A friend and fellow design teacher from Texas asked me recently how I decide what to post on my personal blog, and what I post on this blog aimed at design students. My answer was going to be “I post the controversial stuff or my personal thoughts on my personal blog, and non-controversial, link-based stuff here”. I’m going to experiment. What follows is intended to provoke a response and debate. The views are personal and don’t necessarily represent those of my colleagues or my students (and in many cases won’t). And who knows, in a few months (or even minutes) I may have changed my own mind…
Are design and innovation different things? You’ll know (if you’re one of my students) that I see the two as one and the same, and maybe I think that design that isn’t innovative (by which I do not mean stylistically innovative) is probably struggling to be design at all. If it doesn’t make a difference, I’m not sure I’m that interested anymore, which is why a lot of the design that gets plastered in design magazines and colour supplements bores me. “Ooh look, someone’s designed a new chair. Wow.” Give me “Wow, someone’s designed a new way to get kids interested in science. Ooh” any day. Or designed a new way to improve health care. Or designed a new textile that protects people from infections in hospitals. Or designed a new way to help Alzheimer’s patients maintain dignity, or their families keep track should they wander off. Wow. Wow. Wow.
Yet for many, design is about style. It’s about the interesting application of type, the shapes that can be formed with precious metals, the feel of a cloth, or the pattern.
Actually, I’m happy about that. To a point. I like a nice bit of typography myself and this morning spent an entire bus journey examining the type on four ads that seemed to suggest to me that letter spacing is out of fashion. My problem is with those who think design is just about those things. The graphic designers who designed the ads I saw on the bus this morning seemed more concerned with style than content – the were pretty much unintelligible, but they were, admittedly, pretty.
This “design versus innovation” is an old debate and I stumbled on an article by Bruce Nussbaum from 2005. To place it in context, Hilary Cottam had just received the award of Designer of the Year which caused an outcry because, shock horror, she doesn’t actually design “things”, instead she got the award for tackling problems in health care and prisons.
That the controversy and debate happened in Britain is particularly disappointing, as arguably the concept of “design thinking” was born in the UK. But it’s still seen as a little bit beneath the traditionalists. For me, the issue has its roots in the juxtaposition of art and design. The two are not the same thing, but in order to enter design school you still need to go through “art training”. Some argue, quite persuasively, that this is essential in order to develop certain techniques. The problem is, as evidenced in this debate, that it also develops a certain way of thinking. And the way of thinking that is essential for good art is not necessarily the way of thinking that is essential for good design.
Colin Burns, former IDEO head in the UK and a Professor of Design Innovation at the University of Dundee put it like this:
“You don’t have to go to art school to do that. There is still a hegemony of what I call muser-led design in this country – the idea that whatever happens to inspire the designer is the solution. It’s insulting to call people like Hilary Cottam an impresario when she is so obviously creative in all those aspects of design. I’m fed up with the whole “I went to art school so I’m a designer” view.”
(“Muser-led design”. I like that!)
Or, to put it another way, as I asked Lauren Currie the other day, why do we still see the ability to draw a naked woman as the primary qualification to be a designer?
This false link between art and design extends in to the media as well. It’s interesting that design articles in The Guardian and The Times always seem to be in the arts and entertainment sections. An upcoming “reality” Apprentice-like programme on the BBC called Design School features Phillippe Starck in the Sir Alan Sugar/Donald Trump role, much to the dismay of many who think this risks further pigeon-holing design (though we could be pleasantly surprised). Via Twitter I exchanged a few interesting comments with Kate Andrews about the need for design to be seen as a business or social science, not an art. The moment you see it as art you risk forgetting the point, or the people. (Note there’s a difference between seeing design as an art, something to be done well, and as Art, a form of self-expression. It’s the latter I’m really bothered about)..
The “art school” approach to design is damaging design, Nussbaum appears to say:
(L)ots of designers feel they should not be sullied with the tarbrush of “innovation.” Innovation is a term too aligned with big business and corporations. But as a design advocate who fought for years to get designers to get over themselves and their obsession with framing their profession in terms of art, I can’t help but feel haplass in this debate. Just when victory is near, when design is finally being accepted for what it can do, people are denying its power, whining about the nomenclature and clutching defeat from the jaws of victory.
The debate isn’t over, but the design thinkers are winning, if “winning” is indeed the term. As Qin Han reminded me yesterday, it’s not about one way of thinking versus another, both can exist. Like I said above, there’s a place for “old” design. Take a look at this, featured on Reporting Scotland in March 2008. It’s a radio tag designed to keep track of Alzheimer’s and autism sufferers.
Spot anything that might be a problem?
Here’s the tracking equipment you presumably would have at home:
And this is what you’d use to go and find your lost relative:
Now it’s easy to laugh. If these were prototypes, you could imagine they’d eventually be “prettified”. Except they’re not. These are the actual bits and pieces. Frightening…
But hang on.
Here we have an example of the old design way of thinking. The technology is developed by engineers, scientists, whoever. And then we, the designers, say, “Give it to us. We’ll make it look nice!” Or maybe the engineers say, “let’s give it to a designer to make it look nice”.
Either way, that’s underestimating the power of design. And drawing a very crude dividing line between “innovation” (coming up with the system and producing it), “engineering” (building it) and “design” (making it look nice).
The “new design” way of thinking that Nussbaum was writing about in 2005 (that’s a long time ago) would say that “design” is all those things, including designing the support service that helps those caring for people with Alzheimer’s or autism, the training, the equipment and so on. It’s all designed. Seeing design as the bit that’s tagged on at the end, as critics of Cottam’s award did in 2005 (see Vicky Richardson’s and Mark Dempsey’s comments in this 2005 Observer article) is wrong. It’s bad enough when other people do it, but when designers themselves do it?
Take another look at those pictures above. Imagine how a jewellery designer could be involved, or a textile designer. Not in making the bracelet device pretty, but in helping people understand how objects like this need to contribute to someone’s identity.
Why do Alzheimer’s patients remove things like this device, but keep a brooch around their neck? It’s not because one is ugly and the other is pretty. A jewellery designer who has been taught about identity and value, as well as how to actually make jewellery will be able to contribute from day 1. (As indeed would a textile or graphic or web or interior designer). A jewellery designer who only knows how to make the pretty, well they’ll be asked to take that pile of crap and gild it. Seems to me like a waste of a degree.
So going back to Qin’s quite correct comment, that there’s room for both “old” design and “new” design (using Nussbaum’s terms) I wonder if really the debate shouldn’t be about one or the other, or both coexisting, but about how the two are integrated. I think we do this quite well at Dundee, and I think it happens elsewhere. Looking at our Master of Design programme, it’s clear that we’re producing graduates who are oblivious to this whole debate in the way that we’re all oblivious to the question “hydrogen or oxygen? which makes the better drink?”, because the question’s just bloody stupid. You need both to make water. (and you can’t drink hydrogen). Or “eggs, milk or onions for dinner?” Why can’t you just make an omelette? (Suggestions for better analogies welcome…)
My point being, that if the design industry continues to have this debate it’s not going to be around for long, in its current form at least, because as the service design industry demonstrates, there are young people out there who think such navel gazing is pointless and don’t even bother getting involved. They just get on. And degree and graduate programmes need to produce graduates who aren’t going to be happy decorating other people’s turds. (Again, help with the analogies welcome)
Design without innovation isn’t design. It’s decoration. And innovation on its own is pointless without application.
Together, innovation and application, you get “design”.
But that is all my opinion. What’s your take? Is service design really design? Is the world really a better place if someone comes up with a cool new shape for a kettle?
Comments, arguments etc welcome!