Design, culture, craft, crime and research


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?




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.

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.”

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.

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.

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.

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.

Social design – research resources

Applying design thinking to complex social issues, such as those explored by our Masters students at Dundee, requires a critical, well informed understanding of the underlying issues, a grasp of the broad theoretical approaches and an awareness of where to find current research on relevant themes. This blog post is intended to develop over time into a useful resource on the research that is available. It may evolve into a wiki – but let’s see. To begin with I have grouped useful sources of research below.

Just to make clear – this is NOT a research guide to the skills, methods and perspectives of service design. This can be found elsewhere. The priority here is to equip students (and practitioners) with the contextual knowledge and understanding of social changes and challenges, together with some of the institutional/political issues involved in designing for public services and communities. As it currently stands it is far from comprehensive – and I welcome any comments to improve the scope of this listing. Also note that it is designed primarily for postgraduate students of design in Scotland – which accounts for an overwhelming UK bias, although I think that there is some value here for those outside the UK.

The role of design in public services

Design has a considerable role to play in the development of public services. At the start of your project it is worth familiarising yourself with some recent commentaries which are linked below. These help place your specific project into a broader context. As you will see, this new interest in design’s potential is in large part driven by the need to improve efficiencies in the delivery of services, and is also linked to policy frameworks such as the Big Society. Bear in mind that the Big Society is a highly contentious concept, and you should be familiar with some of the debates around it.

Role of social design in public services - Guardian article

Public services by Design - Design Council initiative

Public services by design - Guardian article

Innovation by design in public services - series of articles and excellent overview.

Public services by design: using design principles to improve local areas - Guardian article

What does it mean to design public services? - Guardian

Blog from the London School of Economics on design in public services.

Social by social - New technologies are changing the way we engage communities, run companies, deliver public services, participate in government and campaign for change – very useful resource.

Understanding society

It is essential that designers approach socially located projects with humility, respect and an admission of their own strengths and weaknesses. Designers have expertise in creative methods, visualisation and problem solving. These strengths can play a vital role in empowering communities, helping stakeholders to solve problems and develop their own creative thinking. However, without an understanding of the deeper context and dynamics of community development, healthcare or social change, then their work can be uninformed, misdirected or even dangerously naive. The inherent danger is of giving people a false sense of expectation.

We do not expect you to be experts in social science, but we do expect you to acquire an essential social literacy that is appropriate to your project domain. This will help you to understand and appreciate the perspectives of those other specialist professionals you will be working with, and the complexity of issues such as healthcare or poverty. A sense of history is also vital.

We recommend making use of the open access learning materials from The Open University as an essential prerequisite of undertaking your project.

Especially for students from outside Scotland and the UK, a basic understanding of social change in British communities is vital. The stories behind our streets looks at social change in cities such as Sheffield, Glasgow, Manchester and Cardiff. There is an archive of articles and learning materials on social policy that is worth browsing for your specific interests.

Understanding Scotland – An introduction to the history of Scotland including aspects of social change and social problems.

Poverty in Scotland - Contributions from leading academics, voluntary sector campaigners and practitioners, highlight the distinctive features of Scotland’s experience of poverty and the extent to which devolved and reserved policies have contributed to progress in tackling it.

The meaning of crime – Explores the attitudes to crime and how it is socially defined.

Problem populations, problem places – The entanglements of welfare, crime and society. It encourages you to think through these entanglements through a focus on ‘problem populations and problem places’.

The limits to primary care – Access to community services.

Introducing public health  - Introduces some key elements of public health and health promotion, using a video case study of Coventry. It focuses on the major determinants of health and ill health and the scope of public health work.

Understanding and engaging deprived communities - UK Home Office Report

In addition to the specific recommended materials above, we encourage you to browse the learning materials on social science for areas of more specific relevance to your project.

Think tanks

“A think tank (or policy institute) is an organization that conducts research and engages in advocacy in areas such as social policy, political strategy, economics, military, and technology issues.” Most of them are non-profit and non-governmental, although there are exceptions to this. They tend to have a political orientation, which you need to appreciate in order to understand the objectives that their research seeks to pursue. A full list of UK think tanks can be found here.

These organisations are a vital source of research on the issues you are dealing with. They are in most cases seeking to explore innovation in public service delivery, conduct high level robust research and – most importantly – make their work freely available. But it is vital that you understand the political and/or policy perspectives that they are seeking to pursue.

Alongside some of the Think Tanks listed below I have given some examples of recent publications as an indication of the type of research they publish.

Adam Smith Institute

A right of centre think tank (in the interests of balance!). Social and community issues is not a priority, but they have produced publications on health service reform that argues for a pro-market approach.

Centre for Economic and Social Inclusion

Claims to be “the UK’s leading not-for-profit company dedicated to tackling disadvantage and promoting social inclusion in the labour market.” They have published research on employment, social inclusion, poverty, welfare and welfare reform and other issues. All research available online.


Established in the early 1990s to address a perceived crisis in politics, it developed into a largely pro New Labour think tank, but has since returned to a less aligned organisation. It has undertaken some vital research in crime, citizenship, education, social mobility and capability building. All publications are online. Also includes the highly relevant Journey to the Interface project.

“Drawing on over 50 interviews with service innovators from the public, private and voluntary sectors The Journey to the Interface makes the case for a fresh approach to public service reform – an approach that is less about competition and contestability, and more about closing the gap between what people want and need, and what service organisations do.

The pamphlet argues that service design can offer policy makers and practitioners a vision for the transformation of public services, as well as a route to get there. It outlines an agenda for action which spells out how service design approaches can be applied systemically.”

Institute for Public Policy Research

Claims to be “the UK’s leading progressive thinktank. We produce rigorous research and innovative policy ideas for a fair, democratic and sustainable world.” Politically influential and broadly left of centre. Very useful publications which are largely all available online. You can also search by current research projects, which include work on communities.

Joseph Rowntree Foundation

They conduct and commission research into poverty, housing, inequality, education, healthcare and other social issues. A respected, long established think tank that has respect across the political spectrum and has a comprehensive achive of online research reports and other publications.

Involving service users in shaping local services, a study by Age Concern London, brought commissioners and service users together to discuss how service users can be involved in shaping local services.

The project reflected on what’s happening at the moment and how user involvement in commissioning could work in practice.”



The King’s Fund

This is a well established and highly respected organisation that researches and campaigns on health and social care. All publications online and a good search system.

The New Economics Foundation

“An independent think-and-do tank that inspires and demonstrates real economic well-being. We aim to improve quality of life by promoting innovative solutions that challenge mainstream thinking on economic, environment and social issues.” Publications cover a range of issues, including social policy and well being.

Creating Stronger and More Inclusive Communities provides some lessons for positive action in the context of austerity.

This report is about innovations which unlock communities’ strengths and recognising that people with support needs can also be assets to their communities. It outlines seven principles for empowerment and inclusion for an age of austerity.”


“An independent charity with a mission to help people and organisations bring great ideas to life.” A considerable amount of highly relevant research available, including the co-production catalogue, examples of collaborative public services in action, with a particular focus on health and social care.

The co-production catalogue brings together some inspiring examples of collaborative public services in action, with a particular focus on health and social care.

The purpose of the catalogue is to enable practitioners to reflect on their own practice and the extent to which that represents co-production; and to enable them to learn about co-production practice. It combines a range of case studies, resources and other information on co-production in health settings as well as in other sectors, in the UK and internationally.”

The Nuffield Trust

Undertakes research on healthcare with an extensive archive of research reports.

The RSA (Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce)

“An enlightenment organisation committed to finding innovative practical solutions to today’s social challenges.” A long standing commitment to applying design to social issues, and a range of publications and research reports available.

Social Market Foundation

“Cross-party think tank, developing innovative ideas across a broad range of economic and social policy.” Publications available on a range of issues including housing and communities, poverty, education, health and social care.

The Young Foundation

“Brings together insights, innovation and entrepreneurship to meet social needs. We have a track record of over 50 years’ success with ventures such as the Open University, Which?, the School for Social Entrepreneurs and Healthline (the precursor of NHS Direct).” Valuable range of publications that include social design.

The Open Book of Social Innovation is about the many ways in which people are creating new and more effective answers to the biggest challenges of our times: how to cut our carbon footprint; how to keep people healthy; how to end poverty. It describes the methods and tools for innovation being used across the world and across the different sectors – the public and private sectors, civil society and the household – and in the overlapping fields of the social economy, social entrepreneurship and social enterprise. It draws on inputs from hundreds of organisations around the world to document the many methods currently being used.”

The Work Foundation

“Research focuses on innovation and economic change, the role of cities, labour market disadvantage, health and wellbeing at work and how organisational change can promote good work.” Excellent archive of research reports.

Digital library

Having downloaded reports on relevant aspects of healthcare, social policy, crime prevention or whatever area of literature is most relevant, you need to archive this most appropriately and make sense of it in a way to inform your work. I recommend either Devonthink or Papers as excellent Mac applications for developing a digital library.

The problem with design management: it’s a guy thing

I have a problem with design management. I have never really been able to put my finger on it in a decisive way. But today I came closer.

Next week I will be lecturing in Rotterdam to postgraduate students on the excellent EURIB Masters course on design management. My theme is design leadership. This is an established field of inquiry and practice, but has been defined largely by the corporate concerns of management. I have less interest in this than the broader and more challenging question of design leadership in social design, the community and in the new ‘indie capitalist’ start-up culture.

However, there is a literature out there that explores definitions, interpretations and challenges of leadership in design – much of it based on extensive research – which I have been picking the bones out of.

The definitions that exist in the design management literature simply do not fit the new world of practice that many designers find themselves in today. So I decided to crowdsource some definitions. I tweeted: Tell me in a tweet: how do you define #designleadership?

What was sent to me in just a few hours were some great insights and interpretations, few if any fitting the conventional idea of design leadership. This is hardly surprising since design leadership is part of only very few individuals’ daily discourse. But it has certainly opened up some interesting themes to explore in Rotterdam and to write about more fully over the summer. I have clustered the responses fairly broadly. Some obviously fit under a number of clusters, but here we go.

Project management

These definitions focus on critical competencies in getting projects done well. Design leaders, it is perhaps inferred, are excellent, pragmatic and efficient managers and practitioners.

 @Doubleyouvee – someone who allows me 2 explore the boundaries of a brief but tells me to reel my neck in at the right time.

@First_Angle – design leadership is the ability to take control of a project & clearly portray the end result the client needs without issue

@Clearmapping – Compassion for those who pull off the all-nighters to deliver on time! *Usually day-in, day-out! : )

@FahdMSA – Design leadership is providing your creative ones with an open space in the right direction.

@cjarnold – #designleadership… the concerted act of framing, facilitating, and delivering on the promise of pragmatic creativity.


Given the textbook definitions – which focus exclusively on the strategic role of design leadership – I had expected to see a few more of these. I have included the @wearesnook response here as it accords with one view of strategic leadership which focuses on the ‘designerly approach to solving problems’.

@jsheau – Leadership thru design thinking/approaches applied strategically.

@martyn_evans – Very simply… ‘the strategic deployment of design management’.

@wearesnook – leaders who think like designers

Great metaphors

In different ways, these definitions nail it really effectively: connecting, pathfinding and asking why.

@vanillainkUK – #designleadership is about connecting the dots

@DivaDesign – Design leaders are the Sherpas on the mountain of communication

@StuartUnited – By asking why all the time while dressed in black.

Vision, values and determination

Seeing a vision, holding on to values in the face of adversity and removing ego as you lead are the issues here. Putting others first, such as users, seems to be linked to this idea of leading with less ego.

@FDalmau – #designleadership is the capacity of transferring what only your eyes can see to the rest of humanity.

@craftfair – Sticking to your values under economic pressure.

@rbsquarebanana – Leading by example, without an egotistical bent.

@fwalasdair - putting the user / customer at the core of the organisation

Change in the world (not just business)

These two definitions focus on leading change, and in one case specifically regarding social change.

 @alamaffan – be an agent of change.

@CharlotteGorse – #designleadership is helping to activate social change for the better, connecting likeminds in a common purpose


In the definitive Handbook of Design Management (in which I am one of many contributors) empowerment is not even in the index. This term comes from psychology and philosophy, and has a close association with feminism.

 @EmmaWalkerCEO – Creating space to empower new opportunity and vision.

@jaycousins – #designleadership is empowering people to take the lead, so they can improve the world for themselves and others.


 @joannasaurusrex – #designleadership is female!

To be honest, my twitter experiment had given me more inspiration and ideas to mull over than three days of poring over all the literature and research. So why is this?

My contributor @joannasaurusrex has a vital insight. I asked her why female, and she replied: “because women are more emotive – and both good design and good leadership should have a mixture of structure and feeling”.

Much of the literature in design management and design leadership is based on studies of men. Actually, a very specific type of man – a white male designer who works for a large corporation. I have nothing against these people at all. Some of them indeed are my best friends. It is just that basing an entire academic and professional discipline around a really rather small section of humanity is somewhat questionable.

In an influential and highly well argued paper, The Soul of Design Leadership, a number of examples are used to define the essence of design leadership. And they are: Philippe Picaud, former design director of Decathlon; Thorsten Bjørn, senior creative director for LEGO; Chris Bangle, former design director of BMW Group; Chris Hacker, former design director of Aveda; Chuck Jones, former design director of Whirlpool; Stefano Marzano, CDO of Philips Electronics; Steve Jobs and Jonathan Ive of Apple. Can you see a pattern here?

Or how about this, another paper on this same theme that lists Jonathan Ive, Bill Moggridge, Chris Bangle, Terence Conran, Tim Brown, Philippe Starck, Patrick Whitney, John Thackara and a few others. I guess you get my drift.

It is not as if we are short of women who work in corporate design or who are highly influential in design: design leaders such as Vivienne Westwood, curators and journalists such as Helen Walters and Alice Rawsthorn, designer/researchers like Helen Storey. But they do not feature as exemplars in the corporate-focussed literature.

A new vision of leadership

We can link this issue to the general crisis of leadership that is now evident in our culture. I have written about this in the context of politics elsewhere in this blog. There is a general failure of leadership in the political, corporate and civic worlds. I would suggest that this failure can be directly attributed to redundant values that are rooted in conventional power relationships, such as patriarchy.

Thankfully there are alternative values evident in the new generation of leaders, and it is these that need to be embraced, nurtured and – dare I say – empowered. UpRising is a leadership programme and a venture launched and developed by the Young Foundation to support and train a new generation of public leaders, aiming to open pathways to leadership for talented young adults. In a survey of UpRisers, people were asked to identify the three most important values/attributes for a leader to have. The UpRisers chose putting community first (44%), emotional intelligence (43%), and commitment and determination (38%). To quote from the UpRiser report:

“When asked what is lacking in leadership, the general public cited honesty (55%), integrity (46%), and emotional intelligence (40%). UpRisers however chose emotional intelligence, honesty, and putting community first as their three top choices. These results indicate that people do know what they are looking for: a new model of leadership that is absent from current British power structures.”

My theory is that there is a wholly new set of values, qualities and practices emerging from a new generation of leaders (in design and elsewhere) and these are evident from my highly unscientific twitter survey. So, let me pull this together and suggest a provisional conclusion.

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.

Does this matter? Well, on one level no, not at all. One of my respondents who I consider to be a remarkable and visionary design leader tweeted in reply to my thanks for taking part to say “You’re welcome, never heard the term till today to be honest.” If anything, that is a far more pressing problem to address: the failure of this research and literature to connect with its professional constituency. But perhaps it is time to initiate a discussion about design leadership with this new generation of leaders.

@jaycousins @EmmaWalkerCEO @wearesnook @joannasaurusrex @vanillainkUK who contributed, are exemplary design leaders. I’m sure the others are too – I just don’t actually know them! So thanks to them all.

Design leaders empower others to creatively connect the dots. And yes, sometimes they wear black.

Designing politics beyond the pasty – part two

The previous post argued that politics has failed the people: its institutional forms are defective and the culture of political discourse is both anachronistic and, to be honest, frankly offensive. As a consequence voter apathy is at record levels, and political debate now centres on meat-filled baked pastry products originating from the Cornish peninsula. D:Ream are simply wrong on this: things can only get much worse. So let us consider how design can begin to map a way out of this political slough of despond.

According to Jennie Winhall: “Design is political. It’s about values, power and preferences, about ideologies and consequences.” And it always has been. As I have argued elsewhere “Designers are value driven. They look at the world, usually just one small part of it, and consider how it could be more efficient, more sustainable, more engaging, more desirable, more competitive, or simply more beautiful. How can that one small part of the world better reflect the values that we consider to be most relevant? Design makes a statement of what we want the world to be like. And in doing so, it is a political activity. Values are political, values express preferences about what problems are worth solving, and in whose interests they are solved. Values determine the degree to which design liberates or empowers the individual and those communities that make up the wider society.”

Unfortunately, the evidence of our own eyes would suggest that the values and politics pursued through most design practice meets the needs of vested corporate and other institutional interests, valuing the world only in terms of the commodities that feed unfettered consumerism. But according to Winhall: “The good news is that there’s a growing breed of designers who are political with a small p. They’re not campaigning, but problem solving; they’re not “master-designers,” but democratic in approach. They’re using their skills as designers to illustrate, create and demonstrate opportunities for social change. But the reason for their emergence is that the politics of design itself has changed.” She cites the redesign of public services as evidence for this, in that conventional policy makers, who are used to top-down decision making, are simply ill-equipped to address the needs of an age in which the user is central, and should be empowered to enable change.

Former Design Council Chairman, Lord Bichard, clearly agrees, and believes there are three key ways in which design can make public services better.

  1. It can redesign the way we deliver our services allowing us to “build or reshape our services around citizens, around clients, around customers.”
  2. It can help the development of better policy “ensuring that ideas are tested before having scarce resources invested in them on a national basis.”
  3. “Design can help us in the public services to be more innovative. We need to be conscious that today’s problems are just not going to be addressed by yesterday’s ideas and yesterday’s solutions…we need a whole new approach to policy over the 10 years.”

There are two areas of design practice that display the qualities and potential of a progressive political design practice: (i) service design in the public sector and (ii) design activism. The qualities in evidence are: user/citizen focussed, participatory and/or co-design in approach, valuing the primacy of local and practical knowledge, entrepreneurial in spirit and ethos, integrating design thinking and design craft, committed to open design principles, progressive in the social values that underlie practice. I will briefly consider each in turn.

Service design in the public sector is well documented in terms of how design is contributing to a democratised public sector through its distinctive methods and approaches. As The Guardian reported: “Design methods fuse time spent in the field and research techniques borrowed from anthropology with an understanding of how people use objects. They are democratic in spirit: designers use workshops that help people contribute their ideas freely. They are just as happy dealing with the currency of experience and emotions as they are analysing trends. And if public service reform is about anything, it has to be about people.”

Companies such as Engine and Scotland’s own excellent Snook are active in this field. Indeed Snook is working with the Scottish Government to see how design, innovation and creativity can be more firmly embedded within the processes of government. Our own Master of Design for Services course works very closely with public healthcare providers, local government and others to explore service design’s potential as a transformative process in public services, such as the current Totally Dundee project led by Taylor Haig which pulls together a team of recent MDes graduates.

The danger of service design for public services is that it becomes incorporated within the institutional paradigm that it has the potential to challenge, and thus becomes just another technocratic tool of the public sector. Simon Blyth and Lucy Kimbell have provided a vital analysis that comes out of service design practice, but which suggests a significant shift of emphasis:

“Rather than claiming to solve social problems, we want to argue for the relevance and value of Design in actively, critically and reflexively contributing to their construction… We want to invite designers to make this more clearly part of their practice. We think there are things about Design that make it particularly good at doing this, although the positioning of design-as- problem-solving tends to have ignored them.” Blyth and Kimbell argue that there are five things that make Design particularly good at helping construct social problems:

  1. The first thing Design does well is rendering issues as something that other people can experience.
  2. The second thing Design expertise does well is creating artefacts around which people can gather to interpret and discuss the characteristics of a social issue.
  3. A third thing that is central to design expertise is staging an open-ended enquiry that actively avoids being closed down quickly in the form of a particular solution.
  4. A fourth aspect of Design is its role in making trouble and being open to the potentially disruptive side of creativity.
  5. A final part of contemporary Design expertise is opening up the conventions about who and what can be included in a design project.

Their paper deserves close reading, especially their three specific suggestions about how Design needs to change in order to responsibly rise to the challenges of working on social problems that are often deep-seated and involve conflicting values:

  1. Firstly, individuals need to be aware what they bring to problem-definition and problem- solving on a project level, and how this amplifies, reproduces or challenges existing ideas about collective problems.
  2. Secondly, designers working on social problems should set up the possibilities for double-loop learning and reflective conversations.
  3. Thirdly, designers need to question whether the consultancy model, which continues to be a dominant way that the industry operates, is the right one for working in domains such as public service.

Service design in the public sector contains a variety of practices, but out of theme we can see emerging a political form of reflexive practice in which values are explicit and explored, and social activism becomes a more central element of practice,

Design activism is a very broad field which I have no intention of mapping here. Thankfully Anne Chick and Paul Micklethwaite have done that job admirably well in their book  Also, Nicholas O’Donnell-Hoare, Karen Yair and I have documented many examples of design activism through our Change Makers project.

However, one specific aspect of design activism demands attention here, and that is the Open Design movement. Open Design Now is an excellent book that is partly available to access free online. Regretably the part that isn’t available includes Bert Mulder’s chapter on Open Design for Government, in which he argues that open design’s most significant contribution to government could be in terms of citizen involvement.

I have written elsewhere about open design and the maker movement’s possible contribution to a new economy and a new politics. Here I want to finish on Marleen Stikker’s introduction to the Open Design Now book. She centres her analysis on two ways of thinking and interacting with the world:

“Possibilitarians think in new possibilities, and get all excited when things get messy and life becomes disorderly. In disruption, possibilitarians see new opportunities, even if they do not know where they might lead. They believe, with Denis Gabor, that ‘the future cannot be predicted, but futures can be invented’. Realitarians are operating within a given framework, according to the rules that are given, following to the powers there are. They accept the conditions and the institutions as given, and are fearful of disruption.”

As she continues to argue:

“Possibilitarians engage in open design as a process, trusting their own abilities to guide that process. And as possibilitarians, they pursue strategies to be inclusive, to involve others, to build bridges between opposite positions: North-South, old-young, traditional-experimental. Possibilitarians represent a sharing culture which is at the core of open design. As such, they trust others to make their own contributions and to build upon what has been shared. Trust, responsibility and reciprocity are important ingredients in an open, sharing culture.”

Not all designers are possibilitarians, but it seems to me that those who are hold the key for defining a new politics. Design is the art of the possible. So was politics, once. Alas, no longer. The change we need to see in our political culture will not come from the realitarians who dominate that culture. Designers therefore have a challenge and an opportunity: to demonstrate their value as transformative change makers.

In a third post I will set out some steps we can take to do this. I will also engage with Tony Fry’s latest book Design as Politics which sets out a highly radical path for the design community.

Designing politics beyond the pasty – part one

When Cornish Pasties become the dominant political news story, then either it is a remarkably slow news day or there is something critically wrong with the state of politics. With yet another UK fatality in Afghanistan, and an imminent petrol tanker drivers’ strike, lack of news would not appear to be the problem. But militarism and industrial relations have long ceased to be the stuff of political debate. In our liberal democracy where all political parties jostle for position in the centre ground, ideological differences take on a much more subtle and seemingly bizarre form. So Ed Miliband and Ed Balls – the supposed intellectual heavyweights of the Labour Party – brandish sausage rolls to make their point. Meanwhile in Parliament, the Chancellor of the Exchequer was floored by a question that was not about his failure to manage the economy, but was about when he last bought a pasty at Greggs. When a Greggs pasty is the political hot potato of the day, then we really are in a pickle. Food for thought, eh?

In the last general election, 35% of registered electors failed to vote at all. According to the Electoral Commission, up to 6 million people do not even register to vote, so if we factor them in, then around 43% of eligible voters either don’t register, or stay at home on polling day. Thus, we have a Prime Minister representing a party that secured 19% of the eligible vote in the last general election. None of this is news, as rising voter apathy is well recognised across the political spectrum. But what is equally disturbing is apathy on the part of the political parties themselves to address an issue which, if neglected long enough, will simply destroy the democratic system.

Like just about everyone I know, I vote with a very heavy heart. The party I vote for has no vision, no creative imagination and no ability to engage people about issues that matter to them. My party of choice has abandoned most of its values and has enacted some policies and practices that I actively abhor. But they’re better than the other lot. Not much of a reason to vote though, is it? None of the parties address the long-term issues that our collective future depends on, preferring to focus on short term gains that are politically expedient. Consequently issues such as the ageing population, energy and transport policy, and the whole sustainability agenda are parked to one side. The pasty takes precedence.

There are two issues here. First is the tendency under liberal democracies for a coalescing around the centre ground, thereby removing ideology from politics and any sense of long term vision. As a consequence we choose not political alternatives based on a notion of a world we would like to live in, but technocratic alternatives based on how efficiently we think the world could be run. We vote on the basis of which party we think has the more competent leaders to make the decisions required to steer an advanced capitalist economy. Of course, we are not really qualified to choose on the basis of actual competence, so it boils down to which bloke looks the part. And right now it is all blokes.

Second, the conventions, cultures and methods of politics are wholly anachronistic and simply have no appeal or resonance with the majority of people as the British Social Attitudes Survey suggests (I think the bloke thing is a clue as to the reason for this). The world has moved on. Politics has not. I used to listen religiously to Any Questions on Radio 4. Two weeks ago after it had been on for five minutes, we switched it off. I do not want shouty people who seem incapable of listening or acknowledging other points of view in my house, thank you very much. It’s bad enough when you have to vote for them. I’m with Martin Amis on this one, who argues that British politics is full of “not very nice people – touchy, vain, power-hungry male politicians obsessed by maintaining face”. And that’s just the good ones.

Politics has failed the people. The irony here is that it has been politicians who have driven change everywhere else. We had to get more competitive and weed out the lame ducks. So the mines and shipyards were shut. We had to reform the public sector, so throughout education, healthcare and policing we have seen radical reforms and restructuring. We have all changed. We have all adapted. Meanwhile the political system remains largely as it was in the 19th century. No change there. There is a language and culture of conflict, secrecy and duplicity that has now become so profoundly unappealing and irrelevant to the way that the world works, that radical change in politics is no longer an option but a necessity for its very survival. Apathy becomes tempered when we are offered what appears to be authenticity and real choice in politics. George Galloway and the SNP are at least authentic. But do we really desire a politics based on sectionalism or nationhood?

It is time to design politics better.

In the second part of this post I will look at the inherently political role of design, initiatives by designers to creatively engage communities in rethinking their future, and some recent arguments suggesting that design itself could constitute a new politics.

Design & Democracy

The Design & Democracy exhibition continues to run at the Scottish Parliament – a unique show that displays how the design students of Scotland are using their skills and knowledge to address a range of social issues. Full details of the exhibition can be found on the Parliament website, including video profiles of the exhibitors.

At the exhibition’s opening I said a few words on behalf of the four Scottish Design Schools whose students are represented. An abridged version of this follows below.

This is an exhibition that tells a story – the story of how design can contribute positively to our civic society on all sorts of levels: to strengthen democracy by doing what it does best – visualising alternative ways of doing things, highlighting problems we need to address, and giving a voice to those who are seldom heard. And behind the exhibition is another story: one of Scotland’s big success stories – the vibrancy and relevance of our world class design education.

Every summer the doors open on our art school degree shows. In Aberdeen, Dundee, Edinburgh and Glasgow, the achievements of our graduating students in art and design are celebrated in four sparkling and inspiring exhibitions of creative excellence. The idea developed to showcase some of the very best of our design graduate work here in the Parliament, in an exhibition themed around design and democracy. A broad theme, but one which enabled us to explore how students in design were looking at community engagement, social change, inclusion, sustainability – and other key issues that are essential to a healthy and thriving civic society.

At its best, design has always been about progressive social change – using the power of design to imagine new futures, new solutions and new ideas. At its best design is about empathy, about understanding people, about empowering people. And as we went from one art school to another this summer – we saw so many examples of visionary design thinking at its very best.

My colleagues Robert Gillan from Edinburgh College of Art, Libby Curtis from Gray’s School of Art, Jenny Brownrigg from The Glasgow School of Art, Fiona McDougall from the Scottish Parliament and myself toured the four shows during this May and June. It was a fantastic, and perhaps too rare opportunity for the art schools to work together in this way. We saw different strengths and approaches, different issues being explored, different opportunities seized. By the time we got to the end of our journey – at the Glasgow show – we were literally overwhelmed by what we had seen. And it’s not just about the quality of work – brilliant though that is. It’s about how our art schools are regenerating themselves to address the new issues and challenges of our age.

Art Schools are one of those great Victorian inventions – creative hothouses to drive innovation and to bridge art and industry. And, a great British invention. The art schools not only helped to create competitive well designed products, but they also produced our culture – both ‘high’ and popular: the Apple iPod, The Beatles, Habitat, Punk and the Dyson vacuum cleaner all have their creative roots in the British art school. In Scotland, our art schools are typified by a continuing commitment to craft values – whether in fashion and textiles or in interaction design. Culturally informed intelligent making underpins our educational approach and defines our distinctiveness. And that is what we see in this exhibition – but now married much more explicitly to the social concerns and sensibilities of those who study design in Scotland, and of those who teach them.

We live in troubling and uncertain times. We look, too often in vain, for a vision of how things could be better and different. Design – as this exhibition demonstrates so powerfully – has the potential to provide visions for the future, and tools to make change happen. And a new generation of designers is showing – and indeed demanding – that design has a vital role to play in the future of our democracy.

Making design work

My current lectures for the University of Dundee’s 3rd year students in design and the market explores the future of work in design.

The first lecture new challenges considered the fast pace of change in work and employment and sketched out some of the broad trends taking place. We looked at technological, economic and demographic changes which are set to transform work practices and structures – but I stressed that this does not predetermine the future. I quoted Karl Marx, who said that people “make their own history” and that there is the opportunity to shape the future ourselves. But as Marx quickly went on to explain “they do not make it just as they please, but under circumstances transmitted from the past”. Yes, we can make our own futures, but we have to understand the preconditions, constraints (but equally, opportunities) that the past gives us.

Generational developments, and the tectonic demographic shifts currently taking place – linked to an ageing population – is perhaps the most significant constraint for the future. We considered how the pre-boomers, babyboomers, generation x and generation y looked at work and identity. The characteristics of Gen Y were explored by Don Tapscott in his book Grown Up Digital. In the UK, the think tank Reform described them as the IPOD generation in their report. Notably, Gen Y is less politically engaged than other generations, which means that they are less regarded by political parties. However, the rise of student activism and protest could suggest a shift, as Laurie Penny argues.

A recent issue of Time magazine has looked at the future of work. In this issue it was argued that “Most of the best jobs will be for people who manage customers, who organize fans, who do digital community management. We’ll continue to need brilliant designers, energetic brainstormers and rigorous lab technicians.” A key argument of the Time feature, supported by other research, is that women are likely to play a far greater role in management and business. A further trend which developments this month support, is bi-generational leadership. The most successful high tech start ups in the US have leadership teams that include both Babyboomers and Gen Y. The lecture dwelt for a short time on the virtues of bi-generational leadership in Universities.

The future belongs to the T-shaped practitioner, by which specialist knowledge skills are balanced by cross-disciplinary inter-personal skills. This all comes together in our context through the Design Council’s work on multidisciplinary design education. As it explains: “Tim Brown, CEO of design firm IDEO, which has been a vocal proponent of the need for ‘T-shaped people’, describes these ideal employees as ‘specialists with a passion and empathy for people and for other subject areas’”. I finished the lecture by suggesting that increasingly we are inventing the nature of work as we do it – a bit like building planes in the sky.

The second lecture creative futures examined how recent research has shed light on the nature of careers and employment for design graduates. The Institute for Employment Studies (IES) undertook the “largest-ever study of the career patterns of graduates from UK courses in art, design, craft and media explores graduates’ experiences of higher education, their activities since graduating, the work they are currently engaged in, and their plans for the future.” From the IES website you can download the three major reports that have come out of this study. In short, the research shows that graduates are making use of their creative education, are generally positive about their work, are increasingly pursuing portfolio working lives, and value their education. However, the research suggests that art and design graduates “had less well‐developed IT, networking and client‐facing skills”. Within the lecture we were unable to explore the detail of the research. Students are strongly advised to look at the reports, especially creative career stories.

There is little difference in terms of career patterns between students who pursue craft-based or industry-based design disciplines – both require entrepreneurial skills and involve portfolio working. The Crafts Council has commissioned research that studies the career patterns of craft graduates, which has resulted in a number of reports that can be accessed from their website. The Making Value report by Mary Schwarz and Dr Karen Yair is of particular interest. The survey and report New lives in the making by myself and Alison Cusworth was published in 1998, but shows very similar patterns of employment. The book The Independents by Charles Leadbeater and Kate Oakley published by Demos is also from the late 90s, but it has some highly relevant observations and advice for emergent creative professionals today.

Crafting our future


An opportunity for Labour?

It’s hard work being a Labour Party supporter. I suspect Obama supporters feel the same. Indeed, the failure of the left and the centre left (or in the US case, the liberals) to advance any credible progressive alternative is dispiriting in the extreme. What is all the more curious is that there IS the starting point of a progressive alternative staring them all in the face – but since it has not emerged from the increasingly insular world that party politics is now conducted in, then it has simply not been noticed.

The makings of an alternative are to be found in maker culture and active consumerism: in craft cafes, hacker spaces and especially in IKEA. It addresses some profound issues concerning how we innovate, how we create sustainable enterprise, and how we link this to a social agenda. It provides solutions for educational underachievement, models for urban and rural regeneration, and strategies to address critical skills shortages in fields as diverse as plumbing and programming. It demands that we rethink our conception of work, in order to make better use of the one vital resource that humans are provided with: our creativity. It connects with something very deep within us all: an inherent desire to make things for ourselves. And it requires that we ditch the one thing that ties us to redundant notions of our future: our labour. Perhaps that is the left’s problem.

What is interesting and significant is that this ‘new alternative’ has in recent weeks been the subject of coverage in UK and US business media, national media in the US, New Scientist, together with the technology and eco-activist blogosphere – but aside from one or two pieces in The Guardian, the Left’s media appears far more interested in the Occupy movement. Sorry, but I’ve spent time at St Paul’s and all I see is yet another marginal protest that the Left is so fond of.

Below is a summarised commentary on some of this recent coverage, prior to working it up into a more resolved piece of writing. I have emphasised recent writing rather than more extensive academic literature, such as David Gauntlett’s recent excellent book. The argument threading through it is that the emergent maker economy is of critical significance in the development of an alternative economic model that is capable of addressing economic regeneration, social renewal and individual fulfilment. While we have in the past been defined by our labours, in the future we will be defined by our works.

The indie capitalist revolution

In December 2011, The Economist reported on the significance of the maker movement under the headline “more than just digital quilting”. It recognised that its roots lie in digital culture at the confluence of the open source movement and the new technologies such as Arduino and MakerBot’s 3D printers. Setting its scene at the New York Maker Faire, The Economist explained how “this show and an even bigger one in Silicon Valley, held every May, are the most visible manifestations of what has come to be called the “maker” movement. It started on America’s West Coast but is spreading around the globe: a Maker Faire was held in Cairo in October.”

Physical spaces and tools are part of the maker movement’s landscape, along with online communities. There is a rich pluralism as hackers and corporates coexist alongside business startups, social enterprises, hobbyists and venture capitalists. In its conclusion, The Economist draws a pertinent parallel:

 “The parallel with the hobbyist computer movement of the 1970s is striking. In both cases enthusiastic tinkerers, many on America’s West Coast, began playing with new technologies that had huge potential to disrupt business and society. Back then the machines manipulated bits; now the action is in atoms. This has prompted predictions of a new industrial revolution, in which more manufacturing is done by small firms or even by individuals. “The tools of factory production, from electronics assembly to 3D printing, are now available to individuals, in batches as small as a single unit,” writes Chris Anderson, the editor of Wired magazine.

“It is easy to laugh at the idea that hobbyists with 3D printers will change the world. But the original industrial revolution grew out of piecework done at home, and look what became of the clunky computers of the 1970s. The maker movement is worth watching.”

Also writing in December, Bruce Nussbaum – a former editor of Business Week – presents four reasons why the future of capitalism is homegrown, small scale, and independent. Indie capitalism, Nussbaum argues, is “a maker system of economics based on creating new value, not trading old value. It embraces all the strains of maker culture–food, indie music, DIY, craft, 3-D digital fabrication, bio-hacking, app enabling, CAD modeling, robotics, tinkering. Making is not a rare act performed by a few but a routine happening in which just about everyone participates.”

In contrast to The Economist, Nussbaum differentiates the culture of this new movement from the West Coast start up scene of the 70s that spawned Apple and Microsoft. He favours the term indie capitalism “because it captures more of the social context and values of this new economy. I think it is sufficiently different from the entrepreneurial, startup culture of Stanford/Silicon Valley to warrant its own name. The term feels more 21st century, while ‘startup’ sounds, well, 20th century. It’s socially focused, not technology focused, more designer/artist-centric than engineering-centric. I especially like ‘indie’ because the indie music scene reflects many of the distributive and social structures of this emergent form of capitalism. It’s no accident that Portland and New York have vibrant indie music scenes and are the centers of a rising new indie capitalism.” In Nussbaum’s, view, the time is right for this indie capitalism to usher in an indie economics and indie politics given that – from Occupy to the Tea Party – finance or ‘predatory’ capitalism is under attack. And so is high street retail capitalism.

In a blogpost entitled why 2012 will be year of the artist-entrepreneur, Michael Wolf argues that with distribution chains collapsing vertically across video, music and books, as online storefronts become the entire distribution chain, so this expands the role of the artist-entrepreneur who distributes themselves. “No doubt, the vast majority of economic wealth is still distributed through large corporate media, but as new technologies enable artists to reach consumers directly through push-button creation and distribution, there is a movement afoot. Expect this movement to expand in 2012 as more artists take control of their own economic destinies and become part of the artist-entrepreneur generation.”

Writing recently in the New York Times, William Deresiewicz frames this development even more profoundly: “The small business is the idealized social form of our time. Our culture hero is not the artist or reformer, not the saint or scientist, but the entrepreneur. (Think of Steve Jobs, our new deity.) Autonomy, adventure, imagination: entrepreneurship comprehends all this and more for us. The characteristic art form of our age may be the business plan.”

The Left almost certainly has a problem with the maker movement because it is bound up with entrepreneurialism. Which is strange, because many of the new entrepreneurs seemingly have no problems with politically progressive concerns and ideals. Yes, this is is the age of the business plan and the start up. Young people especially are doing it for themselves in terms of employment creation. Now, in part this is because many have no other choice; around 30 percent of new entrepreneurs in the US go into business because there is no other option for work. But whether reluctant or willing, increasing numbers of entrepreneurs are doing it less for the money and more to make a difference.

Danny Alexander, a design entrepreneur writing in the Stanford Social Innovation Review, takes issue with those who see entrepreneurship as purely in terms of wealth creation: “For many of us, entrepreneurship is our anger, our edge, and our ego. It is our social movement… I’m an entrepreneur because I see fundamental problems with society and want to be active in creating solutions.” Closer to home, there are dynamic new enterprises such as Snook which are pursuing a new politics and social vision through entrepreneurial action.

Labour isn’t working – the value of doing it yourself

Throughout the world, there is a generation of highly educated, aspirational young people with a strong sense of a social vision who have been failed by both labour markets and labour parties. Put simply, there are no jobs and no political vision about how to change the world in a progressive direction. The only solution to both problems is to do it yourself. Entrepreneurialism also addresses a third problem: most jobs suck.

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.” The options appear to be useful work (through creative entrepreneurialism) versus useless toil (by selling our increasingly devalued labour power). Put simply, whether creating a livelihood or building bookcases, people value doing it themselves. If you want proof – go to IKEA.

The IKEA effect has been documented and argued by behavioural economist Michael Norton of the Harvard Business School. In this month’s New Scientist, an article entitled The hard way: Our odd desire to do it ourselves explained how Norton and his colleagues set up experiments in which people were asked to assemble IKEA furniture or fold origami or build Lego sets. “The participants then had to bid small sums for the products of their labour, or for a custom- or expert-made equivalent. The results were impressive. People bid considerably more for their own creations, even when they were plain old IKEA boxes. When it came to origami, they stumped up nearly as much for their own forlorn frog or bird as for the same animal folded by an expert – even though other participants subsequently rated their efforts as ‘nearly worthless crumpled paper’”. The New Scientist piece describes other research that cumulatively demonstrates that the things we make we value far more – regardless of how well we make them.

Crafting the creative society

One of New Labour’s many problems was the incredibly narrow way that it viewed creativity, reducing it to the questionable notion of creative industries. The whole point was that the UK was to build up a particular set of consumer industries that required specific skills and knowledge that would be supplied through the labour market. Built on a theoretical bedrock that drew heavily from Richard Florida’s Creative Class thesis, this drove policy at both national and local government. There are three central problems with the creative industry emphasis. First, it is highly centralised: necessarily London will act as the key focus for such industries. Second, it is very fragile: the experience of the computer games industry in Dundee is evidence of that. Third, it is culturally defined by Florida’s Creative Class: DIY culture in north Wales or knitting in Shetland does not feature in its metropolitan landscape. As such, the creative economy as defined is exclusive.

Crafting an inclusive creative society demands a wholescale rethinking of education, work and the processes of civic society. Libby Brooks, writing in The Guardian, makes the following case:

“A recession invites fundamental reassessment of the place of work – and leisure – in our lives. Practically, this means recognising that teaching a tradable, portable skill is one of the best ways to lift people out of poverty. Philosophically, it invites an acceptance that a trade-off between hamster-wheel presenteeism and mollifying consumption has never been good for us and is not feasible in this economic climate. Crucially, craft is egalitarian. While some in the Labour party appear bent on resuscitating the canard of meritocracy, which divides the gifted few from the unexceptional mass, craft reminds us of the significance of equality of outcome, rather than of opportunity. Everyone shares the capacity to develop a skill, based on decent teaching, application and time – not raw talent.”

The question is, can Labour (or indeed The Left) envisage an egalitarian future in which people craft their own lives?

Why the Wedgwood Museum matters

The Wedgwood Museum faces selloff to pay £134m pension debt after court ruling

You don’t need to have a passion for pots to appreciate why the Wedgwood Museum represents the crown jewels of our industrial heritage. Josiah Wedgwood was responsible for some of the key innovations that drove industrialisation and design, and whose vision for technological progress went hand-in-hand with social progress. His was a vision of socially responsible capitalism that we could benefit from revisiting today.

The Wedgwood Museum in Barlaston, Stoke-on-Trent is a unique factory-based collection and archive that tells the story of Wedgwood’s contribution to our age. And what precisely is that contribution? Well, to get well made, durable, beautifully designed crockery onto tables Josiah Wedgwood undertook painstaking materials research into new ceramic bodies, he invented new decorative techniques, he created the profession of the designer, he built one of the world’s first factories, he invented the idea of market segmentation and pioneered many of the essential principles of today’s marketing. ‘Buy one, get one free’ was a Wedgwood innovation. Not many people know that. He brought science and art into industry in a unique, powerful and visionary way.

He invested his wealth in Britain’s canal system, and built proper homes for the new working class he had created, driven by a paternalistic concern for his employees. A passionate slavery abolitionist, he produced cameos with an enslaved black figure on a white background above the legend “Am I Not A Man And A Brother?” Soon becoming the fashion of the day, Wedgwood was the first to enable us to wear our issue-based politics on our sleeves, or around our necks. After Josiah’s death, his granddaughter married Charles Darwin – the Darwins being longstanding family friends – and the Wedgwood inheritance bought Darwin the time to write his theory of evolution.

His ambition, to give pottery “an elegance of form” embedded craft aesthetic and processes within the new technologies of his age – in much the same way as Steve Jobs achieved two centuries later. Like Jobs, but far more fundamentally, he redefined design and its management for a new age of change.

Today, every innovator, designer, industrialist, scientist, craft maker and entrepreneur is standing on the shoulders of this giant. His significance cannot be over-stated. To achieve his “elegance of form” required building a whole new infrastructure for manufacture, commerce and culture. “Father of English potters” is an epithet that tells only a fraction of his story and significance.

The company that bears his name went into administration in 2009, and the brand is today owned by a New York based private equity firm, with Wedgwood employing only a few hundred workers producing top-end products. This followed some catastrophically inept management in the company in its latter years. I should know: I spent an interesting lunchtime in the company of Wedgwood’s Board. They hauled me in because I had said on BBC TV some fairly damning (but very true) things about the paucity of their design management, and how it was leading directly to factory closures. In short, Wedgwood’s problems in the mid-1990s was nothing to do with cheap imports, rather its key challenge was with expensive imports. Analysis of trade statistics showed that they were losing market share in the top-end, design-led markets. This of course they denied. While they employed some exemplary designers, the skills of these talented individuals were being exercised in a strategic black hole. A passion for pots? It was my view that the bosses knew the meaning of neither.

I knew I was right when lunch was served. It was horrible; the kind of fare that even University caterers would avoid serving. Put simply, if you do not appreciate the joy of eating, how on earth can you create the world’s best tableware to share that joy with others? Clearly the days when pottery managers were people with “clay running in their veins” were over. These people were accountants, and they didn’t do that very well either.

Allowing Wedgwood to fold was above all damning to the generations of Stoke pottery workers and their families who had invested their working lives and their craft skills in the company. To be honest, the best pots in the world count for nothing if the people who make them, who believe in them, whose lives are defined by them, are simply thrown onto the industrial scrapheap. They deserve far better.

And that is the dilemma here. A blackhole in Wedgwood’s pension fund has led to a court ruling yesterday that the Wedgwood Museum should be sold off to raise the £134 million needed for the former employees’ pensions. Their jobs were taken away, and with it their dignity and self-worth. Their pension is all they have left.

But as important as their pensions, is our history. History only becomes meaningful if we study it, learn from it, draw lessons out from it to guide our future. It is the mark of a civilised society that we invest in understanding our past. The Wedgwood Museum is in UNESCO’s UK Memory of the World Register as, according to UNESCO, it represents a vital and significant part of our documentary heritage. It enables us to better understand and appreciate, not only Josiah Wedgwood’s remarkable innovations, but also those made by other potters and artists in creating an industry that defined its age and laid the ground for other industries to follow.

Without Josiah Wedgewood, it is doubtful that the UK ceramic and textile industries would have become the engines for industrialisation and world market dominance that they became. Without him, design would doubtless have gained a far lesser role in the UK economy, removing the foundations that today’s creative industries are built on. Without him, all the tricks of retail marketing we use today would have been pioneered in other countries. Without Josiah Wedgwood, who knows how we would earn our living in today’s world? I suppose we would always have slavery to fall back on.

THAT is why the Wedgwood Museum matters. And of course because it celebrates all those working people who gave their working lives to the pottery industry of Stoke-on-Trent.

As I’m not an accountant, I cannot answer the question of where the £134 million can be found to save the Museum and to pay the pensions. I understand such sums of money are trivial small change in the trading rooms of the City of London; perhaps it represents a couple of bankers’ bonuses. Perhaps some of our iconoclastic entrepreneurs could dig deep for the Museum? Step forward Sir Richard Branson. Shelve the tourist spacecraft, we have a time machine for you that will tell you far more about the world than 10 minutes in outer space will.

But I can answer the question of what it means if we allow this Museum to dissolve into private collections worldwide. It means we don’t really give a damn – about our history or the people who made it. I think we should. And we owe it to them to save it.

Steve Jobs

“In most people’s vocabularies, design means veneer. It’s interior decorating. It’s the fabric of the curtains and the sofa. But to me, nothing could be further from the meaning of design. Design is the fundamental soul of a man-made creation that ends up expressing itself in successive outer layers of the product or service.”

“Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life. Don’t be trapped by dogma – which is living with the results of other people’s thinking. Don’t let the noise of others’ opinions drown out your own inner voice.”

“My model for business is The Beatles. They were four guys who kept each other’s kind of negative tendencies in check. They balanced each other and the total was greater than the sum of the parts. That’s how I see business: great things in business are never done by one person, they’re done by a team of people.”

“Your work is going to fill a large part of your life, and the only way to be truly satisfied is to do what you believe is great work. And the only way to do great work is to love what you do. If you haven’t found it yet, keep looking. Don’t settle. As with all matters of the heart, you’ll know when you find it. And, like any great relationship, it just gets better and better as the years roll on. So keep looking until you find it. Don’t settle.”

“Because I had dropped out and didn’t have to take the normal classes, I decided to take a calligraphy class to learn how to do this. I learned about serif and san serif typefaces, about varying the amount of space between different letter combinations, about what makes great typography great. It was beautiful, historical, artistically subtle in a way that science can’t capture, and I found it fascinating. None of this had even a hope of any practical application in my life. But ten years later, when we were designing the first Macintosh computer, it all came back to me. And we designed it all into the Mac. It was the first computer with beautiful typography.”

“When you’re a carpenter making a beautiful chest of drawers, you’re not going to use a piece of plywood on the back, even though it faces the wall and nobody will ever see it. You’ll know it’s there, so you’re going to use a beautiful piece of wood on the back. For you to sleep well at night, the aesthetic, the quality, has to be carried all the way through.”

What design can learn from Jimmy Reid

On 16 September I gave a keynote address to the Create Debate event at Glasgow School of Art. The title of my talk was Design as an affirmation of values and its is available here to download. Create Debate was a showcase for postgraduate students at GSA, but the audience also included students from elsewhere (including DJCAD Dundee), design professionals, and others from local government and health services. Organised by Sarah Drummond, the event centred towards the end on the question of whether it was time for evolution or revolution in design. I go unequivocally for the latter.

The central argument in my talk was that design is driven by values and, as such, is an inherently political act. Given the nature of the crisis we are now facing then it is necessary to define with speed and clarity what the values are that the progressive design community should champion. While some at the event cautioned us not to ditch capitalism, I rather fear that it is capitalism that has ditched us already. We appear to be seeking security in the idea that “everything is basically OK” – just shave 25% of public expenditure and it will be back to the good old days of spend, spend, spend. I rather think we are deluding ourselves. As I said at the event, so too does Nobel prize winning economist Paul Krugman who only today wrote: “Future historians will marvel at the austerity madness that gripped policy elites in the spring of 2010.”

The task facing us all – clearly not just in design – is to rebuild from the bottom up a vision of how we want our political economy to serve us – as in us the people. We do this by understanding the current crisis, and looking back into our history for those values that champion, express and pursue our humanity. In Danger and Opportunity: crisis and the new social economy, Robin Murray argues that the early years of the 21st century are witnessing the emergence of a new kind of social economy. His analysis of the economic crisis is readable and extremely useful for those of us working in the broad area of social design. Once we start our understanding of the crisis, then how do we move out of it? Charles Leadbeater poses this question: “Where might we turn for inspiration for a comprehensive programme for radical change on the scale required to match the crisis we are in?” His answer is perhaps surprising: “A good start would be with a bunch of men in southern England, in April 1649, led by Gerrard Winstanley who started digging common land to create a self-governing, cooperative and productive community as the basis for the new social order.” In his book Digging for the Future, Charles Leadbeater draws insightful parallels between the 17th century Levellers and Diggers, and the 21st century social entrepreneurs, environmental innovators, open source hackers and grass roots campaigns. I agree wholly with Charles Leadbeater that we need to look back to move forward.

This was a timely invitation to speak in Glasgow, following the sad death of Jimmy Reid this August. This Glaswegian trade unionist was one of the leaders of perhaps the most inspiring and successful campaigns waged by the labour movement in living memory. The work-in of the Upper Clyde Shipbuilders in the early 1970s inspired many throughout the world, including myself as a teenager far away in the south of England. But as important as the struggle itself, was Jimmy Reid’s articulation of those values that it sought to further. His address to the University of Glasgow in 1972 was hailed by the New York Times as comparable to Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, and they put an edited version of his speech on their front page. I encourage you to read it.

In Design as an affirmation of values, I focus on his speech and draw out some lessons for those of us working in design today. There are lessons about values, and about the importance of creativity. But perhaps the greatest lesson we can draw from this great man is the need for us to explain our position in clear ways to people out there. Design as a force for positive social transformation will be taken seriously when we engage with the public, with politicians and policy makers in ways they can clearly understand. We need new approaches and tactics for reaching out. And we need them soon.


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