practice.

This tool was the outcome of a two day DFG Roundtable on Design Research held in March 2013 at the Design Research Lab, University of Arts, Berlin. The organisers invited a combination of German and international design researchers to meet and explore four key themes that lie at the heart of design research.

I was part of team that included Cameron Tonkinwise, Rachel Cooper, Chris Rust, Klaus Krippendorff, Michael Hohl, Sabine Foraita, Tom Bieling, and others. We explored the relationship between design and other academic disciplines. Early on in our discussions we considered it important to focus on an ‘end product’ – a concrete outcome that we could adapt and explore further. In that sense we tried to incorporate the best elements of design jams into this academic discourse. One of the issues that emerged was that of the variety of roles that the design researcher (or indeed the design practioner) can take on during the research process. We wanted to develop a tool that helps define these roles, provide alternatives and act as a diagnostic.

Transframers was proposed as a highly rough prototype. In the spirit of prototypes we invite you to explore it and use it, and help us refine it. We are laying out the basic idea and some suggestion on how it can be used.

So, how did we get to this? Well, we comprised a group of around 12 people (the composition of which slightly shifted over the two days) looking at the theme of translation.  Our interest was how design research worked at the interface with other disciplines. Rachel Cooper and I joined the group after it had already met for an hour or so. To begin with we explored and tried to define the principles of knowledge translation. These were:

  • Find and work with the best
  • Respect their knowledge
  • Become informed (informed by their knowledge, but you will never be an expert in it)
  • Understand where knowledge comes from and goes to
  • Understand the system you’re working in (systems thinking)
  • Find the way to work at the nexus
  • Value the unique value of the design approach
  • Reframe questions
  • Champion the design lens

As for the value of the design approach we saw it as this:

  • An insatiable sense of curiosity
  • An ability to use prototyping as a means of framing problems and defining questions
  • Visualising
  • Analysis and synthesising
  • Being opportunistic (finding the design opportunity)

The initial ‘napkin’ version of this is below.


At various points in the two days we would report back to the larger group of people. Below Cameron Tonkinwise is presenting our work. Clive Dilnot from Parsons in NYC looks on.


Discussions over dinner and outside the formal sessions fired us up to accelerate our process of discussion and link it to REAL research, rather than discuss in the abstract. The Berlin PhD students shared their work with us and provided a great focus for exploring how design researchers applied the principles we had defined the previous day. We also began to define some personas (as we initially described them) of how researchers behave in a research context. This evolved into a set of roles. The idea is that the role taken on by a researcher (whether a PhD student or a project director at the head of a large team) constantly shifts. It is important to be aware of how these shifts occur as this reframes our relationships with others and determines how we see the subject of our research.

We decided to move towards creating a real tool, a concrete outcome of the two days that we and others could go off and use and adapt further. The tool is about translation, but it is also about framing questions, and framing our own practices in research (and creative practice), hence transframers. I took on the task of creating a website in the final hour of our discussion, leading up to a public presentation of all the deliberations coming out of the two day event. That accounts for its very rough character.

We presented Transframers to an audience of 150 or so people as a drama, with Cameron as the sagely professor and Rachel and I as two very difficult and problematic PhD students. And we are all rather hoping that evidence of this never finds its way onto YouTube.

The Jam Experience


We had 48 hours to change the world. Seventy people in Dundee divided into seven project teams, working to a design brief set by the Global Service Jam. And from Kampala to Kathmandu, Beirut to Bogota, Los Angeles to Loughborough, Stockholm to Sydney, there were 2952 people in 122 cities jamming through the weekend to produce 500 projects. It was a remarkable experience that engaged and excited everyone involved.

The Dundee Jam was the 8th best attended in the world, with only two attendees fewer than the UK’s largest jam in London. This was a significant achievement, indicating the interest and passion in service design that has been developed in Dundee. It is also a consequence of having a highly committed and effective organising team.

I’m not sure we changed the world, but we changed something about ourselves, and that is what I will try to explore in this reflection on the Global Service Jam Dundee. The value of the Jam lies not in the outcomes, interesting and inventive though they are, but much more about the experience created and how it challenges and changes our preferred ways of working. And I say this as one of the organisers rather than a participant, but even in that capacity it changed me.

1. It’s about learning

Adam St John Lawrence makes the point that “It’s about learning by doing – and this does not only mean learning skills. I might learn more about how I work, who I work best with, who I might be friends with.” And it is. A jam is an intense learning activity. What you learn from it depends on how open and flexible you are prepared to be, and how far beyond your comfort zone you are prepared to step.

Some jams appeared to shoehorn in keynote speakers, reading lists and expose participants to a range of design tools and methods. We chose not to do this. The five talks we had at various points were each around 10 minutes long, and the methods and tools were very loosely defined. So the emphasis is on inspiration and encouragement, and participants learning from each other.

2. Leave status outside

We are all learners and teachers, and what we have to offer each other is equally valued. Despite doing this within a University, we succeeded largely to reject hierarchy and encourage team working that embraced diverse experience. We had highly experienced public sector professionals working alongside undergraduate design students – and learning from each other. We had marketing executives sharing ideas equally with sociology postgraduates. That ethos was also in the organising group, and is essential for the process to work. Indeed it was personally liberating and refreshing to work in equal partnership with my own students. I rather think that this is how Design Schools were meant to be.

Partnership underpins the whole idea. While Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art and Design, University of Dundee supported the venture by providing facilities and technical support, they fully agreed for the Jam to have its own autonomous identity. The Master of Design for Services course supported us with materials and expertise. We were also hugely fortunate in having Taylor Haig as our main sponsor. Their financial support was crucial for success, but the company’s senior partners also attended the Jam, became honorary Jam Doctors, and helped sustain energy and enthusiasm throughout. Partnership and commitment infused all aspects of the jam.

3. Doing not talking


This is the Jam Mantra. Mind you, from the noise generated you wouldn’t really have known. But having spent considerable time in a past life trying to change the world politically through the time-worn method of sitting around tables or in meeting halls talking and getting nowhere, this was a highly productive contrast. Being practice-centred brings to the process all the advantages of practice-centredness generally, as in research. It also enabled teams to play with ideas, propositions and approaches in a flexible, responsive way. The physical crafting of problems and strategies, and in particular its use as a storytelling device to engage the public and the jam community, demonstrates a further characteristic of the jam….

4. Jamming is connecting


Farrah Berrou was the blogger for the Beirut Service Jam. In her blog she wrote “Highlight of the Event: Skype call with fellow Jammers in Dundee, Scotland”. To be honest, it was our highlight too (although I really regret not actually talking to them myself). During the course of the Jam we skyped with Los Angeles, New York, Stockholm, Mumbai, Auburn Alabama and Melbourne. To begin with we did this from a large TV in the studio. This was fine and helped largely to enable some good conversations between organisers, but it set limits on engaging our participants. So the ever resourceful Ross Crawford (holding the laptop in the photo on the left above) became our SkypeMeister, carrying a laptop around the studio to introduce jammers across the world to each other. Above on the right we see Ross on the laptop in Beirut. This transformed the sense of internationalism in the jam. In future we should probably build on this further. All of our international Skype buddies brought a great sense of global connectedness to the occasion, but when we hooked up with Beirut, it was particularly magic.


Stuff gets noticed. Stuff gets seen and engaged with, and so this helped the key objective of getting close to users by exploring ideas with them. Some teams rose to the challenge of connecting with people most effectively.

5. Jamming could be more inclusive

48 hours to change the world is a great opportunity. If you can take it. For single parents, seniors, people who have no choice but to work at times at the weekend, it is an opportunity denied to them. So, what do we do about that?

At the start of the jam we made the point to participants that creativity and inventiveness is a direct product of diversity – the more diverse the community, the more perspectives and cultures they bring, the more experiences they can draw on, the more creative and relevant the ideas they will generate. We brought together 56 people, some from very different backgrounds working in very different areas. But most were in their 20s, worked in creative disciplines and had the benefits of University education. Providing mini jams within the two days, or spin off satellite jams or other initiatives to broaden participation most be a priority next time.

In short, it was a wonderful liberating and creative experience.

Can’t wait till next time.

Design thinking and the quest for a beautiful world



Back in November when I was in Rotterdam running a Masterclass in Design Thinking for the European Institute for Brand Management (EURIB) I was interviewed by Pascal Kuipers, a Dutch business media journalist. I now find that the interview is the cover story for Tijdschrift voor Marketing – a leading marketing magazine in The Netherlands.

Of course, the five page feature is all in Dutch, but I have translated a small part of the interview. This magazine is not available online, although you can order a subscription. So here is an extremely bad translation which does no justice to the excellent journalism of Pascal.

Professor Mike Press: “We need a beautiful world to live in”

As a design professor, when Mike Press travels to give workshops on ‘Design Thinking’, he takes a large suitcase and a backpack. In the backpack are personal items. In the suitcase are craft materials that his students use to represent their ideas. Objects and images, not language, is the Esperanto of the international design community, he says.

Prototyping is an essential part of the creative design thinking process. “Actually, design thinking not a good name,” says Press. “It’s not about thinking but doing – making to think. Because it is about stimulating your creativity.” Therefore Press takes a mobile hobby shop to the locations where he gives workshops. Similarly in Rotterdam, where he is giving a Masterclass for the European Institute for Brand Management (EURIB). To managers of businesses, educational institutions and the public sector he is giving a brief introduction about design thinking, then getting participants to get to busy prototyping.

“Design thinking is not a solution but a method of creatively exploring the problems facing businesses and institutions to do,” says Press. Too often when we discuss such things, your fixed beliefs and assumptions are not challenged. In 99 percent of conversations we defend our position, and are not open to something new. Many managers simply express their fixed views with powerpoint presentations. This kills creativity stone dead.”

Want to read more? Then simply place a regular order for Tijdschrift voor Marketing with your newsagent. A fascinating journalist and real honour for my ideas to be featured in this way.


Design thinking

My Masterclass on Design Thinking for EURIB in Rotterdam in November 2012 is an opportunity to pull together some recent literature on this issue and provide a perspective on a concept that has sparked some spirited debate. A fresh new variable? A useful myth? Or opportunistic hype? My conclusion is that it’s a sign of the times, and has been useful as a focus for some new practices and methods. But for it to work we still need designers. They are experts in the aesthetics and craft of design, but define the value of these in new ways. Socially critical, reflexive makers of change reconnect design with its soul.

Design Thinking is a fashionable term in both design and management circles, reflecting the rise of interest in methods and strategies that embed creativity and innovation within management across public and private sectors. However, it is a concept that must be approached with some caution. As Lucy Kimbell has rightly argued in her paper Rethinking Design Thinking, the concept is undertheorised and understudied.

Tim Brown, CEO and President of IDEO, is perhaps most closely associated with the term. Writing in the Harvard Business Review in 2008, he presents Design Thinking to the business community with an evangelical zeal:  “I believe that design thinking has much to offer a business world in which most management ideas and best practices are freely available to be copied and exploited. Leaders now look to innovation as a principal source of differentiation and competitive advantage; they would do well to incorporate design thinking into all phases of the process.”

Writing in 2010 for the Stanford Social Innovation Review, Brown extends his case beyond that of commercial innovation, providing a claim that it can contribute to social innovation. The Brown/IDEO model of Design Thinking is presented in terms of “three overlapping spaces” rather than orderly steps: inspiration, ideation and implementation. This is elaborated further in his 2009 book Change by DesignIn a review of the volume, Robert Blinn says “Business books tend to be written in a peculiar dialect somewhere between anecdote and allegory, and Change by Design is no exception.” Indeed one way of interpreting Design Thinking is that it is a strategy for companies such as IDEO to be taken more seriously by the business community and by government. Much that is written on the subject by its key advocates is framed in business-speak. And the evidence would suggest that the message is getting through to both business and government, helping to diversify and strengthen the markets of the design industry.

In October 2012, a piece in the Wall Street Journal entitled Design Firms Go Beyond Gadgets as Portfolios Expand began thus:

“Bay Area design firms behind iconic technology products like the mouse and the Macintosh computer are broadening their portfolios. Health-care companies, nonprofits and industrial giants are among those tapping these and other designers to conceive not just gadgets but new software, business strategies and even school systems. The expansion has happened gradually but is accelerating as firms seek to connect with design-savvy customers.”

This piece included reference to Tim Brown, IDEO and their more recent ‘social’ design projects that apply their notion of design thinking to development, education and other contexts.

For serious students and practitioners of design it is important to differentiate between two quite different uses of the term design thinking:

  1. A way of analysing and interpreting the distinctive styles of thinking and approaches to problem solving within design, that has been subject of study and discussion by researchers since the 1960s.
  2. A business-oriented conception of design that seeks to enhance the value of design professionals and their distinctive expertise.

Design as a way of thinking has origins in Herbert A. Simon’s The Sciences of the Artificial, published in 1969 in which he called for a science of design: “a body of intellectually tough, analytic, partly formalizable, partly empirical, teachable doctrine about the design process”. This developed through Peter Rowe’s book on Design Thinking in 1987 and Richard Buchanan “Wicked Problems in Design Thinking” who argued for design thinking to be regarded as “a new liberal art of technological  culture”. Buchanan has been particularly influential in the development of design and design thinking, and highlighted its value to tackling wicked problems – those which are ill-defined and complex in their nature.

British design theorist Nigel Cross has contributed perhaps most to an analytical and robust understanding of design thinking, in part through his recent book Design Thinking which pulls together various research approaches in seeking to understand what is distinctive about design. A succinct definition by Cross can be found in a recent interview with him:

“The psychologists and educationists who have gone about classifying different types of reasoning have tended to define constructive or concrete thinking as a sort of lower level of reasoning than abstract or symbolic thinking. This is a mistake. Design thinking is about making constructive responses to practical problems, issues and situations. This type of thinking means being practical, and involves creating solutions and resolving problem areas. Constructive thinking is also about being imaginative, and imagining how something might be, not just how it is. This is what makes design thinking quite a high level and difficult form of reasoning: it must move from abstract requirements to concrete proposals.”

Elsewhere, Cross has differentiated between scientific thinking, which is rooted in analysis, and design thinking, which is based on synthesis. When asked what design thinking can teach business, Cross presented two key ideas. The first is imagination with responsibility stressing the idea that design is not profit driven and is primarily an activity that is mindful of the impact on society and the environment. The second idea is constructive discontent. As he explains:

“Designers usually start their creative process with a feeling of discontent with the way things are. Many people feel such discontent, but designers will draw upon that reaction and try to make something constructive out of it, to focus on the object of discontent and make it better, rather than just criticizing it. This is a healthy habit that might also be cultivated by successful managers.”

When we turn to the business-oriented conceptions of design thinking, then this careful, nuanced and values-driven narrative is eclipsed by a very different vocabulary and agenda. Bruce Nussbaum was one of the champions of the corporate Design Thinking mantra, writing here in Business Week:

“Design and design thinking—or innovation if you like–are the fresh, new variables that can bring advantage and fat profit margins to global corporations. In today’s global marketplace, being able to understand the consumer, prototype possible new products, services and experiences, quickly filter the good, the bad and the ugly and deliver them to people who want them—well, that is an attractive management methodology. Beats the heck out of squeezing yet one more penny out of your Chinese supply-chain, doesn’t it?”

At the Rotman School of Management, Roger Martin embedded design thinking within the MBA curriculum, recognising this potential value of design thinking in being applied strategically. In his book The Design of Business, Martin argues that “design  thinking  needs  to  move upstream,  closer  to  the  executive  suites  where  strategic decisions  are  made”. In the UK Lucy Kimbell delivered design thinking as part of an MBA curriculum at Oxford’s Said Business School, and she has written about others who have pushed at the boundaries of business education in similar ways.

A number of the ‘old hands’ in design recognised that there was nothing particularly new about design thinking. As Donald Norman has written, it is “what creative people in all disciplines have always done”. So what if it is couched in business-speak and framed as the latest new thing? The key advantage of the concept is that is provides a new timely case for investment in design and, as Norman suggests is ‘A Useful Myth’:

“It positions design in a unique way, forcing companies to view design differently than before. The emphasis on “thinking” makes the point that design is more than a pretty face: it has substance and structure. Design methods can be applied to any problem: organizational structure, factory floors, supply-chain management, business models, and customer interaction.”

The most significant critiques of design thinking focus on two problems: its under-researched nature, and its divorce from aesthetic practices and knowledge. Regarding the first issues, Lucy Kimbell draws our attention to the diverse cultures of practice that we find in design, evolving over time, and involving a variety of actors in various social contexts. She argues for more of a social science perspective in order to both understand this rich landscape of practice, and to help designers address the need to reflexivity which is largely missing from their self-definition:

“By  focusing  on  situated, embodied  material  practices,  rather  than  a  generalized  “design  thinking”,  we  may shift  the  conversation  away  from  questions  of  individual  cognition  or organizational  innovation. Instead,  design  becomes  a  set  of  routines  that emerge  in  context.  Such  explorations  help  clarify  designers’  material  practices.   They  also  force  us  to  decide  if  design  is  a  special  way  of  engaging  with  and acting  on  the  world,  unique  to  designers,  or  shared  by  others  such  as  managers too.”

Cameron Tonkinwise begins his critique by asking what is lost when the thinking is pulled out of design to create a consultancy commodity that can be easily understood, ‘demystified’ and marketed. He is quick with his answer: “aesthetics, by which I mean, anything to do with form-giving, the pleasing appearance and feel of a design.” This is, he argues, very problematic:

“This risks concealing the way in which designing is the designing in, with and of styles; styles that make possible existing and new forms of social practices. Designing is a current economic force when it is most explicitly designing via practical styles, as evidenced by brand-driven and persona-based design. Concealing the practice-oriented nature of styles in design in turn risks restricting design to only those styles to which design education unreflectively seeks to naturalize us.”

Both Kimbell and Tonkinwise, with different emphases, highlight the depoliticised nature of design which design thinking appears to promote. Indeed, this is also the position taken by Nigel Cross, albeit in a less critical way, with his reference to imagination with responsibility.

We can read ‘design thinking’ in a number of ways:

  • Its emergence over the last decade reflects design’s evolution from the physical to the strategic. IDEO manifests past of this shift, but we can also see much evidence in the emergent field of service design, the application of design to healthcare delivery and other public services.
  • It is a useful shorthand term for those methods and processes that enable codesign and collaborative practices. There is not one single ‘true way’ for thinking through design, but a variety of approaches and practices that are evident in different contexts.
  • As a contested territory, it has required practitioners and researchers to reconnect with valuable perspectives and theories which have shaped our views of design over several decades.
  • 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.

Achieving relevance

My lecture to First Year students at Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art & Design (DJCAD) on 12 October emphasised how the achievement of relevance is a fundamental aim to their four years of study. Find what is relevant to you and to the world around you; use this to guide your creative strategies and developing technical skills. The lecture wove together the themes of relevance, creativity and craft – and at the end of this post are resources to help you explore these themes in more detail.

But why listen to me about how you should be thinking about your next four years at Art School? I asked five remarkably talented individuals to give you their advice, all of whom studied at DJCAD. One graduated two years ago, while another graduated in 1993. Between them they embrace a range of creative disciplines. All of them are inspiring people, who needed no encouragement to share with you their advice on how to get the best from Art School.

James Donald is one of Scotland’s most successful weavers, selling his work all over the world – particularly in the United States. Based in Edinburgh he allies his creative practice to being joint-owner of the successful Concrete Wardrobe retail outlet. Here is a message from James to you:

Johanna Basford is a remarkably versatile illustrator who studied printed textiles at DJCAD. Apart from designing the catalogue for the 2010 Edinburgh Fringe Festival, she has acquired an enviable client roster across many different industries from Channel 4 to Absolut Vodka. Her blog post 50 things I wish I’d known in art school is required reading. But below is her personal message to new DJCAD students:

Lauren Currie is co-founder of Snook – a social innovation and service design company based in Glasgow. Studying both Product Design and the Master of Design course at DJCAD, Lauren’s career has begun with a remarkable start, and she is now running a company that has the Chinese Government among their clients.

Joanna Montgomery graduated in 2010 in Interactive Media Design, is Director of Little Riot whose Pillow Talk product has proved a viral sensation on YouTube, as we saw in the lecture. In exchange for her valuable advice, Joanna asks that you vote for Little Riot in a national competition, to make Pillow Talk a reality. I am sure you will support Joanna in this competition. It will take you a minute!

Kate Pickering studied Jewellery & Metal Design and the Master of Design at DJCAD. Since graduating she has established Vanilla Ink, a highly acclaimed initiative to bridge the gap for jewellery students into industry. Kate won funding from the NESTA Starter For Six scheme to launch her initiative. An accomplished teacher in jewellery and design, this is her advice to you:

Why not follow these designers on Twitter? This will help you keep up-to-date with their activities and give you more insights into their professional practices. All of them use Twitter as a key part of their professional practice. Click on their names to access their twitter stream: James Donald, Johanna Basford, Lauren Currie, Joanna Montgomery, Kate Pickering. You’ll also find me on Twitter. Once you have set up a Twitter account, then you can follow them.

Achieving relevance referred to a number of artists, designers and events that you may wish to explore further.

Thank you, Eric

Every year I give a lecture to my postgraduate design students about writing: how and why we write, and in particular how to write well. This latter quality is not one that I myself possess, so I refer them to people who I believe exemplify the art of writing. My rather select list comprises Susan Sontag, Peter Dormer, Malcolm McCullough and Eric Hobsbawm. I learned this afternoon that Eric Hobsbawm has died at the age of 95.

It is certainly not for me to write his obituary, for that has been done today by others. Indeed the obituary of this seemingly obscure British Marxist historian can be found in the pages of newspapers in just about every country on earth tonight. That is a reflection of the impact of his writing, of the power of his storytelling. For Eric Hobsbawm was a masterful storyteller, who made history come alive and make sense. But as a Marxist, his concern was as much about the future as it was about the past, and his genius was in crafting the vision and the narrative to help us understand just where we were in time and space, and where we might go in the future.

Scattered over my home, on various bookshelves are books by him that stand as markers in my life. Way up high in the study is a small Penguin volume Industry and Empire that has my 16 year old signature on the first page. It guided me through my A level years. On the bookshelves up the stairs is his collection of essays The Forward March of Labour Halted which shaped my ideas as a postgraduate student, and which (as Tony Blair admits himself) provided the intellectual impetus for New Labour. But please let us not blame Eric for that. In the living room is a  collection of his key works – Age of Capital, Age of Revolution, Age of Empire, Age of Extremes – which are vital contributions of this time lord. And alongside is his autobiography, one of the last presents from my late father, which is his personal history of the 20th century.

I loved Eric Hobsbawm as a writer because of the effortless way that he shaped his vision and ideas into words that told a story. As a Jew born in the First World War, brought up in Vienna and Berlin and living through everything that followed, then his experience of the twentieth century shapes his unique insights of history both before and after. But more than that, it was his problematic and contradictory relationship with the Communist Party that I found most inspiring. I was a member of the Party when Eric Hobsbawm was the focus for those of us in the Eurocommunist faction, providing a real sense of political vision. He helped many of us through all those contradictory feelings.

Tonight it feels like a light has gone out. It was always there: a pole star of wisdom and insight against which you could judge your position and navigate yourself into new territories. But we will find our own way forward because of the inspiration and insights he leaves us with. Great writers do not just leave us with their words, but with the actions that those words inspire. Thank you, Eric Hobsbawm.

So what is design research? Find out

Today marked the start of my postgraduate module on design research for our new Masters students at Dundee. We have around 40 students from around the world (from Bahrain to Beijing, Romania to Rio, US to UK, etc) covering our three courses in Design for Services, Product Design and Design Ethnography. So far a great bunch of individuals who seemed not to mind about being lectured at for eight hours.

The way we teach at Dundee is to compress the taught delivery into one week blocks, followed by three week projects supported by tutorials. That makes the initial week somewhat intense. In addition to my own sessions, today we had short but inspiring and informative lectures from Catriona Macaulay, Hazel White and Jonathan Baldwin. The lectures comprise a vital element in the module in terms of setting the direction, providing the inspiration and energy and giving the personal insights based on our own experiences.

However, even without the lectures there’s a great deal that you can gain from the module – even if you’re not attending it. In common with most of our postgraduate design modules at Dundee, we make the content and supporting materials all available online. From the link on this post you can get access to the materials we provide our postgraduate students with. Explore the module website and follow up the further reading and links we provide.

Our Island Stories

Following the Olympic and Paralympic Games, a number of us starting discussing a new sensation we were experiencing – national pride. For those of a certain generation who are broadly speaking on The Left, national identity and patriotism have been problems over the years. And so my friend Catherine Annabel set up a blog to discuss these questions, and invited me to contribute.

Our Island Stories begins with this call from Catherine:

So, do we treat Danny Boyle’s vision of the Isles of Wonder as a requiem for what we value about our country, or a celebration?  Or even, perhaps, a warning and a call to action? Do we allow our ‘normal state of being’ to be reinstalled in the British psyche, without protest, without attempting to hold on to what we briefly experienced?  As Billy [Bragg] asks in his blog, ‘Has the euphoria of the past two weeks has caused a seismic shift in the meta-narrative of Britishness? … Can a new spirit of engaged and transformational patriotism emerge from this experience? One that seeks to build a fairer, more inclusive tomorrow, rather than constantly rehashing a narrow vision of the past?’

My contribution is far less any form of profound reflection on these questions – more an explanation of how I ended up having a highly vexed relationship with the idea of Britishness. Flagging up the issues focuses on my experiences during two days in 1977. If strong language and descriptions of violent acts offend or disturb you, then please do not read it.


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 523 other followers