Scottish innovation: design and democracy


We are perhaps seduced into believing that the UK is moving into the Harry Potter economy, in which so-called ‘creative’ industries, such as film production, television and publishing drive wealth creation and employment. Indeed, some years ago it was suggested that boy bands contributed more to the GDP than the aerospace sector. While I’ve never been able to fully examine the veracity of this claim, the day after One Direction called it a day, I paid a visit to the Tayside firm of Scott & Fyfe. The broad product portfolio of this textiles manufacturer includes composites that stitch bond together glass, carbon, aramid and other high performance fibres in products that are used in a range of sectors, including aerospace. While this company’s turnover may not quite be up there with the world’s top grossing music act, they represent a sector that is vital to the UK economy. The textiles industry in Scotland has undergone something of a renaissance in recent years, contributing over £1 billion to the economy, and generating considerable export earnings. There are currently around 570 companies Scottish textiles manufacturers directly employing around 9,000 people. In Scotland we still make things. But we make them, and create them very differently, and Scott & Fyfe shows us a unique way of doing things.

The company  has a 150 year history as a manufacturer of technical textiles, from its base in the small coastal town of Tayport in the north east corner of Fife. What it weaves and knits are the textiles that are used to create motorcycle helmets, rubber underlay backing, irrigation piping systems, bus interiors, yacht hulls, water slides, truck wind deflectors and much else. This company, which has a global reach in highly competitive markets, is a hidden gem of Scottish innovation. For me, its significance and inspiration comes from its unique fusion of design and democracy that creates an aspirational, highly creative firm that values and fully uses the skills and insights of its employees.

The global economic crash of the late 2000’s coincided with a crisis in the company’s fortunes. But its slide towards crisis was caused less by recession and more by its long-term failure to innovate and develop new products.


“Ours is a business of failure”, said Michaela Millar, the hugely impressive Business Development Officer who had invited me to the company. Michaela’s background is in textiles design from DJCAD, but it is evident that her responsibilities go far beyond a design brief. She explained to me that the company’s varied markets demanded constant innovation and bringing new products to the market. Most of these products will fail, so the task is to learn from failure, build on success and move on.

In our risk averse culture, this attitude is refreshing and places Scott & Fyfe in a rare group of organisations which have succeeded in finding strategies that innovate through encouraging creativity.

Talking to me in one of the innovation pods in a huge open area adjoining the factory, painted in primary colours and floored in astroturf, Michaela told me how two key developments pulled this ailing family-run firm back from the brink. In 2010 the company began to work with Glasgow School of Art’s Design Innovation Studio, to explore how creative thinking and innovation could infuse its culture and operations. This resulted in a range of tools and methods being explored and applied in the company. This opened them up to new perspectives and – crucially – new thinking tools that could be applied to new product development.


Joined by Business Manager, Michelle Quadrelli, the two spoke to me with obvious passion and enthusiasm how this design-led strategy was quickly accompanied by a move towards employee ownership. In December 2012 Scott & Fyfe evolved from a fourth generation family owned firm to a fully employee owned enterprise. The workforce is fully informed and briefed on what the firm is doing, and above all is valued in terms of their knowledge and skills. The tools provided by GSA are one means of harnessing this vital expertise, and turning it into new successful products.

This appears to be a vital element in the company’s success – and all too rare in the UK. Unlike Germany and the Scandinavian countries, industrial democracy has been notably absent from Britain’s industrial landscape. Perhaps predictably, it is on the agenda of none of our political parties, and it should be.

Scott & Fyffe shows another way ahead for our manufacturers – based on design and democracy. It embraces creativity – the creativity of ALL of its workforce. Far from pillorying failure, which is seemingly our national pastime, it uses failure as a useful source of learning. As Michaela said to me “we fail fast, and we fail often, and that way we do things better.” It uses methods of innovation and design thinking that I last saw being applied in California’s Silicon Valley. It trusts and it values its people. And yes, they are “people” not “human resources”.


Giving relatively untested employees like Michaela trust and responsibility is refreshing. Hers has been a steep learning curve, but the scope to explore new markets and possibilities has brought the very best out of this highly talented young woman. But that is my enduring impression of Scott & Fyfe – an enterprise that knows that its employees are its most valuable asset. Respect and value them, give them a stake in success, support them and give them tools and space to creative, design and take risks – and you will succeed.

With design and democracy, Scotland’s enterprise can be world class.


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.”

Our new MSc Leadership & Innovation programme


The Challenge

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

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

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

The vision

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

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

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

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

Flexible learning

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

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

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

How to Apply

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

Further information contact

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.

The craft of design leadership

My post yesterday on design leadership attracted considerable positive interest, which was encouraging. However, I was aware that my developing ideas on design leadership required a more robust theoretical foundation. My friend and colleague Karen Yair suggested Richard Sennett. Great idea; I had not made the connection. Rather than rewrite the previous post, I now present this as a coda.

Antonio Stradivari was the Steve Jobs of his age: a hectoring obsessive, who ruled his Cremona violin workshop with a ruthless vision of perfectionism. The craftsmen he employed were chained to their work benches. No, they really were. When not crafting the finest violins and cellos the world has ever seen, the apprentices would sleep on bags of straw under their bench. It is a model of design leadership that many have emulated since.

But you do wonder why they bother. When the 93 year old Stradivari died in 1737, the quality of his workshop’s musical instruments died with him. Despite the best efforts of his sons and master craftsmen to maintain the preeminent quality and reputation of the Stradivari name, the instruments they turned out were not a patch on those that had preceded them. Great efforts were made to analyse the pattern of the original instruments, the materials, even the precise formulation of the varnish, in a vain attempt to create a design template that could replicate his original genius. But these efforts fell flat, in every sense of the word.

According to Richard Sennett – Professor of Sociology at the London School of Economics – in his book The Craftsman, the dramatic collapse in quality can be attributed to Stradivari’s very style of leadership. Antonio Stradivari, Sennett argues, was an antisocial expert. Antisocial expertise is driven by a competitive zeal which occludes the notion of co-operation, holding up world class excellence as the one goal, and based on a strict sense of hierarchy. The antisocial expert lacks essential skills required to ensure that the good work they do can live on after them; their unique expertise is held within the firewall of their own tacit knowledge. As Sennett explains:

“There is an inherent inequality of knowledge and skill between expert and nonexpert. Antisocial expertise emphasizes the sheer fact of invidious comparison. One obvious consequence of emphasizing inequality is the humiliation and resentment this expert can arouse in others; a more subtle consequence is to make the expert himself or herself feel embattled” (p. 249). It is of course precisely this form of expertise that the UK’s Research Excellence Framework is seeking to encourage.

Sennett contrasts this with sociable expertise, making the case that “A well-crafted institution will favor the sociable expert; the isolated expert sends a warning signal that the organization is in trouble” (p. 246). Sociable expertise is the very essence of craftsmanship – a concept elaborated and explored so expertly by Sennett. The social expert relies on good work and transparent practices for the basis of their authority. Driven by a desire to improve one’s own work, “the sociable experts tend to be good at explaining and giving advice to their customers. The sociable expert, that is, is comfortable with mentoring, the modern echo of medieval in loco parentis” (p. 248). According to Stephan Lorenz “The craftsmanship view means giving greater appreciation to the good work of the many compared to the promise of excellence by but a few, which, in a democratic sense, is ultimately also more conducive to the public interest.”

Sennett’s sociable craftsman “conducts a dialogue between concrete practices and thinking” and is in many senses crafting knowledge transfer. Karen Yair in Crafting Capital has described this ‘craft thinking’ which “enables innovation by working with – rather than against – the restrictions of a given situation. In this analysis, craft thinking applies both to engineering and to team working: Sennett describes the craftsperson as a ‘sociable expert’, able to facilitate innovation by stretching the competencies of others within reasonable parameters.”

This is precisely the model of design leadership relevant for our age – an age of open design, ever-evolving collaborative partnerships between creative microbusinesses, social design, user-centredness, knowledge transfer, empowerment and inclusivity. Let me pull out three key arguments in favour of this as a far more useful and usable model of design leadership than the others on offer.

Co-designing with consumers

First, the rise of open design and innovation, linked to technologies that provide ‘consumers’ with potential to become creative ‘prosumers’ requires that designers need to shift to encouraging more creative and designerly self-reliance in others. I have written about this in my chapter for the Handbook of Design Management and say “the design manager is therefore critically the manager of the interfaces with the wider community of co-designers”.  Charles Leadbeater, in Production by the Masses, argues that professionals (designers, for example) “should educate us towards self-help and self-reliance as much as possible. Modern society trains us to be workers and consumers. Postindustrial institutions should train us for self-management and self-assessment” (p. 186). The design leader thus uses her or his social expertise to empower us as self-reliant prosumers.

Designing public services

Second, the design of new forms of public services demands a wholly new form of design practice, the success of which relies critically on the social expert model. In recent insightful research into the future of the UK design consultancy industry, Rachel Cooper, Martyn Evans and Alex Williams set out a number of likely future business models for design. One they entitle SIG (Special Interest Group) Niche Network and describe it thus: “‘Facebook’ social network approach: essentially a C2B2C model. The structure involves co-design/participation between design communities and special interest groups regional hubs. Designer’s role is as facilitator and mediator. Fees would be based on scale of contribution and would be reliant on ‘long tail’ economics, outsourcing production and distribution. High public sector engagement such as the re-design of services. Other clients would include subgroups, empowered communities, and local authorities.”

This would appear to describe much of the work undertaken by Taylor Haig, Snook, The Young Foundation and others. I am not wholly convinced that SIG (Special Interest Group) Niche Network trips off the tongue quite as well as my preferred Designers for Social Innovation, or even Social Designers but I will let history be the judge here. The design leader as social expert is clearly essential for such work.

Construction of social problems

Third, and intimately linked to the above argument, design provides the potential for people not just to co-design services, but to construct social problems. As such it offers potential to enable new forms of participatory democracy (an idea I will explore in a future post). I posted on this previously, but it seems appropriate to reiterate it here: 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.

Again, this help us in defining the challenges and practices of a design leader as social expert working in this field.

Resourceful social expertise

These three zones of new design practice – co-creative prosumption, design for public services, and the construction of social problems – will be critical for our future and design wholly new models of design leadership. He may have crafted damned fine fiddles, but I have my severe doubts that Antonio Stradivari would have been particularly good at facilitating workshops for co-designing new long-term care services for those with dementia. I may be wrong; he may have had more than one string to his bow.

But these zones in some cases lay far beyond the familiar and comfortable territories of design. That some designers have succeeded, in some cases spectacularly well, in rising to the challenges, suggests that we need to identify the essential characteristics of leadership that can ensure success. My ‘feeling’ for this (in the absence of any actual data) is that in addition to some of those qualities identified in the previous post on design leadership, a critical requirement is resourcefulness. Emily Campbell makes the following points with regard to resourcefulness and design: “Resourcefulness is ingenuity: the ability to think on your feet; the ability to adapt one solution to another problem; the ability to make something out of little or nothing. But resourcefulness is also the confidence that comes with knowledge: having a skill or a range of skills at your disposal; knowing enough to make a wise choice; having analogous experience; having connections to draw on and knowing how to collaborate.This knowledge feeds the ingenuity, and vice versa.”

Tomorrow’s design leader is a resourceful social expert, who crafts change co-operatively.

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.