Exploring the Outer Limits of Design (Sydney DMI Night Out event)

Last Thursday evening I attended Sydney’s DMI Night Out at the University of New South Wales COFA (College of Fine Arts) campus. DMI Night Out is a quarterly event that takes place not just in Sydney but around the world bringing together the DMI and broader design community to discuss critical issues in design locally and sharing that globally. This quarter’s DMI Night Out focuses on ‘The boundaries of design: Exploring the outer limits.’ In more detail DMI write:

The outer boundaries of design today may become the core competencies of tomorrow. In which directions must design firms grow to find value for clients, society, and themselves? How can clients and society inform these new directions? What is the “adjacent possible” of today, and the impossible but inevitable of tomorrow? Join us for a forward-looking and wide-ranging discussion of the evolving practice of design.

The night’s speakers included:

There was a noted fourth speaker, Tom Key, who was unable to make it. Each speaker presented for 10-20 minutes and there was a panel discussion at the end. In brief, Eric Folger spoke of his experiences to date, as the only designer in a huge financial services organisation, attempting to integrate strategic uses of design (commonly known as ‘design thinking’) from within. Steve Baty spoke of three key issues the design profession will have to contend with (if not already contending with them) and Bob Nation gave us insight into the plans for Barangaroo, the controversial $6 billion development on the foreshores of Sydney Harbour that will be completed in 2015.

DMI Night Out speakers L-R: Bob Nation, Steve Baty and Eric Folger

For me, the most interesting thing about the night was the critical questions the speakers made me think about for the design profession and discipline. Some of the questions were raised in the presentations, but most of them I noted down as I was listening. I believe these questions are important for the design community to address to move the profession forward into the ‘outer boundaries’. Here’s a list of questions I noted:

  • How do we create advocacy for design within business organisations, public sector and government
  • How do we integrate design into non-design organisations, that is scale this idea of ‘design thinking’ to all areas of the business, public sector and/or government so others can use this ‘toolkit’ to address their complexities and intractable problems
  • How do we empower and motivate others to use such a ‘toolkit’
  • How do we create the evidence base for design, how do we speak the vocabulary of business and government to help them understand the value design and designers can bring (not just a hypothetical process model and bunch of methods)
  • How do we educate business and government that good practice is the use of appropriate methodologies, not a set process model or set methods, because in this design space, nothing can be directly imported from one context into another and function the same
  • How do we educate young designers for the kinds of jobs that don’t exist yet
  • How do we move away from the craft of design (the chairs, posters and toasters) but still maintain and progress the craft of designing (the practice of what we do). This came up at the end of the night when a young student raised the issue that the current design education curriculum taught the craft of design (the chairs, posters and toasters) and not other skills that the panel had spoken about such as facilitation, mediation, co-design and championing design excellence. Personally, I think one needs to learn the craft of design to get really good at the craft of designing

So those were my take aways from the night’s event. It will be interesting to see what other DMI Night Out cities discuss under this this quarter’s theme. There are 6 more cities to go this month. My apologies if you visited this blog to find out content of what the speakers presented, but I think these questions are going to be important to address if we want to see design move progressively into the ‘outer boundaries’ and create a positive impact at scale.

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Why do a PhD (in design)

Apologies for the 4 month hiatus from this blog. Just after my April post I spent a bit of time putting the finishing touches to my PhD and reviewing my research for my Viva exam (oral defence of my PhD with my examiners). My Viva happened in the UK on the 15 June 2012 at Northumbria University, Newcastle upon Tyne. I am pleased to report that everything went very well and the examiners passed me without any corrections to do. This meant I could graduate on a sunny day in Newcastle on 17 July 2012 with my good friend Priti Rao, who had flown in from India. We had a fantastic day and were very happy to be able to share the day with our families and friends.

Priti and I throwing our hats on graduation day,
Northumbria University, 17 July 2012

Since then I’ve had a bit of time to reflect on my PhD journey. I get asked a lot about why I chose to do a PhD and whether or not one should do a PhD. I thought I’d dedicate this post to a bit of reflection on my PhD journey to share and give you a bit of insight into my personal journey, motivations and how I’m feeling now I’ve finished.

Why do a PhD?
I get this question a lot when I do presentations and a lot from people who are thinking of doing a PhD. The easy answer is to say that everyone has a different reason for doing a PhD. But I think it’s helpful to understand the many reasons people enter into such a process.

For me, doing a PhD was to answer a very personal question about my own identity as a designer, and a number of professional questions I had encountered in practice.

Design school taught me how to be a graphic designer, but I knew early on I didn’t want to be a graphic designer. However, I was interested in the process of design and creativity, how that could be applied in new and different contexts. For example in solving complex business problems. This was in 2002 and at the time, I could hardly find anyone around me who shared the same enthusiasm and interest for this idea, nor did I know what kind of designer I would end up being.

After design school I didn’t want to work for a design company, I wanted to work for a business organisation. I applied for some graduate roles but of course, never made it through the recruitment gates. Maybe it was the design degree on my CV I thought, so I enrolled myself into business school part-time while I worked in graphic design, landscape design and as a retail sales assistant for a fashion brand. In business school I made it my mission to try and integrate design and business. It was challenging, but also a great time for me to explore with more focus, and learn the vocabulary of business. After business school I joined a business and management consulting firm and thought that finally, all my questions about design would be answered. It did in fact do the opposite. My time working  at the consultancy threw even more questions my way, and there was a tipping point where I knew I just had to stop and give myself some time to really think, read, research, reflect and write about design – What was happening in design, where was it going and what the potential for it could be. That’s how I ended up doing a PhD because I saw such a platform would give me that space and time to find answers to questions I was not able to answer in my other degrees and in practice.

So in short, I usually say to anyone who asks me if they should do a PhD or not – do they have questions they want to answer? Have they found gaps of knowledge in practice that are worthy of exploring? I have met people who were doing PhDs for the award and recognition, which speaks to the fact that everyone has a different reason for doing a PhD.

What I got out of doing a PhD and what have I learnt
This is another question I get asked a lot. For me, the first thing that comes to mind is that my PhD let me meet the most inspiring and visionary designers. Designers who I had to interview for my research and those who I met a long the way. Their thinking, ideas, practices and projects are incredible and this really helped inspire me along the journey. I think it’s important that one is able to find inspiration in the ebbs of PhD life. The other great thing about my PhD was being able to work closely with the Design Council. The Design Council co-sponsored my research and I had the opportunity to get to know them, work with them, and also look into their work, such as their Dott 07 (Designs of the Time 2007) program, which was my key case study.

In terms of what I have learnt doing my PhD, I tend to think of this as being content and skills based. On the content side of things, I did find answers to all the questions I had about design. That has been very satisfying for me. I also learnt a whole lot of new things about design. My 100k-word PhD thesis contains a fraction of what I have come to know. On the skills side, a PhD is usually a 3+ year research program, and this is a huge research and project management task. Such a project requires good organisation, research, administration, planning, managing, budgeting, analysing/synthesising, networking, implementing, documenting and archiving in order to achieve one’s research goal. A lot of people don’t automatically think of a PhD in this way but the process must be well managed in order for it to be completed. I also think there is huge scope to be creative and innovative in a PhD. I created some new research methodologies that I saw as being appropriate to how design and designers could be better understood. I felt a PhD was the right time and space to explore and experiment with research, and the results can be pretty interesting.

Another thing I learnt, that took me years to come to, was to sum up my PhD research in one line. In brief my research is about the different roles of the designer in social design projects. I look at that now and think it’s so obvious, but it took me years to distill my research down to this line.

My PhD thesis titled: Understanding the different roles of the designer in design for social good. A study of design methodology in the Dott 07 (Designs of the Times 2007) projects

What I’ll do after the PhD
I got asked this a lot while I was doing my PhD and now that I have finished. I’ve been reading a lot about transitions. Not only does the book I am currently co-authoring have transitions in its title, but I find that I myself am in transition – transitioning out of my life with a PhD. I had a bit of  holiday after graduation and have been back in Sydney for a few weeks now. I have no doubt that when I come out of my transition, you will know about it through this blog. But in the mean time, if you have any questions or comments about doing a PhD, feel free to leave a message below.


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Human centred principles of design — Two case studies (and films)

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about key principles of design. One of the most important and emphasised principle of design is how it’s human-centred (or people-centred, customer-centred, user-centred, about customer-centricity, customer experience, user experience, to use other similar phrases). Some of the best demonstrations of this can be seen in two product design companies whom I have been a big fan of for many years. Not just for their human-centred approach, but because I am also a customer and user of their products, and find them incredibly functional and desirable to use.

The first case study is on Smart Design, the designers behind the popular OXO Good Grips potato peeler (or Swivel Peeler). I know this case study has been around for a long time, but it’s still so inspiring and so relevant today having revolutionised kitchen tools in the 1990s by making utensils more user-friendly and enjoyable to use.

In 1990 Smart Design worked in collaboration with OXO to launch the Swivel Peeler. Designed from user insight and questions like Why do ordinary kitchen tools hurt your hands? Why can’t there be wonderfully comfortable tools that are easy to use? hundreds of prototype models were created before the Swivel Peeler was born. The film below, recently published online by the Cooper Hewitt National Design Museum, reveals the Smart Design mindset, where they believe that “design should be for everyone” and kitchen tools should be “enablers” for us to do things (in our industrialised society we often see tools and machines as doing things for us, rather than seeing them as enablers).

In their process, Smart Design observed how people were most drawn to a rubberised bike handle, among hundreds of other handle models they collected for research. It was this observation, of people constantly picking up and playing with the bike handle, that inspired the designers to develop a key feature of the Swivel Peeler. The peeler handle was designed with rubber and fins for comfort and grip, just like you’d find on a bicycle.

Image from OXO website

In the film, Smart Design also discuss how they prototyped early rather than using a lot of sketching. This is a nice lesson for how to move a process forward quickly, by making and testing things early.

CooperHewitt Visits Smart Design

The second case study is of another company that makes kitchenware called Joseph Joseph. I discovered them while I was living in the UK and I love their products because they are thoughtful, well designed, well made and fun. The two brothers that comprise Joseph Joseph discuss in another short film (I recently found on YouTube) how they strive for “functional innovation” and then use colour to make their kitchen tools attractive, desirable and an accessory in the home. In homes of today, it is common for people to entertain in their kitchen, especially with the popularity of open living spaces where kitchens and living spaces are combined. Joseph Joseph discuss how the colours of their products create an additional accessory for the home.

In one of their most innovative and popular products, the Nest, Joseph Joseph speak of the user insight that led them to the design. In their research, when they looked into people’s kitchen drawers, they found a range of utensils stored messily in a small space. So they designed the Nest to combine 9 different kitchen utensils that sit inside one another, taking up half the space. The designers designed white and multi-coloured versions of the Nest, relaying that the muli-coloured version sold 10 times more because people were attracted to its vibrancy. I am too because I have a Nest and it’s functional and fun for cooking with. Also in our apartment it doesn’t take up very much space.

Joseph Joseph’s Nest™ 9 Plus. Image from Joseph Joseph website

Joseph Joseph also discuss in the film “great design”, of which they say “great design” is when you take a product home and it’s better than what you expect. It should “put a smile on people’s faces.”

Colorizing the Kitchen

I really love these insights into the design practices of Smart Design and Joseph Joseph. Imagine if we could apply their principles and philosophies in the development and conception of all products and services. All products and services would be:

  • Great for almost everyone
  • Enable us to do what we want to do, and more
  • Exceed our expectations
  • Functional
  • Fit into our lifestyles
  • Attractive and desirable and
  • Put a smile on our face

Imagine if we always thought about people first, doing design research for user insight and attempting to create things that could “put a smile on people’s faces.” Imagine how wonderful the all products and services in our world could be.

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Design Transitions, a book in progress

At the end of March 2012 I submitted my PhD titled:

Understanding the different roles of the designer in design for social good.
A study of design methodology in the Dott 07 (Designs of the Time 2007) projects

For an abstract please visit my academia.edu page. You may be thinking why I didn’t make more of a fuss about finishing my PhD here, but to be honest, I still have a Viva to complete as a final step of the process (PhDs in the UK undergo an examination called a Viva) and I also launched straight into another writing task – co-authoring a book with Joyce Yee and Emma Jefferies called Design Transitions.

Screengrab of Design Transitions website

Design Transitions is about the transitions currently happening in design practice. It features untold stories of innovative design practices from around the world, insights into their practices and where they think design is going next.

The book is comprises of three key parts (1) Case studies and (2) Snapshots of innovative design companies across the globe and (3) Expert views from design commentators, academics and writers on the drivers of change in design practice and the future of design. We’ve been crowd sourcing design companies all over the world via this Google map to identify companies we don’t already know of, so if you’re a design company and not already on the map, feel free to add yourself and we may be in touch.

In the past few months we’ve been actively collecting and profiling snapshots which has generated interesting insights from leading companies such as Design Thinkers (Netherlands), Live|work (Brasil), Uscreates (UK), Idiom (India), FutureGov (UK), Superflux (UK and India), Questto (Brazil and Switzerland) and Zilver Innovation (Netherlands). There’s more to come to stay tuned on our website Design Transitions or via twitter @destransitions. Our book will be published in 2013 and we’re deep in the process of researching, writing and designing it, so if you have any feedback or thoughts for us, please get in touch here, via our website or on twitter.

We hope that Design Transitions will inspire and inform any reader with an interest in design and its future direction.

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Insight into design at Apple, and design in general

Apple has had such a profound impact on our lives (see the ‘Apple fanboys’ photo below taken by my cousin, Christopher, at our annual family Xmas gathering. My family alone could keep Apple in business).

An interview with the newly knighted Sir Jonathan Ive appeared in the London Evening Standard a few days ago and I thought there were some nice insights here into design at Apple, where Sir Ive is Senior Vice President of Industrial Design, and design in general. Here’s some excerpts I quite liked:

Q: What makes design different at Apple?

We struggle with the right words to describe the design process at  Apple, but it is very much about designing and prototyping and making. When you separate those, I think the final result suffers. If something is going to be better, it is new, and if it’s new you are confronting problems and challenges you don’t have references for. To solve and address those requires a remarkable focus. There’s a sense of being inquisitive and optimistic, and you don’t see those in combination very often.

Q: How does a new product come about at Apple?

The nature of having ideas and creativity is incredibly inspiring. There is an idea which is solitary, fragile and tentative and doesn’t have form.

What we’ve found here is that it then becomes a conversation, although remains very fragile.

When you see the most dramatic shift is when you transition from an abstract idea to a slightly more material conversation. But when you made a 3D model, however crude, you bring form to a nebulous idea, and everything changes – the entire process shifts. It galvanises and brings focus from a broad group of people. It’s a remarkable process.

Q: What makes a great designer?

It is so important to be light on your feet, inquisitive and interested in being wrong. You have that  wonderful fascination with the what if questions, but you also need absolute focus and a keen insight into the context and what is important – that is really terribly important. Its about contradictions you have to navigate.

Q: How do you know consumers will want your products?

We don’t do focus groups – that is the job of the designer. It’s unfair to ask people who don’t have a sense of the opportunities of tomorrow from the context of today to design.

Q: Your team of designers is very small – is that the key to its success?

The way we work at Apple is that the complexity of these products really makes it critical to work collaboratively, with different areas of expertise… We’re located together, we share the same goal, have exactly the same preoccupation with making great products.

Q: What are your goals when setting out to build a new product?

Our goals are very simple – to design and make better products. If we can’t make something that is better, we won’t do it.

Q: How do you know you’ve succeeded?

Our goal is simple objects, objects that you can’t imagine any other way. Simplicity is not the absence of clutter.

Q: Do consumers really care about good design?

One of the things we’ve really learnt over the last 20 years is that while people would often struggle to articulate why they like something.

Q: Users have become incredibly attached, almost obsessively so, to Apple’s products – why is this?

It sound so obvious, but I remember being shocked to use a Mac, and somehow have this sense I was having a keen awareness of the people and values of those who made it.

I think that people’s emotional connection to our products is that they sense our care, and the amount of work that has gone into creating it.

The full interview can be found here on London Evening Standard online.

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Australian International Design Awards has a Service Design category

The Australian International Design Awards and the Good Design Council Australia aim ‘To create a better Australia where good design is ubiquitous and leads to a better, safer, more beautiful and sustainable world.’

This year, for the first time, the Awards have a service design category in the areas of:

  • Not-for-profit: Not-for-profit services designed for charitable or other causes.
  • Business: Profit-generating services designed for the business sector.
  • Education: Services designed for the education sector.
  • Government: Public services designed in response to government tenders.

The Awards also recognise product design in the areas of:

  • Consumer
  • Business and technology
  • Medical and scientific
  • Automotive and transport
  • Sport and leisure
  • Housing and Building
  • Heavy machinery
  • Architectural and interior

Entry is open to all professionally designed products or services available in Australia (including those available to Australians via the internet). This means products or services professionally designed by Australians for overseas markets are also eligible (see more under ‘Eligibility’). Deadlines for all submissions are soon on 30 March 2012.

Image from http://www.gooddesignaustralia.com

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Cape Town appointed World Design Capital 2014

The International Council of Societies of Industrial Design (Icsid) founded in 1957 is “an international non-governmental organisation that aims to protect and promote the profession of industrial design.” Every four years (since 2008) Icsid designates, or will designate, a world city under the status of World Design Capital (WDC). The WDC initiative aims:

“… to promote and encourage the use of design to further the social, economic and cultural development of the world’s cities… The designation provides a distinctive opportunity for cities to showcase their accomplishments in attracting and promoting innovative design, as well as highlight successes in urban revitalisation strategies.”

This year was a bidding year for 2014 WDC status. The three cities of Cape Town, Bilbao and Dublin were shortlisted and as part of the selection process they submitted short films that give fascinating insight into each city, their challenges, strengths, and how design will help them. Each of the films are very different from the other, as Core 77 discuss on their post A Look at the World Design Capital Bid Videos. Below I’ve also posted the three city films so you can stay on this page to view them. Otherwise the films feature on Core 77 and the World Design Capital websites.

‘Live Design. Transform Life’ by Cape Town largely discusses a whole range of challenges faced by the city and how Cape Town designers understand design and its relevance to their local context.

‘The design of cities’ by Bilbao celebrates the numerous design aspects of their city and what it has brought to the city eg. tourism, technology etc.

‘Pivot’ by Dublin follows the conversations between a number of citizens for how Dublin can prosper through design.

Hearing of the WDC and watching the films makes me wonder if Sydney would ever consider running for the designation. How fantastic would it be to be involved in this global design platform which, as Icsid state:

“… would provide governments with a platform not only to raise the global awareness of design, but more importantly, to showcase the importance of design as an actor to enhance social, cultural, economic and environmental quality of life.”

Where would Sydney focus its attention for uses of design? What are our challenges that design can help improve (I blogged a few here in my ‘Signs of Sydney post but these are subjective and I am sure there are more)? How would we used design to benefit and improve our quality of life and well-being? A WDC bid process throws up many questions and I wonder if the process of a WDC bid would in itself be beneficial for some reflection on where we live, where we’ve come from, who we are and how we understand and use design to improve Sydney.

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