Thursday, December 16, 2010

A year in designing for service: 2010

This time last year I said something like service design was now pretty established. So what do I say a year later? Avoiding any single metaphor I could it's a little bit firmer, a bit bigger, a bit more rounded.

In the UK, the year has been dominated by a limited economic recovery and the general election in May, with speculation about what that might mean for public services.The only question was, how big will the cuts be? Even once the Conservative-Liberal Coalition formed, months passed before the cuts in public spending began to take shape affecting nearly every area of public life. What this means for public service commissioners and managers is that service design might be reframed urgently as "how can we do more for less?", with additional pressure to be more transparent and accountable.

But into this mix came a new term - the big society (experimenting with lower case here as a form of resistance) - which is still to be fully defined although this early articulation of the vision remains useful. Since the big society is supposed all about local empowerment, innovation and new ways of doing things, this would seem to be an opportunity for designers, especially service designers but I think it is slightly to early to tell. There are various efforts to understand these developments and seize on this as opportunity for professional design. The Design Council, Institute for Government and NESTA hosted seminars discussing different aspects of the big society, while a review of DOTT Cornwall's work, which has seen the application of design processes and methods to a range of socio-economic issues in Cornwall, proposed this work as an example of big society in action. But is (service) design ready to take these issues? One person I interviewed, responsible for local government services, saw designerly design as a way of achieving innovation - but a key issue for him was the capacity of the organisation to understand its value. The question of the value of design, including service design, will remain an important one for the next year, something that was a key part of the conversation at the Design Management Institute conference in London.

In terms of numbers of people, the Service Design Network conference in Berlin suggested that business was thriving around Europe and Brazil too, with a separate conference in the US. The ServDes research conference in Linköping, Sweden, which I was not able to attend, picked papers which included, to my reading, a bit more rigour but still familiar names rooted in design disciplines. In academic terms, special issues on service design in development at the Journal of Behaviour & Information Technology and International Journal of Design will support a more peer-reviewed dissemination of developing knowledge and on the PhD-Design list there were a few sparks of interest in service design. I'd still like to a see a conference that brings together a mix of speakers as varied as Steve Vargo, Pelle Ehn, Wanda Orlikowski, Lucy Suchman and Tony Fry to talk about designing for service but that might be a year or two away, or never. When I look at the pages of consultancies I know the numbers of employees and associates are still small. The twittersphere suggests to me that service design is still a small community where agreement, rather than difference and dissent, is valued but this is of course shaped by where I am looking. (Please dissent below.)

One of the most exciting examples of service design came from somewhere unexpected. What we Londoners now call Boris bikes (after the current Mayor Boris Johnson, although they were planned by the previous one, Ken Livingstone) is known officially as Barclays Cycle Hire. Similar to schemes in other cities, the London scheme allows you to unlock a bicycle from a docking station, ride off, park it at another station, and be on your way cheaply, efficiently and without producing much carbon dioxide. It was rolled out and runs without a lot of fuss - well designed, well implemented, well used, and already a familiar part of London life. Launched in July, by December there were 108,000 registered users (according to the Evening Standard). Who was it designed by? Why, that well-known service design organization Serco, which designs and runs all sorts of services including prisons. The scheme is a great example of the internet of things realized as a service (including RFID tags in the bikes and data on the scheme made public and presented by various people such as here). It presents a challenge to most discussions of service design I hear. Firstly, your "experience" is constructed at least as much by your own pedalling, road sense, and the weather, as by the touchpoints in the service. And second, the service would not exist without considerable investments in political, institutional and financial capital; the designing of the organizational ecology and the associated processes is as much a part of the service as the bikes or the apps. One aspect of the service I am less impressed with, pointed out to me by Alison Prendiville, is the way the branding (in Barclays Bank's blue) has how made its way around much of inner London, competing with other London brands including those of the borough councils, Transport for London and the Mayor's office.

New books included Christian Bason's Leading Public Sector Innovation, partly drawing on his organization Mindlab's work in Denmark. A highly illustrated book edited by Marc Stickdorn (in which I have a short chapter) also came out making the claim This is Service Design Thinking. I look forward to seeing where the "thinking" tag moves things. Finally Rachel Botsman and Roo Rogers' What's Mine is Yours became a (nice-looking) text to wave at people to prove - look! - things ARE changing for the better. I'm looking forward to books including Daniela Sangiorgi and Anna Meroni's and others in progress by Joe Heapy at Engine and Ben Reason, Lavrans Lovlie and Andy Polaine, and there are bound to be more.

My own circumstances changed. After five years on the faculty at Said Business School, my fellowship came to an end and I left, somewhat unhappily. I will still be teaching my MBA elective there, which brings to the class experiential learning of design practices, knowledge of design management and a particular focus on designing for service. In 2009-10 48 MBAs took the class; I have yet to hear how many have picked it for this academic year. I finally finished a paper on service design I've been writing for three years. I did keynotes on service design at the Design Management Institute conference (the text is here) and at the Service Design Network (the video is here). Leaving full time research has however freed me up to explore the value of academic research in consultancy, particularly around service innovation and I have enjoyed working with Engine researching the drivers of change on service organizations, and culture-led service and organization design with TaylorHaig. I also helped Derek Miller and Lisa Rudnick at the United Nations Institute for Disarmament Research organize an event looking at the possibility of bringing design-based approaches to security programmes and policy. Next year I might finally get my book proposal to the the meantime, happy new year.

v1.1 with errors corrected, sorry, MrStickdorn

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Service design at a crossroads

Illustration credit Lisa Gornick

Lucy Kimbell
Director, Fieldstudio
Associate Fellow, Saïd Business School

Keynote at Service Design Network Conference, Berlin, 14 October 2010


A management consultant, a designer and a cultural anthropologist go into a bar for a drink.

I’ve had a long day helping my client be more efficient and more effective, says the management consultant. I need a drink. And give me a receipt so I can put it on expenses.

The anthropologist sits down next to her. I need a drink too, he says, but while I’m here can I observe what you are doing and take some notes?

The designer sits down next to them. I’ll invent my own drink, he says and gets busy creating an amazing concoction with the bartender.

The time comes to pay the bill.

The designer’s bill is €108. All those special ingredients and so many iterations. But it was worth it, he says. Drunkenly.

The anthropologist’s bill is €7 because he kept having sips of everyone else’s drinks. But he’ll have a terrible hangover from mixing his drinks.

The management consultant ends up with no bill. Why are your drinks free? ask the other two. Well, she says to the designer, I told the barkeeper how to roll out and make money out of the drink you invented. And to the anthropologist, she says, I told him to watch you going round talking to all the customers and find out why they really come here.

Can you teach us how to do this? the designer and the anthropologist ask. Sure, says the management consultant, but the next round is on you.

This story has the structure of a joke but behind these caricatures of three professions lies something more serious. I want to use this story as a way of reflecting on the origins of what we currently call service design and to raise some questions about where it might go next as a field, as a profession and as an emergent discipline.

There are a number of competing stories about service design. One is that it’s a new interdiscipline, a mix of concepts, methods and tools from several different fields, brought together to address the challenges that organisations face as they try to improve and innovate in services. As an interdiscipline it is presented as a happy fusion of the best bits of management or business, design and technology, and the social sciences. In this version of service design, the incompatibilities between the values and worldviews of these different disciplines are smoothed away to produce a better user experience and increased business value.

A second story about service design is that it is the underpinning of anything and everything. This story rests firstly on an expanded version of design usually credited to Herbert Simon (1996) who proposed that what people who want to change existing situations into preferred ones are doing is design, and that therefore design is the core of the professions from medicine to business to engineering. A second foundation is recent research in services marketing, for example Steve Vargo and Bob Lusch’s (2004) idea that service underpins all marketing transactions. If we combine these two ideas – everything is design and everything is service then – wow – service design is key to everything, and a theory of service design would have the status of a Theory of Everything.

A third story about service design is that it is going to shift designers away from their traditional preoccupation with objects and their roles in cocreating the world of unsustainable mass consumption that we live in. In this story, service design redesigns design. The UK consultancy live|work’s early emphasis on using not owning, and work by Ezio Manzini and others inherits a longer tradition in design of critique and questioning. This version of service design places an emphasis on accountability, and asks who or what is service design serving?

These are just three stories about service design – the Interdisciplinary story, Theory of Everything story, and the Redesigning Design story. There are, of course, others. No single person involved in the communities that make up the thing we currently call service design can offer the authoritative account of what it is, where it has come from and where it is going because it is messy, emergent and communal. So what I will do today is offer some reflections on what is going on around us, and pose some questions which, I hope, have something to say about where service design goes next.

Changing contexts

In what follows I note several recent developments shaping the landscape in which professional service design will continue to develop. In each of them, something that looks rather like service design is going on, but is being done in a particular way, often not called service design, or done by people who think of themselves as designers of services. By examining these trajectories, I hope to suggest what steps professional service design might take next.

Carnivorous management consultants
If you read the market research reports on utilities, telecoms, banking and other service industries, there are two important trends. First, the idea that customer experience is a way for service providers to differentiate themselves in mature markets, and second, that organizations will continue to outsource what they see as non-core services. The big IT and management consultancies are ready with their offerings. CapGemini, for example, offers Customer Experience Transformation. This starts with customer insight, then involves developing the customer journey, market positioning, identifying opportunities, and measuring results. Sound familiar? This is the high level thinking that service design consultants want to do, but if management consultants do it, then the designers are left with crafting the touchpoints. But what does not appear here is what a design orientation brings to service design: repeated quick cycles of prototyping and testing propositions, let alone the traditions from Participatory Design of engaging end users in co-design.

Clients doing it for themselves
In a context in which human resources and accounting services can be outsourced, it is a challenge to argue that design is a core capability within an organization. However in reports on the UK design industry, for example, evidence of companies down-sizing their in-house teams in 2000, shifted a decade later to organizations investing in building in-house design teams (although their budgets fell) . Once shifted inside organizations, what is lost in this translation of design’s attentiveness to experiences and aesthetics, let alone its (sometimes) critical and holistic eye? The previous UK government, for example, invested in a knowledge base for pubic service managers to help them create better customer experiences . What happens when designerly concepts and methods are appropriated by clients and propagated by them for people who don’t think of themselves as designers?

Branding on a bandwagon
For branding agencies, service design is an obvious new territory for them to take ownership of. As custodians of large brands, they claim to understand and shape the nature of the relationship customers have with their client organizations. Their core activities – developing customer insights, deep market research, crafting propositions – are already a kind of design and their understanding of what connects people to brands, and their commercial relationships at high levels in organizations, mean they are well-placed to design services. Consultancy WolffOlins’ website , for example, proposes seeing brands as platforms, by which they mean asking brands to consider whether they give power to consumers, or create ways for customers to participate in the brand value and do that with many others, using network effects. But what is not evident here is the internal focus of service design. What service designers have learned from bitter experience, or from reading some management literature, is that the delivery of a designed customer experience often requires redesigning processes and employees’ roles and paying attention to organizational culture and design.

Public services under pressure
In the new economic order, in which banks which were saved by public investment are able to go back to their ways of doing business without much censure, while public budgets are cut around the world, one thing is clear. We need new ways to understand what public services can do for us and our roles in shaping and contributing to the public sphere at a time when there is less money available to invest in them. In the UK, something that looks a bit like service design is happening, but coming from the new coalition government whose major activities since being voted in have been to plan severe budget cuts. This vision of a Big Society says “We want to give citizens, communities and local government the power and information they need to come together, solve the problems they face and build the Britain they want.” In this vision, people come together to work together because “we are all in it together”, according to Prime Minister David Cameron. It sounds like a perfect opportunity for service designers to step in and help these citizens and communities work together and use their professional skills to guide the public service professionals who have been squandering public money. But it raises questions about what really underlies ideas like David Cameron’s Big Society – and larger questions about the social worlds that service design can help create. If we acknowledge that design is not neutral, and that the unintended consequences of designs may not be known for some years, even decades, it becomes important that service design, with its aspirations to redesigning the social, begins to engage more deeply with social, cultural and political theories about who has power, and how, and why, and ask itself to who or what as a profession service designers should be accountable.

Changing consumption practices
The final trajectory I want to point to is the challenges posed by climate change which, despite serious research, seems to be a problem for the future, rather than a problem for now. At a recent conference on enterprise and the environment, for example, speakers repeatedly contrasted the role of governments in setting targets, creating incentives and regulating to produce new behaviours that have lower carbon impact, versus the role of businesses in modifying activities to produce new behaviours among consumers. What was missing at this conference was evidence of the emergence of service ventures creating new consumption practices outside of big business, which bypass the carrot-or-stick dualism which waits for governments to act, while the planet warms up. Experiments in transition towns, sharable services and other kinds of low-carbon enterprises involve a design orientation and an attentiveness to new ways of conceiving of value. An opportunity here is for designers of services to bring their skills and knowledge into configurations in which there is no obvious client, and in which they have to become designer-entrepreneurs in order to scale up their ideas.


In each of these examples I have identified a trajectory – something that looks rather like service design but that is not necessarily thought of that way, presenting both challenges and opportunities. For each of them I have identified a question that I believe service design could find answers to. Combining them, I offer a particular way of conceiving of service design in the near future. It draws on the underlying professions and disciplines that we find in service design today, but proposes a slightly different configuration for tomorrow.

1. While managerial service design can generate customer insights and visualise customer journeys today, tomorrow’s service design can emphasize a design orientation that is centrally concerned with iterative prototyping and testing. Conducting what Michael Schrage (forthcoming) calls design experiments, this service design is well-suited to futures in which organizations need to develop and maintain an open stance about what is the right thing to do next and need help in doing this.
2. While organizations are building in-house capabilities in service design and customer experience today, tomorrow’s service design can make sure that the aesthetics of service is important. Having resisted being confused with mere styling for a decade or more, designers have forgotten how to argue the case for aesthetics mattering but should revisit one of the core things that distinguishes their work from other professions (a point also made by Cameron Tonkinwise in a paper at the Design Thinking Research Symposium 8, Sydney, October 2010).
3. While branding and marketing agencies are moving into designing service experiences today, tomorrow’s service design can bring its ethnographic eye and management expertise into working inside organizations to help them redesign operations and resources in order to deliver services efficiently and effectively but without wasting opportunities for improvement and innovation.
4. While governments find ways to reform or cut public services and call it unleashing community engagement today, tomorrow’s service design can bring its anthropological and sociological expertise into asking critical questions about what kinds of social and public worlds are being created, by whom, and to what end.
5. While governments and big business make limp attempts to reduce carbon emissions through changed behaviours today, tomorrow’s service design can combine the design orientation with a deep understanding of practices to shift from consultancy to mobilise new entrepreneurial offerings.

This is a modest proposal for a way of thinking about designing for service in the near future, which tries not to lose the particular contributions that different disciplines can make to designing for service and the important differences between them. However instead of an interdiscipline in which these differences are smoothed away, I propose a version of service design in which contestation is acknowledged and valued. To go back to the story about the management consultant, the designer and the anthropologist, this version of designing for service takes characteristics of each profession and emphasizes them. The designer insists on aesthetics, novelty and repeated experimentation. The anthropologist invests in careful, close study to understand structures and practices. And the management consultant finds ways to routinise, scale and make money. Each of these core activities has something to offer as the field engages with the challenges and opportunities I outlined above, but in unpredictable ways. Design’s traditional focus on aesthetics and novelty may breed disruption in ways that do not suit highly structured organizations. Management’s reductionism to efficiency and effectiveness may crush creativity and ignore material detail. Anthropology’s commitment to careful analysis of practices and structures may slow things down.

Returning to the three stories about service design I introduce earlier, this future version of service design is not, then, an interdiscipline that smoothes away important differences between professions. Nor is it a Theory of Everything, on the basis that everything is designed or everything is service. It is closer to Redesigning Design because it rests on an understanding of professional design practice that is concerned with (re)making the world in which we live and which we continue to shape, whether we acknowledge it or not. Thought of this way, service design has some implications for design itself.

A management consultant, a designer and an anthropologist go into a bar for a drink. The designer is drunk on his creativity. The anthropologist has a hangover from mixing his drinks. The manager is making money. This is a picture of service design today. What we do want it to be tomorrow?


Schrage, M. (forthcoming). Getting Beyond Ideas: The Future of Rapid Innovation. Wiley.
Simon, Herbert. A. (1996). The Sciences of the Artificial (3rd ed.). Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Vargo, S. & Lusch, R. (2004). Evolving to a New Dominant Logic in Marketing. Journal of Marketing, 68(1): 1-17.

Thanks to Kate Blackmon, Simon Blyth, Duncan Fairfax, Engine, livework, Philip Hill, Alison Prendiville, Steve New, Daniela Sangiorgi, TaylorHaig and Cameron Tonkinwise for several conversations which shaped this piece.

Friday, October 08, 2010

Towards a Fieldstudio

My five-year design research fellowship at Said Business School, University of Oxford, ended last week. Although my relationship with the school and the university continues, including teaching on the MBA and MSc Major Programme Management, this change has given me a chance to think about several things including
- how academic research (with varying degrees of what people refer to as rigour and relevance) intersects with professional and social worlds, and
- how design worlds (practices associated mostly with the art school tradition, rather than engineering) engage with social and cultural theories, and
- how managers, entrepreneurs and designers go about what they do and to what effect.

I started at Said with a background as a practitioner in interaction design and design management, and occasional player within contemporary art, already in dialogue with social science researchers in particular those associated with Science and Technology Studies (STS). My reason for moving to the school was to have access to scholarly communities for whom art and design practices were other, but who had (I hoped) some interesting knowledge about the contexts in which design takes place in organizations of different kinds and within social worlds more broadly.

One of the ways I explored these intersections was my five years of developing a curriculum for and teaching a MBA elective in design leadership with a focus on hands-on encounters with design practices, collaborations with designers, engagement with theories of design and design management, underpinned by a particular focus on designing for service. Another was contributing to and learning from academic conferences within distinct traditions, from design (eg Design Research Society and European Academy of Design), management and organization fields (eg European Academy of Management) and within the social sciences (eg European Social Studies of Science and Technology). Practitioner focussed conferences such as the Ethnographic Praxis in Industry Conference (EPIC) and Service Design Network (SDN) were particularly stimulating contexts in which I heard about a range of ways that designers and social scientists are engaging with contemporary organizations and issues and making sense of their work. Some of my contributions are available here (to be reworked soon. I hope.)

My various encounters with strands of social science and cultural research, mostly within organization and management studies, as well as reading in theories and histories of design has left me with a sense that designers need to read more and scrutinize the claims we make and hear. Similarly I became persuaded that the institutional practices and temporalities of academia were not an effective way for interesting and useful ideas to reach non-academics who might be able to digest them and weave them into their practices as managers or designers or activists. At a time when climate change and questions of global social justice are becoming even more pressing, this is not good enough. And responses such as discussions of Mode 2 knowledge, on the one hand, or multidisciplinary collaboration on the other, do not yet connect up with some of the individual or organizational actors who might be able to use some of the important ideas developed in universities and reach audiences and publics who can do things with them and to them.

So I have begun thinking about how to bring these contexts together and what this might look like, without appealing to some notion of a bland interdisciplinarity, but rather understanding that knowledge is created, translated and changed in practice as a kind of social accomplishment that is iterative, ongoing and partial. The knowledge of the academy, or rather academies, is knowledge that has to be worked through in the context of workplaces, homes and within the public sphere and also at the level of identities and desires. This creates the opportunity for something I am tentatively calling a fieldstudio. Combining the playful, messy, iterative inquiries of the art or design studio with the unboundedness of the field and the attentiveness of the ethnographer, the fieldstudio is a way of trying out change-making that takes research and action equally seriously.

Somewhere between a consultancy, a knowledge-transfer hub (in the vernacular of the research funders), or a think-and-make-tank, the fieldstudio inquires into things that matter and makes some matter more than others. It is necessarily collaborative and relational in its productions and enactments. It may be sometimes confidential but in other senses is always public. It understands that research is creative and creativity requires research. It is starting around now. Get in touch if you would like to be involved.

Image: Street at Jaywick, Essex, site of a film being made by Somewhere

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Design and STS: EASST 2010 conference, Trento

The growing interest among design researchers in science and technology studies and among STS researchers in design and arts practices seemed to reach critical mass this year. At the EASST (European Association for the Study of Science and Technology) conference in Trento, Italy, earlier this month there were two tracks concerned directly with design, another looking at the arts and the sciences, and another on video research, all in response to the theme: Practicing science and technology/performing the social.

This was the first time I had been to a major STS event but was pleased to meet people I know who also travel in design and art contexts. Having a chance to be with several of them in a room together for a few hours was stimulating. I have hung around STS people for several years now - a lot of them hired by my former dean, the late Anthony Hopwood, including Steve Woolgar, who still hasn't got used to being in a business school (see the special issue of Organization, January 2009, Does STS mean business?) and also my collaborator Andrew Barry with whom I made Personal Political Indices. With Nina Wakeford (Goldsmiths) I have set up collaborative projects between sociologists of her acquaintance and my and Nina Pope's MA interaction design students at the Royal College of Art (2005). We co-curated with Alex Hodby an interdsciplinary exhibition as part of the EIASM workshop on Imagining Business in Oxford (2008) which included a catalogue (read some of it here). And last year at the ESRC Centre for Research on Socio-Cultural Change conference we organized a track on design in collaboration with Laurene Vaughan (RMIT, Melbourne) with Guy Julier (Leeds Met) as respondent. These modest experiments in teaching, presenting research and engaging in dialogue have left me surprised how few the exchanges between design and STS have been.

Within mainstream design studies, other than a special issue of Design Issues (Volume 20, Number 3, Summer 2004) on science and technology studies, and recent posts on the PHD-Design list about the validity or otherwise of Actor Network Theory, I do not think that design researchers have taken STS seriously. Within Computer Supported Cooperative Work and Participatory Design, there are much richer conversations with many of the leading researchers such as Lucy Suchman and Jeannette Blomberg moving between several fields, but much of this research has tended to focus on IT-based design rather than say products, communication design, architecture, or the arts more generally. I think there is potential for the version of design based in industrial design to engage more with STS which made EASST particularly enjoyable.

I cannot do justice to the complexity of the debates in this post (or perhaps even in the PHD I'm supposed to be writing) so here's a lite slacker version. STS research is all about noticing local, situated accomplishments and tracing how stable designs are achieved. Design research and practice is getting more social but without asking itself which version of the social is being enacted. STS research talks about studying performativity and materiality but relies still on written texts for producing and disseminating research. Design attends in detail to the material and often to individual designer's practices but neglects seeing design as a collective activity that is not just the work of professional designers. STS research has spent years studying engineering designers and scientists but has not yet grappled significantly with traditions in design and the arts that are open to speculation, serendipity and things being messy and unfinished.

Most of the time I spent at the track organized by Julien McHardy (Lancaster University), Trevor Pinch (Cornell University) and my pal Nina Wakeford with the title Design, Performativity, STS. Papers ranged from ethnographers talking about their art practice, artists talking about their sociological research into mobility using art methods, sociologists performing the work of doing research (see the photo of two participants trying out the research machine designed by Julien McHardy and Kat Jungnickel) and many more. I did a 15 minute version of my performance lecture One Night With Rats in the Service of Art, which draws on 18 month ethnography of the world of fancy rats and rats in science labs that resulted in a live event at Camden Arts Centre, London in 2005.

I also dipped in and out of the other design track organized by Carl Disalvo (Georgia Institute of Technology), Tobie Kerridge (Goldsmiths, University of London) and Alex Wilkie (Goldsmiths, University of London) with the title Speculation, Design, Public and Participatory Technoscience: Possibilities and Critical Perspectives. This included papers on the materiality or lack of it in critical design, speculative design and public participation. Among others I enjoyed conversations with an artist doing a PhD in sociology, an artist doing a PhD in art practice using STS ideas, an ex designer doing a PhD in sociology about design and a designer doing a PhD in design using STS. To invoke an STS concept - some serious academic monsters here.

On the final day of EASST Nina and I organized an impromtu design and STS session open to all. We structured this by asking participants to suggest topics they had heard in the tracks that they wanted to hear more on, and then invited pairs of speakers to take on a topic for around 20 minutes, before we moved onto another one from the shared pot of topics. This worked well in allowing those of us who had been in different tracks to get a sense of the conversations we had missed and also see where some of the existing conversations between design and STS are eg around engagement and participation and the role of artefacts in research.

On Friday there is another event which some of the same people will be at, evidence of Goldsmiths being potentially an important place for this emerging conversation with new people joining them such as Noortje Marres and Michael Guggenheim. Speakers at Making and Opening: Entangling Design and Social Science include Mike Michael, Nina Wakeford, and Bill Gaver from Goldsmiths and also Michelle Murphy, Pelle Ehn, Lucy Suchman and Harvey Molotch. This looks good.

Friday, July 16, 2010

MBA Design leadership elective 2010 - Exploratory prototyping

In this fifth iteration of my MBA elective in Design Leadership at Saïd Business School (SBS), this year I again set up a project giving students an opportunity to experience aspects of the design process first-hand. This project was initiated with Alison Prendiville, course director of the MDes Innovation and Creativity at London College of Communication (LCC), University of the Arts and involved the 48 MBA students taking my class to work over a day and a half with 10 students from LCC with the aim of exploring prototyping and its role as a visual aid with the aim to interpreting and developing ideas.

This post covers in detail what the two groups of students were asked to do, and includes video highlights showing what the students developed together during two workshops in Oxford in April 2010 and discussion of what they learned about prototyping and design-led innovation. It will be of interest to other educators bringing design approaches to management education, to those setting up other kinds of collaboration based around design practices, and to future Oxford MBA students thinking of taking the class next year.

Exploratory prototyping

One of the things designers emphasize in their working practices is creating visualisations of their ideas, even at very early stages. Whether called a sketch or a prototype or a model, these artefacts play important roles in multi-disciplinary and cross-functional collaborations. Depending on the stage a project is at and who is involved, the terminology used and purpose of a visualization may vary. The aim of this workshop was for the MBAs to develop an understanding of the value - and implications - of different kinds of visualization. For the MDes students, the aim was to go beyond thinking of their device as a product and pay more attention to the service system and business model around it.

This first video shows LCC tutor Cordula Friedlander and I introducing the workshop.

MBA-designer collaboration: Introduction (1 of 4) from Lucy Kimbell on Vimeo.

Workshop 1

Project brief: Post-operative remote monitoring sensory device base station/charger

The starting point was a project that the MDes students had already been working on for some weeks, exploring possible designs for a remote monitoring sensory device for post-operative patients.

Context: As the population is getting progressively older, the need for higher quality and better efficiency in healthcare, both at home and in hospital, is becoming more evident. Healthcare providers are coming under increasing pressure to improve the quality of preventative and post-operative care delivered to patients. It is in the interests both of care providers as well as patients, for the patient to leave hospital to continue recovery at home at the earliest opportunity. However, carer and patient need to be reassured of seamless communication and reliable emergency procedures. The latest sensor technologies and wireless communication could enable the care provider to monitor the remote post-operative patient’s recovery process. Logging and analysing this information will give the patient reassurance, or provide early warning feedback to carers.

Where they got to: Working with medical technology researchers from Cranfield University, LCC students developed and tested suitable shapes and ways of engaging with the device based on the researchers’ idea of having the device in the patient’s ear for the duration of 2 minutes. The purpose was to use prototyping methods to develop a sensory device that allows easy and reassuring usage by the post-operative patient at home and to provide a starting point to develop and explore the service system that would support it. Students were expected to test their prototypes amongst themselves but also with other user groups such as elderly people or children. The prototypes were developed by the LCC students, as a first step to engage and demonstrate, to the medical engineers at Cranfield, explorative ideas on how elderly people may use the technology and how feedback from this group needs to be considered early on in the device’s development.

The result of this work was presented as a starting point for the collaboration with the MBA students, which shifted from a focus on the device and interactions with it, to the larger service system and business model.

The second video shows two of the MDes students from LCC, Anna Kassen and Nicola Sherry, presenting to the MBAs what they do in their programme, the user-centred explorations they had done to date, and the prototypes they had come up with.

MBA-designer collaboration: Briefing (2 of 4) from Lucy Kimbell on Vimeo.

The third video shows the groups of MBAs+MDes students presenting their concepts for the device base station. They came up with these based on working together for only a few hours, in ten teams, in which two or three MBAs worked with one MDes student and their existing prototype for the device. Using simple materials such as salvaged card, plastic and paper, the students were briefed to come up with a 3d prototype of the charging/base station for the sensor device.

Brief: The base station for storing and charging the sensory device needs to be compact, discreet and user-friendly. The unit communicates, reassures and alerts the patient and also transmits pulse and temperature readings to the receiving hospital /doctor. The unit will accompany the patient during his or her recovery period at home. Where in the home is the best place for its location? The patient’s reassurance and ease of use will play a vital part in the success of the device.

The patient will need to know:
- is the unit sufficiently charged?
- is the sensory device positioned correctly when in use/ when charging
- start, finish and 2 minute indication?
- what time of day to take the readings, and how the patient is alerted.
- are the readings normal/reassuring or is some action required?
- what to do in case of readings that are not in the normal range.

Other practical issues to consider are
- product packaging (eg consider re-use)
- hygiene
- cable storage
- user manual, instructions.

The task is not only to prototype a unit that could fulfil all the practical functions listed above but more so to explore the opportunities for a new product identity (eg name, colour, materials etc).

Together, the ten short presentations in response to this brief illustrate the different ways prototyping helps with the process of exploring the design space at an early stage of technology innovation. For some teams, the exploration of the base station raised important questions about the nature of the service it will be part of. For other teams, prototyping the base station/charging unit forced them to make assumptions about how people feel when they have just had an operation and how they might engage with the device. For some teams, it helped to focus on a very specific user (eg a parent of a child who has had an operation).

MBA-designer collaboration: Presentations (3 of 4) from Lucy Kimbell on Vimeo.

This final video captures the discussion we had at the end of the workshop, with reflective contributions both from MBA students (shaped by their diverse backgrounds in marketing, engineering and other fields) and the MDes students (not all of whom are designers by training). The discussion ranges from the detail of some of the ideas the teams came up with, as well as the value of early prototyping in a complex project such as this. It illustrates how even a with limited timescale (here, one day) bringing together people who had not worked together before, using visual methods to explore the possibilities for a new device, raises valuable questions about the device and the wider service system it is part of.

MBA-designer collaboration: Discussion (4 of 4) from Lucy Kimbell on Vimeo.

Two weeks after this first workshop, we had second session at SBS.

Workshop 2

The aim of this workshop was for students to develop a deeper understanding of the device/system by creating personas, using role play, and by creating visualisations of the service journey and business model.

Part 1: Creating personas for the post-operative remote monitoring sensory device

Once team members had familiarised themselves with the 10 prototypes of the device and base station, we asked them to develop an assigned persona, someone from the possible future service ecology around the sensor. We gave them a template to help flesh out some fictional details to make that person come alive in the context of the device/service, for example picking a photograph so you know what they look like, think about where they spend their time and what other technologies and devices they use and are familiar with.

The actors we picked were: a patient, a family member, a surgeon/specialist, a general practitioner/family doctor, a nurse, a receptionist, a friend or online contact, support worker for the device/service, a health visitor and a pet. We asked teams to pick a country they were familiar with to explore how the device/system might work in quite different kinds of healthcare system and culture.

Once the teams had created their persona, we then asked students from each team to test their personas using role play to reveal some of their assumptions by acting out what might happen when a team's persona interacted with other actors in the device/system around questions like these:
- The readings on the device seem high. What next?
- The readings are ok according to the device but the patient does not feel well.
- The patient is not able to use the device.
- The patient does not know if the device is working.

This exercise asked students to combine knowledge from their various specialisms, with their imaginations, and make a number of assumptions about the future device/service system. Working in this way helped make more tangible aspects of the device and its service system and ecology, raising important questions about the business model and possible benefits.

Part 2: Service and business modelling

The final part of the 1.5 day collaboration involved the students again working in mixed teams of MBAs and MDes students, developing visualizations of service and business models for the device/system based on work done in the previous workshops including the physical prototypes and personas.

This led to a discussion about the nature of this specific project which is technology-led, where the focus has been on developing a suitable technology, with some work on researching end user experiences by the MDes students which informed their prototyping but without any knowledge about what business models, if any, have informed the proposed device as it is currently conceived of.

Service modelling
We gave teams a template of the service blueprint (or service journey) (developed from Shostack 1982; Bitner et al 2008; Kimbell 2010). This template helped make explicit the activities involved in instantiating a service, who is doing them and what kinds of resources are involved, from databases to packaging to support staff, arranged over time, in different locations, and where value was being co-created.

Business modelling
Having imagined in some detail actors in the service ecology by creating a blueprint showing how they interconnect, the next task was to use this enriched understanding of the service to sketch potential business models. We used Osterwalder’s (2009) business model canvass leaving it up to the teams to decide what kinds of organizations should be actors in the business model.


After one and a half days of working together, the MBA students and MDes students came up with a number of valuable ideas that could help shape the design of the post-operative sensor - and perhaps more importantly - its service and business models. Their brief, but intense explorations of the nature of the sensor and what it might mean to imagined patients and other key actors, using 3d prototyping, personas, role play, service journeys and business model visualizations, brought home to them the complexity of design and innovation.

What started off as being conceived of as a question of how to fit a small device in or near a patient's ear comfortably became a question of where the value was being created, for whom, and how. The approach we took of seeing the sensor primarly as a service shifted the students' attention away from questions of physical form, functionality, meaning or usability, to the form, functionality, meaning and usability of the service system. Exploratory prototyping can help bring these questions quickly and vividly to the attention of managers, designers and engineers before committing to design decisions that are inappropriate and wasteful of resources.

Further reading

Buxton, Bill (2008) Sketching User Experiences
Osterwalder, Alex and Pigneur, Yves (2009) Business Model Generation
Verganti, Roberto (2009) Design Driven Innovation: Changing the Rules of Competition by Radically Innovating what Things Mean


Organized by Lucy Kimbell (SBS) and Alison Prendiville (LCC)
Faciliators: Lucy Kimbell (SBS), Alison Prendiville and Cordula Friedlander (LCC), Moura Quayle (Sauder School of Business, UBC)
Filming/editing: Dariusz Dziala

Thursday, July 01, 2010

Glen Cove Conference on Strategic Design and Public Policy

Glen Cove, NY, June 9-11, 2010
Download conference report here
View conference presentations here

Ever keen to expand the boundaries of their practices, design professionals have been moving in the direction of public policy for some years. Moving beyond (but drawing on) concerns with products and brands, and interactions and experiences, some designers have found themselves over the past decade working on the design of systems and services including several in the public sector, situating their role as designers of social action rather than designers of things. Meanwhile some policymakers have created opportunities for designers to apply their approaches to social and economic problems.

In Australia, consultancy Second Road has worked for a decade with the Australian tax office on the design of the tax system, rather than just the tax forms. In 2004, the UK Design Council set up a research unit called RED, to tackle social and economic issues through design-led innovation. Its director, Hilary Cottam, and her colleagues later set up a new consultancy, Participle, which currently works with organizations such as Southwark Council in London. In 2005 UK design consultancy ThinkPublic worked with the National Health Service Institute for Innovation and Improvement to help improve the design of a cancer service, written up in an excellent book (2007) by Paul Bate and Glenn Robert. In 2007 the Danish government re-organized innovation unit Mindlab as a cross-ministerial organization to use design approaches to involve citizens and policymakers in innovation. That same year the Design Council and a regional development agency in the North East of England launched Design of the Times (DOTT), a one-year project bringing design-based approaches to projects that aim to increase sustainability in the region (now running in its second iteration in Cornwall). Last year design consultancy IDEO created a Human-Centred Toolkit for NGOs supported by the Gates Foundation. Researchers from Intel’s People and Practices Research Group recently published a social viability measurement tool for technology projects. End-of-year shows in design school present project after project in which studio-based learning practices are applied to deep-rooted social, political and economic issues.

Designers’ ambitions, and desires to contribute to making significant change in the world, are evident. In such projects, their work often includes research about and sometimes with the communities or stakeholders within which new social action is desired. Research methods range from ethnographically-inspired techniques that try to identify and interpret what matters to communities to participatory methods involving them directly in co-design rather than designing for them. But what designers, or multi-disciplinary teams using “design” approaches, can also bring to such projects is a set of assumptions about knowledge, that can have important consequences for how they, and the communities they claim to serve, understand the work they are doing and what happens within it. Social scientists (who have a lot to say about these assumptions and the nature of research) have come together with designers to discuss such matters for several years at conferences such as the Ethnographic Praxis in Industry Conferences (EPIC), the Participatory Design Conferences, and the anthrodesign discussion list as well as many other fora. But it is rare to bring these two professions/disciplines together with policymakers, who have different kinds of investments in the design of social action.

The Glen Cove Conference on Strategic Design and Public Policy held in Glen Cove, NY, on 9-11 June, was an event which did so. Initiated by Derek Miller and Lisa Rudnick of the UN Institute for Disarmament Research (UNIDIR), and co-organized by myself (based at Said Business School) and Gerry Philipsen (Center for Local Strategies Research, University of Washington), this event was conceived of as a small workshop which would bring together – for the first time, as far as we were aware - three groups: policymakers concerned with security in intrastate contexts and post-conflict situations, whose work is typically structured by intergovernmental and national policy goals; social science researchers, in particular ethnographers of communication who pay special attention to the construction of local knowledge, for example, how “security” is understood in communities in which the UN has a mandate to do increase it and having decided to help disarm ex-combatants; and designers and managers involved in designing services shaped by policy concerns about politics, exclusion and access. The workshop was a direct result of Miller and Rudnick’s work since 2005 and increasing concern with how generating local knowledge could shape local action in the UN context. By developing the Security Needs Assessment Protocol (SNAP), Miller and Rudnick have been exploring design as a way to link local knowledge and local action (see the SNAP section of the UNIDIR website which includes the conclusions from an earlier workshop on design and public policy they organized in the Hague in 2009).

The aim of the Glen Cove workshop was to see whether the developments outlined briefly above, in which designers skilled in going through a process of creative enquiry in new contexts, combined with rigorous cultural research, attentive to the necessity and difficulties of generating local knowledge, might be relevant to contexts of international security. A second aim was for participants from these three different professional contexts to reflect on what such an agenda might mean for their disciplines and professions (although not ignoring important differences among them). My introduction above illustrates my own interests in how design professions are changing and what kinds of knowledge and assumptions designers have, or might need to question, in order to design social action and in whose service they are operating.

Since we will be publishing a report about the workshop and its conclusions, I will not go into detail here such as listing all the participants’ names (but see below for a list or organizations) nor what we did and what we concluded. Instead I mention some of the sessions I found most illuminating.

Day 1:
The first sessions set the scene through discussion of current challenges in policy, humanitarian and development activities and the growing awareness for the need for local knowledge for effective local action in an effort not to have strategic goals undermined by poor programme design. These included presentations about the importance of local knowledge from Randolph Kent (Humanitarian Futures Project, King’s College, London, and former UN member of staff in Rwanda and Kosovo); the irrelevance and inadequacy of many guidelines for operational staff by Tore Rose (SecDev, and former UN Resident Coordinator in several countries); and Roz Lasker (Mailman School of Public Health, Columbia) on bottom-up community engagement in public health and tracking who has influence in decision-making.

Day 2:
The second day introduced the two other main threads – design and cultural research. There were presentations from Dick Buchanan (Weatherhead School of Management) presenting design as based on rhetoric and dialectic as useful for professionals of different kinds to practice well; and from my colleague Steve New (Said Business School) about process thinking within the field of operations management in which action on the ground is understood as being complicated and interventions often make things worse. I presented a highly partial overview of key intellectual developments in fields in which participants are concerned with designing services and combining anthropological and design research which helped illuminate the timeliness of this event and its relevance to policy.

The afternoon saw presentations about cultural research from Gerry Philipsen (Center for Local Strategies Research, University of Washington) about the ethnography of communication which among other things studies the deep cultural knowledge about ways of communicating as strategic action that can be found in particular communities; and from Derek Miller and Lisa Rudnick (UNIDIR) describing their efforts within the UN context to generate stories that are of places rather than about them for the benefit of designing more effective, sustainable, and legitimate community security projects and bridging some of the gaps between cultural research, programme design and public policy.

Day 3:
In the morning, five mixed teams (with at least one design-based professional, one cultural researcher and one policy professional) worked together to try to design a process that would generate local knowledge to shape local action in the form of a programme in the UN context. The matter of concern for this exercise was reintegration of ex-combatants in west Africa. As one designer put it: “Designers are quite happy to work on anything.” But this exercise asked teams – few of whom had much knowledge about the particular topic or indeed other team members’ specialist domains – to think about how their different perspectives, knowledge and assumptions might be combined or questioned so that more effective programmes might be designed. For design, this lead to questions such as: Can one really "co-create" with war criminals? Can one really use "empathy" as a formal approach in a post-conflict context with global as well as personal ramifications?

The final plenary session lead to heated discussion – which was for me an indicator of the success of the workshop. I take the view that multidisciplinary workshops or teams, if they work well, will lead to some moments of productive synthesis but also raise equally productive challenges to individuals’ worldviews and disciplinary assumptions. This led to a lively set of activities to identify common agenda items across the disciplinary traditions, driven by policy concerns which several of us are now trying to synthesize. I am confident that new collaborations in action, research and teaching will come from the event.

The organizers and participants are now in dialogue about how to capture and report the workshop, in the short term, and how in the medium term we can find ways to take forward the idea that (1) cultural research has something important to offer the creation of local knowledge in international policy contexts, and that (2) design practices have something to contribute to interpreting and enacting that knowledge in the design of social actions. Hoping to learn from similar discussions in other areas of policy and public service, and contribute to discussions within my own profession, I look forward to helping take this work forward.

Participants came from these organizations:
Bell & Payne Consulting
Carnegie Corporation
Center for Knowledge Societies
Engine Group
George Washington University
King’s College, University of London
Mailman School of Public Health, Columbia University
New School for Social Research
Permanent Mission of Sweden to the United Nations
United Nations Institute for Disarmament Research
UN Department for Peacekeeping Operations
University of Ghana
University of Haifa
University of Massachusetts, Amherst
University of Oxford
Weatherhead School of Management

Aditya Sood’s summary of the workshop on his blog
Write up by Ivo Gormley, Think Public, published in Design Week
Anthodesign discussion listserv
DOTT Cornwall
EPIC 2010
IXDA Interaction Design Conference 2011
Participatory Design Conference 2010
ServDes 2010

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Embedding service design

Last week's seminar on Embedding Design at the Royal Society of Arts, London, offered a snapshot of current issues in service design and management and raised some questions about what kinds of thing need to be known to bring this approach into large organizations. Organized by Emily Campbell, director of design at the RSA, and the National Policing Improvement Agency as part of their own enquiry into the strategic use of design, the workshop brought together designers, policymakers, anthropologists and managers from organisations seeking improvement and innovation.

Speakers were:

- Lynne Maher, NHS Institute for Innovation and Improvement, who set up the project in which designers ThinkPublic brought an (experience-based) design-led approach to the design of cancer services in the NHS, written up in Bate and Robert's excellent book "Bringing user experience to healthcare improvement" (2007). Lynne described how this work has moved forward through the creation of the "Productive Ward" presented to managers as more efficient, and to nurses as giving them more time to spend with patients, and how she and her team have to translate the language of designers to the languages of the different constituencies they work with.

- Tony Coultas of Skills Development Scotland, a national agency that is now putting customer experience at the centre of their service designing activities, including an in-house team of designers. Tony described how he saw design as an important link between policy and delivery, building a space to create better services and be a catalyst for change by focussing on the customer experience.

- Ben Reason of leading (and indeed the first?) service innovation and design consultancy live|work, described three different ways his firm has worked with clients Streetcar, Haringey Council's housing services, and Skills Development Scotland. Demonstrating a rare modesty among design professionals, he said "Design isn't good at everything" adding that his firm have found they have had to get more and more collaborative. Ben suggested that design is characterised by change, outside-in perspectives, provocation and a horizontal view, where as business is more concerned with consistency, an inside-out perspective, reassurance and being vertical.

- anthropologist Simon Roberts of Intel, sharing his experience of the issues raised by trying to embed anthropology within large organizations. His experience is that the "value" of anthropology is not easy to identify, often connected to a shift in thinking rather than to specific benefits to particular technologies or bits of IP. Given the complexity of modern organizations, he suggested that part of the value was that anthropology "gives the organization an opposable thumb" - invoking a phrase that Roger Martin has also used in his writing.

I gave an overview of design and service theory, lite, summarised in a 2x2 matrix (download PDF here) which captures two tensions in the literature: the "how" of design ranging from an idea of design as determinate and procedural (eg Simon 1969) in which the desired state of affairs is known at the outset, to an idea of design as exploration (eg Cross 2006; Schon 1983; Rittel and Webber 1973); and the "what" is being designed ranging from a conceptualisation that sees products and services as quite different kinds of thing, to a more generalisable idea of service (in the singular) following Vargo and Lusch's (2004) description of a shift to a service-dominant logic in which everything is service. For me, the kinds of practices that emerge from the art-school tradition of exploratory design, which reframe encounters with things and people and structures as opportunities for service, is the space that I understand as designing for service.

The ensuing discussion raised familiar questions. What is design? What is service design? Is it really different from other kinds of design? How can organizations bring in some of its concepts, tools and practices? How can this kind of design be managed and what resources are required? Does it "work" - in terms of helping cut costs or save money (compared to say Lean Manufacturing), or make improvements or innovate? How are Lynne's team trying to scale these practices in the NHS? What works and what doesn't? What might all this mean for the National Policing Improvement Agency, who are at an earlier stage in the process? Is now the perfect opportunity for designing for service to move forward, as the UK faces budget cuts affecting nearly all public services?

As I have found in my research, it is hard to separate these questions out because of the nature of service-based organizations and because (good) designers are attentive to, and able to work with, questions of value rather than just making pretty things and from the end user's point of view the pretty (or ugly, or unusable..) things constitute the service. However any discussion that fails to make the links between emerging practices such as "service design" in the art-school tradition and existing knowledge about services in (often dull) management literatures and the social sciences, will hamper efforts to build the knowledge base organizations need to move forward.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

What happens when you turn a business school into a studio for a day

Seminar Room A during the break when the MBAs and the MDes students from the London College of Communications were having lunch

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

MBA Design Leadership elective 2010

This is the fifth and most likely final year of my MBA elective in Design Leadership at Said Business School, University of Oxford. My five-year post ends in September and the school is not renewing the fellowship. However tomorrow I look forward to teaching the course, this year with 50 MBA students (out of 225 or so students).

Over the five years the basic principles have remained consistent, drawing on my own art and design education and ongoing research including:
- a commitment to experiential learning
- hands-on playful exploration of studio-based approaches to concept generation and exploration
- opportunities to collaborate with designers
- reading from a range of fields including design theory, sociology and organisation studies
- insights from leading practitioners including Bill Moggridge (IDEO), Joe Ferry (Virgin Atlantic), Chris Downs (livework), Indy Johar (zerozero) and Andrew McGrath (Orange).

When I designed this course, I had a very open brief to create a new elective that would give students an opportunity to learn about design and design management. The school chose the name 'Design Leadership' because that term was being promoted at the time among some practitioners within design management, but it has since been eclipsed by the term 'Design Thinking', another problematic term (see my paper Design Practices in Design Thinking offering a critique). Back then there were hardly any MBA courses with such electives, let alone design-based teaching in the core of business education. Now there are several, although rarely devised and taught by someone from an art and design background, but these developments are still quite minor within the current way of doing things within management schools.

For those interested in such approaches, key business schools to look at are Rotman, Weatherhead, Stanford's d-school and Imperial College, London. In addition a number of design and engineering schools have created new post-graduate programmes based on similar ideas. It has been a great pleasure to get to know some of the faculty who have developed these courses and have a dialogue with them - an effort that is being enabled in particular by Dick Boland and Fred Collopy at Weatherhead whose 2002 workshop 'Managing as Designing' and this year's 'Convergence' event have been particularly inspiring as spaces for critical reflection.

In a context in which the MBA is being challenged (see the current discussion on the HBR blog and ongoing commentary by Bruce Nussbaum and colleagues at Business Week, not to mention a number of excellent books), these efforts are important efforts to reconceive of management education. I have learned a great deal from the students who have taken my elective and from some of my colleagues, as well as many others such as Armand Hatchuel at Ecole des Mines. However since I will be leaving Said in a few months - and I'm disappointed to be doing so - I may not be engaged in these questions in such a hands-on way in the immediate future. For now, back to the prep for tomorrow's prototyping workshop.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

The limits of design (thinking)

Last week I attended a think tank entitled Design in Our Times organised by Andrea Siodmok and her team at DOTT Cornwall, a year-long project that brings a design approach to (re)designing Cornwall's future to be more sustainable and more inclusive, and University College Falmouth. Two days on a lovely clifftop with some leading UK and international designers, researchers and educators was a chance to assess what is happening in design and its ambitions for world-changing. With keynotes from architect Nabeel Hamdi (Housing without Houses), design researcher Ezio Manzini, Mat Hunter (now at the Design Council, UK) and workshops on day two by people such as ThinkPublic, UsCreates, Asier Perez (I love agitación para la innovación), and Andy Polaine, this was a whistlestop tour through emerging design practice with a focus on co-design and participation and the application of design thinking to complex social and economic issues such as long-term unemployment and transport in the UK's poorest county. (See DOTT Cornwall's event website here). This DOTT project follows a similar project directed by John Thackara in the north east of England in 2007.

These were some of the key things I heard (partly cribbed from an excellent summary by Jeremy Myerson of the RCA of an academic conversation I was involved in):
  1. Design practice is changing and it needs to change.
  2. Some designers are shifting from designing for to designing with, raising questions of authorship, which some others are not so comfortable with.
  3. Design education should teach both design knowledge (or craft skills) and design thinking, the latter which is not the preserve only of designers. But no one was defining what design thinking was. One speaker, Mat Hunter, warned that talk about design thinking as a process that anyone can try tended to miss out the messy, difficult bits which are part of design and which are important.
  4. Public service managers and policymakers are ready to hear what design can offer them (but they are desperate in the face of budget cuts and a lack of trust in the political class).

Now that I dabble in the social sciences and in management, it was strange to be back in a room that was mostly design people talking to other design people about design - and by design people I mean art-school design rather than engineering. I found myself skeptical about a number of things that I heard. I noted:
  1. A lack of interest in reading or referring to literatures outside of design that are extremely relevant to the DOTT agenda, for example within innovation studies, the social sciences and management and organisation studies.
  2. Not much interest among design practitioners in understanding theories of design that are enacted in their work, while some of them struggle with saying what they do and why it matters.
  3. A reluctance to question the values embedded in current design practices - as if being nice people creating collaborative processes to enable co-design gets designers (and policymakers and managers) out of asking themselves challenging questions about power.
  4. An avoidance of recent and less recent design history, as if the turn to co-design and the application of design to social problems means we can forget how implicated design practices are in the styling and branding of ecologically destructive mass consumption, as Tony Fry and others argue.
  5. Not much effort being invested in critically assessing whether, in fact, we can just apply design practices/thinking/methods to social and economic issues. Are the tacit knowledge and methods developed for developing consumer insights really directly applicable to such contexts without much new thought?
  6. An unwillingness to acknowledge the bits that designers do well and the bits they don't. One conversation thread was about how designers are good at scaling. They are not. Management is all about scaling, by replicating products and services globally through standardisation. From Adam Smith to FW Taylor to Henry Ford, increasing operational effectiveness and efficiency is a core activity in management but I can't think of a designer or design writer who has much to say on this.
The Design Council's DOTT programme, and the specific year of projects in Cornwall, is important. There has been a huge effort to mobilise local and regional organisations to engage with the possibility of design and designers helping shape Cornwall's future. It's just that the current framing of the project needs further scrutiny, so that those of us interested in it can make better sense of it, but - more importantly - so that non-designers can understand, question and assess it. John Thackara made the point that design is not known for being self-reflective and critical. We all know that design on its own is not going to save the world - so why do designers in a room on their own still seem to think it can?

Image: Village life by Steven Coombe on Flickr for DOTTshot.

Tuesday, March 02, 2010

Ron Arad's restlessness

Ron Arad, furniture and product designer, architect and design educator, has a major retrospective show now on at London's Barbican Art Gallery (18 Feb - 16 May 2010). Originally from Israel, Arad come to London to study architecture at the Architecture Association, then set up his own practice with Caroline Thorman in the early 1980s and has practiced in London ever since. His work across a range of media and manufacturing contexts demonstrates a consistent curiosity about forms, materials and possibilities - hence the exhibition title 'Restless'. He is also well-known for his playfulness and verbal wit evidenced in chairs that look like they might tip over, and the careful naming of many of the pieces. His architectural work includes private houses and the new Design Museum in Holon, Israel.

Visiting the exhibition raised questions for me about the seductions of this kind of design practice. More concerned with designing for sustainability and for service, I do not follow closely what goes in in furniture design and the world of "design art" and its limited editions. Usually resistant to what seems to be a kind of reckless environmental carelessness in these fields, I have to admit to a partiality to Arad's work. I have one his V&A sofas in blue felt (manufactured by Moroso) and some chairs. I know Arad to be a committed educator from his time as professor of design products at the Royal College of Art (where I used to teach).

But visiting the show I found myself captivated by the way it communicated Arad's ongoing enquiries into what to make and how to make it. On one of the many screens there was a quote saying that many of the manufactured pieces came from studio works, and not vice versa, illustrating nicely the notion that design is not (only) problem-solving but rather an ongoing set of enquiries. In a gallery that usually shows contemporary art, and sometimes architecture, it was a rare example of a design exhibition and a reminder of the value of these kinds of solo shows which give an opportunity to see how ideas have developed over decades. I wonder which service designer, if any, the Barbican might be showing in 20 years' time.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Investigatio: Workshop at Design London/RCA/Imperial College

Yesterday I joined around 30 people discussing multi/inter/transdisciplinarity at the Investigatio event in London organised by Anne-Laure Fayard (visiting academic at Design London, from NYU-Poly) and Bruce Tether (Design London). In addition to the workshop, Anne-Laure curated an exhibition exploring "what is research" with work by researchers working in the arts, design, social sciences and management, including Yasmine Abbas, James Auger, Anne-Laure Fayard, Ileana Stigliani, Patrick Stacey, Nina Wakeford, Aileen Wilson, and my own rat project (see image). See Anne-Laure's blog post here.

Since Design London are creating a podcast of the event (available here), I will not say too much here other than to give tweet-sized summaries of the contributions by
- Peter Childs, Professor of Engineering Design, and Marco Aurisicchio, Imperial College, proposing the jet engine as a model of creativity, and design linking creativity and innovation and the importance of language in interdisciplinary encounters
- Tony Dunne, Professor and Head of Department, Design Interactions, Royal College of Art, proposing designers can contribute a great deal if they shift from application to implication
- Bruce Tether, Professor of Design and Innovation, Design London, Imperial College, discussing institutional limits to multidisciplinary research because of the pressure to publish in A-list journals
- Lucy Kimbell (ie me), Clark Fellow in Design Leadership, Said Business School, Oxford (see below); and
- Simon Blyth, IDEO and Julien McHardy, Lancaster University, on user-less design rooted in practices

Here's more or less what I presented.

Aesthetic play and interdisciplinary ambiguity

Many of you will be familiar with debates over the past 10-15 years about the nature of research in art and design, in particular that of practice-based research. I will not rehearse these debates here today, but make three brief observations which will serve to inform what follows.

The first is to note criticism by Michael Biggs and others of the way that art and design research in the UK academy has adopted the natural sciences as the paradigm to which it should aspire and against which its contributions should be assessed (Biggs 2004; Biggs and Buchler 2007; Rust 2007). For Biggs, this undermines the contributions that art and design research can make, because its outputs offer a plurality of interpretations and are open to, although not reliant on, non-linguistic experience.

The second is the important question of aesthetic autonomy, which so far has not been discussed extensively in design research (Ross 2008; Ranciere 2004). Ranciere makes a distinction between three regimes – the first, the ethical regime of images which reflect the collective ethos, rooted in Platonism; the second, the representative regime of art, in which art’s function is mimesis and the Aristotelian idea of consciously shaping matter; and the third, the aesthetic regime of art influenced by Kant and Shiller. This latter regime offers freedom from prescribed criteria, disrupts hierarchies – and – relevant to today, gives art the function of reorganising the accepted perceptions of reality.

The third observation is that the natural sciences – if we can even call them such – are themselves objects of scrutiny and contestation. Research in the field of Science and Technology Studies (STS), for example, has shown how science and other kinds of knowledge production are very social matters (eg Foucault 1972; Latour and Woolgar 1979; Shapin and Schaffer 1985). Scientific research is not neutral and the ways that scientific knowledge is produced, legitimised and disseminated are subject to questions of power, value, and difference.

To put this another way
- firstly, the nature and value of practice-based art and design research is still unclear, and
- secondly, the aesthetic regime of art of the past 200 years or so is concerned with reorganising perceptions of reality, and
- even what we might think of as well-established fields saturated with disciplinary rigour as in Kuhnian (1970) normal science, are more messy and ambiguous than many scientists and policy-makers might like to think.

Where does this leave attempts to bring disciplines together to do research? I will argue that it is exactly this ambiguity and disciplinary incoherence that offers opportunities to generate new knowledge, as researchers attempt and fail to combine worldviews and approaches from different disciplines.

There is one further piece of research on which I wish to draw, an empirical study of interdisciplinarity in projects crossing design and IT, social science and design, and art and science (Barry et al 2008). Their starting point was claims about interdisciplinarity rooted in the idea that science is becoming more accountable to society and research is, or should be, more directly relevant to users and stakeholders (Gibbons et al 1994; Nowotny et al 2001).

Research undertaken in Mode 2 knowledge advanced in Gibbons et al (1994) has five criteria:
- knowledge is produced in the context of application
- transdisciplinary research cannot be reduced to disciplines
- it is heterogeneious and there are lots of diverse organisations involved
- it’s more socially accountable and reflexive
- there are diverse quality controls.

When Barry et al set out to examine in more detail so-called interdisciplinary projects, they found the abstract notion of interdisciplinarity promoted by funders and others turned out to be more complicated in practice: two or more disciplines added together do not simply make a nice coherent new field.

Barry et al describe three modes of interdisciplinarity that they identified across the examples they studied in their fieldwork. One, the subordination-service mode, involves one discipline being in service to another, for example artists whose projects were funded to help increase the public understanding of science. The second, the intregrative-synthesis mode, involves disciplines integrating. The third, the agonistic-antagonistic mode, is forged as researchers question disciplinary commitments to ideas of what constitutes reality and knowledge. Barry et al found that some of the interdisciplinary collaborations they studied sprang from a “self-conscious dialogue with, criticism of, or opposition to the limits of established disciplines, or the status of academic research in general and attempts to reconceive or change the object of knowledge” (Barry et al 2008: 29). They found three logics under which claims about interdisciplinarity were advanced (accountability, innovation, ontology) and different kinds of institutional commitment.

My argument today is that this agonistic-antagonistic mode provides a helpful way to think about the positive effects of the disciplinary incoherence and ambiguity I mentioned earlier. If - still early in its trajectory within the academy - art and design research is unclear about the nature of its knowledge and contribution, then it is not necessarily a problem in interdisciplinary research as long as the institutions supporting it are willing and able to recognise the agonistic-antagonistic mode alongside the other modes. In other words, art and design research does not have to be internally coherent, normal science before it engages in interdisciplinary collaboration. It has the potential to mobilise the aesthetic regime of described by Ranciere to reorganise the accepted perceptions of reality within different research fields.

Image: Drawing created by rat, human and software in collaboration through the "Is your rat an artist?" drawing device, part of the Rat Fair organised by Lucy Kimbell at Camden Arts Centre, London, 2005