Sunday, March 20, 2016

Studios for Society – Why Design and Art Schools are Resources for Societal Innovation

Some notes on experimentation in art and design included in a publication that accompanied the launch of CSM Public at Central Saint Martins, London, January 2016.

Illustration: Holly Macdonald from Kimbell, L. (2015). Applying Design to Public Policy

Everyone is experimenting these days. Facing challenges at different kinds of scale within a dynamic, complex and fast-changing environment, public service providers, businesses, civic groups and policy makers are turning experimentation to generate and test solutions.

Experimentation sounds scientific. It demonstrates if an idea works or not, based on a hypothesis informed by theory. It provides evidence which then can be assessed to decide whether to go ahead with implementing a solution at scale. Within policy making, trials are not new. But over the last decade experimentation informed by behavioural insights has emerged in a context (organisational and digital capabilities), with a toolbox (the randomised control trial), a theoretical base (people need a nudge) and an ideology (the austerity agenda).

Other kinds of experimentation are also growing. Data analytics allows organisations to experiment with digital services. They can quickly and cheaply set up experiments to see, for example, whether more people click on option A rather than option B, sometimes without bothering with a hypothesis. They just want to see “what works” and can find out at scale without knowing why.

But as critics of the nudge approach point out, the scale of the ambition does not live up to the challenges society is facing. A small percentage change in an outcome can deliver substantial savings when spread over a population of (say) millions of people applying for driving licences. But is this the kind of change, behavioural or organisational, that is going to help communities address big challenges where entirely new ways of doing things are needed?

This is where design and art schools come in. Their business is creating the future, not studying evidence of past performance. Based in an abductive logic and using inventive methodologies, artists and designers generate new insights, new guesses (or proto-theories), and new concepts that are neither true or false – they just are.

Within the studio-based tradition of art schools, the studio is the site where possible versions of the future become materialised and aestheticised. Studio experimentation connects individual creativity with emergent practices at the margins of society. Artists experiment by bringing into being new kinds of cultural form and practice that give us insights into who we are and what matters, some of which become the way things are usually done. Designers experiment by proposing new cultural practices that we co-constitute as consumers, producers and users, some of which become the way things are usually done. Studio experimentation brings into being new ways of doing, knowing and being that can be shared, made sense of and combined into new routines.

These days, the studio is not located in particular places. Studio experimentation happens at the intersections between design and art schools and the local and global communities they are embedded in. In collaboration with policy teams, service managers, businesses, users and community groups, art and design schools prompt and propose and help bring innovative new practices into being. They are innovation studios for society.  

Lucy Kimbell is Director of the Innovation Insights Hub at University of the Arts London. She recently completed an AHRC fellowship in Policy Lab in the Cabinet Office.  @lixindex 

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Honorary Fellow address at Arts University Bournemouth

27 June 2014
Lucy Kimbell
Arts University Bournemouth

Is this your first graduation ceremony? Mine too.

When I graduated from my first degree, I found myself to be awkward and gauche. I was not at ease with the institution I was graduating from. Or any institution. And as for many people, being anti-institutional was something I carried with me for some years. The kind words that the Orator spoke about me might have given you the impression that I move easily between major universities and other public institutions – that I’m at home there. When I finished my first and even my second degrees, that was not the case.

As well as not being at ease in an institution, I wasn’t at ease with myself.  Feeling awkward was something that I continued to carry, and it accompanies me still. But rather than seeing this as a something to play down, maybe it’s something to think of positively. Being awkward, not quite fitting in, is perhaps a metaphor for what an art and design education gives us.

In art and design we are never quite satisfied with how things are. We don’t like quite how things fit together or understand why they are as they are. We have a restless curiosity that leads us to keep on fiddling, tinkering, mashing up, recombining. We create future visions that are speculative and imaginative, premised on creating difference.

All societies need people who question how things are, challenge institutions, and do not quite fit in. Within art and design we have a privileged place as creators of new things.

But along with the creativity, comes the critical questioning that Arts University Bournemouth has helped develop in you. Feeling awkward, not liking how things are, and being able to turn this into an analysis you can share and discuss with others, is central to creativity.

This is the thought I want to leave you with today, as you graduate and move away from this institution and on to the next phase in your life in which you will encounter many others. If you feel awkward – don’t lose that. Don’t apologise for it. Don’t hide it. Instead, if you feel awkward, recognise it and use it.

You will learn, if you don’t know already, that society likes the creativity more than the critical questioning.

But in art and design we know that you can’t have one without the other. If you want to succeed as a creative, you need to carry on being an awkward bugger.


In 2014 I joined an illustrious list of honorary fellows at AUB.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Some futures for art and design higher education institutions, 2020

In February I gave the keynote at the Ukadia conference of specialist art and design higher education institutions (the transcribed version will follow). In it, I summarised the drivers of change shaping teaching and research in these institutions as:

  • Technology (eg broadband, multi devices, the cloud, IOT, SaSS, MOOCs, digital as material)
  • Collective making/solution creating (eg hackweekends, lean start up, Global Service Jam, Culture Hack Scotland)
  • An expanding field (eg Artist Placement Group, design thinking, co-design, toolkits, MindLab, OpenIDEO)
  • The importance of visuality and performativity (eg interfaces to everything)
  • Institution-making/disintermediation (eg free schools, Copenhagen Institute of Interaction Design
    THNK, School of Communication Arts, Makerversity).

I then described four scenarios for UK art and design institutions in 2020. Half serious, half playful they were written to highlight some of the potential implications of current developments. 

Scenario 1 Business as usual 

By 2020 undergraduate student fees were £20,000 a year. Student applications from UK and Europe had dropped by half from 2015, but numbers of Chinese, Indian and US students coming to the UK to study continued to grow. Art and design schools continued their slow drift towards being a specialist finishing school. Some responded by focusing exclusively on one of three areas – luxury and branding, European classical art, and Shakespeare. They built campuses in China and Korea. They invested in buildings – snazzy glass boxes designed for spectacular displays. They built customer service teams to cater to their demanding students. 

Morale dropped among teaching staff. Having a PhD was now a requirement even for visiting lecturers paid at hourly rates. The currency for lecturers was publishing in peer-reviewed journals, not practice. This pushed out the few interesting practitioners who were left, which was fine by them as the students they did tutorials with created projects which no longer interested them. Some art and design schools took another route, moving from offering degree programmes to short courses and CPD. But without access to workshops and studios, students did not get the in-depth, sustained training they needed. Entrepreneurial practitioners created new kinds of shared makespaces, outside of London since property there remained unaffordable except to a global elite. One result was property developers around the UK created new hybrid developments combining affordable housing, shared makespaces and small business units. Research for art and design dwindled and was available onto to institutions with good partnerships with top research universities on joint bids.

Scenario 2   Low regulation

After the incoming minister for Business Innovation and Skills, Sir Michael Gove, opened up higher education to commercial providers, the pace of change was fast. By 2020, there were 30 so-called free universities offering art and design. Some were set up by commercial providers, some resulted from partnerships between corporations and existing universities. Tate Enterprises partnered with Harvard to create a new art school offering Tate BA and Tate MFA delivered at what used to be Chelsea College of Art, whose site they bought. A new free university focussing on consumer electronics was created by a joint venture between Phillips Electronics, Lenovo and Northumbria University, delivered in London and Shanghai. Some free universities came into existence through a management buy-out. Senior managers at the Royal College of Art found private equity backers who reorganised it to focus on global industrial design and digital design. 

Scenario 3   Open/social innovation

By 2020, climate change and global inequalities were drivers of change that art and design schools could no longer marginalise. Students wanted to address these issues, communities in which schools were located needed help with developing creative responses, and staff too wanted to work on something more meaningful than brand-driven D&AD briefs. Research funds too are oriented towards finding interdisciplinary responses to social and public challenges. As a result art and design institutions benefitted from research funding when proposals were constituted as design for sustainable mobility, or the arts for dementia, or design for development. Some schools reorganised to orient all their activities in response to these challenges. The Local Government Association joined forces with Lancaster University to create a suite of degree programmes, CPD and peer-learning aimed at local government, delivered online and through workshops all over the UK. A new intellectual property regime resulted in art and design schools focussing less on protecting IP. Instead a new open source community emerged that shared knowledge for others to build on. 

Scenario 4    Ateliers of the future

Following the lead of Ravensbourne, in 2020 a group of art and design institutions decided to give up awarding degrees. Instead they set up a network of art and design schools that offered courses aimed at passionate practitioners who wanted to develop and strengthen their expertise, working closely with employers who wanted to develop future talent. These students did not see the value of a degree. However they did value was experiential, collective learning that fitted in with their other commitments, inspiring and skilled teaching, and access to studios and machine shops. The new art and design schools found that students were willing and able to pay for this. And they found practitioners willing to teach tutorials and practical studio classes one or two days a week. Critical and historical studies moved online, using MOOC-like technologies to connect leading researchers around the world with motivated students. These schools flourished outside of London which was now too expensive to live in for most people including teaching staff. Instead Salford/Huddersfield/Bradford became a new hub for art and design - the Berlin of the 2020s. 

Friday, October 11, 2013

Before empathy: Keynote at Design Research Conference, IIT Chicago

Before empathy
Lucy Kimbell
October 2013  

There is a trick some speakers do, that tries to build empathy in their audience. They share a personal story. They offer an intimate confession that gives the people listening a hook that will spark their attention for the half an hour that follows. I’m not going to use that trick.

I am however going to try this one.  Hands up if you use empathy in your work. Hands up if you don’t. Will anyone here admit to not being empathetic?

What I am going to do in this talk – which is going to be more agonistic than the kind that starts with a story – is explore what is going on in the fetishization of empathy within design research over the past decade (see for example [1]). To start off, I should say I am not anti-empathy, or anti-human centred design. But what I am going to do is try to dig around a little to help us think about what empathy is doing for us in design research, and what it is not doing.

There is one main reason I’m doing this. In my work teaching MBAs, and advising entrepreneurs, I keep coming across managers who have got the empathy bug. Apparently it’s the most valuable thing they teach at Harvard Business School. These managers want to be empathetic. They want the services they are responsible for to engage better with users. They think design thinking is the way to make that happen. Quite often they think that they are pretty good at doing empathy already so they don’t need designers to do it for them.

So with empathy now being taken up by other fields, it’s worth looking at what is going on in so-called empathetic design research. What comes with empathy? And what does it ignore? Is it the thing that’s distinctive about design research?

A second reason is that the strengths of a practice are often its weaknesses, so it’s useful to step back and understand the issues and potential in a construct like empathy. However this is not going to be a full-blown genealogy of empathy. But I will start with what academics are supposed to do and go back to the literature.

Here’s the literature I want to start with. Star Trek Next Generation (TNG) is not an academic literature but it is a world which explores ideas and builds on them to create new ideas. I propose that we can see Star Trek as a piece of design research - specifically, as an example of what Ilpo Koskinen and colleagues in their book Design Research Through Practice call constructive design research. Gene Roddenbery, the creator of Star Trek, and his colleagues, the TV studios, the actors, the audiences, and all the specialists involved, together built a world and put it to use in the sense of trying it out over several seasons. I’m going to come back to this idea of constructivist design research at the end of my talk.

To help us think about empathy I want to enlist one of the characters from TNG, Deana Troi who has the role of ship’s counselor on the USS Enterprise. Half human, half betazoid, Counselor Troi has the capacity of being able to sense other people’s ideas and feelings. In TNG they refer to this as telepathy, because she can do it at a distance. But in fact what you see mostly in the seven series of TNG is Counselor Troi having a face-to-face conversation with someone, or making observations about people in front of her or a nearby planet. She doesn’t do a lot of remote fieldwork – her practice is very interactive and it looks a lot like some versions of empathy in design research.

Let’s have a closer look at this practice. First of all, Counselor Troi is able to develop an understanding about other lifeforms, and then create an analysis, which she shares with her colleagues, often Captain Picard. Often she’s asked to do some data gathering and form an opinion alongside Mr Data, the android, and Lieutenant Worf, who’s a Klingon and claims to be very rational. In this clip, note how the male officers are seated on one side of the table, while Conselor Troi and Dr Krusher and the android (and so neither male nor female), Mr Data, are on the other.

                                                            (This and the following clips are used absolutely without permission.)

Against the backdrop of current conversations about big data versus what ethnographer Tricia Wang calls thick data, TNG looks ahead of its time by having Captain Picard invest his trust in Troi’s embodied analysis. In this clip we can see Troi’s perspective is taken seriously. She’s part of the officers’ discussion as the whole ship and crew at risk of being incorporated into the Borg. It’s her analysis that crystallises the challenge that the Borg represents to the Enterprise.

But as a part-betazoid, or maybe it’s her human half, Counselor Troi is also able to experience some of the feelings of the people she is studying. This is not always a pleasant experience for her and is sometimes alarming for the people around her.

Counselor Troi is aware that she or others will use that analysis to take action. The research she does is not just for interest, but is part of the way the crew of the Enterprise reach decisions about the course of action they should take.

One of the consequences of being intimate with other lifeforms like this is that Counselor Troi has a responsibility to speak up and challenge what’s going on. In this clip where she’s temporarily in charge of the Enterprise, Troi is in the position of taking sole responsibility for the action that will result from her empathetic sensing. 

Counselor Troi’s capacities are brought home in an episode in which she loses her empathetic powers. Despite all the knowledge at the disposal of a Starfleet sick bay, Dr Krusher is unable to give Troi much help. Faced with the loss of her empathetic core, Troi is horrified to imagine what life is going to be like without the ability to empathise. 

These clips from TNG nicely present some of the issues that result from empathy in research for design, New Product Development and innovation. My Oxford colleague Steve New and I have written a recent paper (available here), which goes back to more conventional academic literatures and tries to separate out the different strands that often get bundled together in the term empathy. Here’s a typology of different aspects of empathy that draws on this.

The first is what we call cognitive empathy. This is the empathy that comes from trying to put yourself inside the shoes of the user to understand their world, their point of view. This is me imagining what would it be like to be you. It’s ‘I want to understand you’. This is the core territory of Counselor Troi – it’s key to her role on the Enterprise. Her job is to understand what’s going on for other lifeforms, sometimes aliens the crew encounters, sometimes the crew themselves.

This is central to much design research, even before it got tagged with the term empathy. Depending on the version of empathy you subscribe to, it might just be an act of imagining a user. Or you might actually do some research. If you take seriously the word ‘research’ then pretty soon you need to start getting clearer about your research questions, your choice of methods, and your theoretical and methodological commitments. So in cognitive empathy is about recognising otherness, but on the one hand it might be in the domain of the imagination, or on the other, it might involve research. 

The second type is affective empathy. This is the kind of empathy where you don’t just try to imagine the other person’s world and their feelings. You have the feelings yourself. This is ‘I feel your pain’. It involves emotional labour. And this is what we see Counselor Troi doing often in Star Trek. In the sanitised, organised world of Starfleet, Troi sometimes brings these emotions on to the bridge of the Enterprise.

If we look at design research, this throws up the danger of designers becoming so focussed on the emotions they are experiencing, they forget what they are doing it all for. They are so busy having emotions, the project becomes about their experience not the interpretation and analysis that is part of research.

A third type of empathy is performative empathy. This is where people who may or may not have empathetic capacities, present themselves as having them. They look like they are empathetic, but it’s just to achieve a goal. On Star Trek this is rarer – you’re either empathetic like Troi and to some extent Picard, or you’re Ferengi, Klingon or just standard issue male humanoid.

In design research, this is the kind of empathy that comes when someone commissioning a project states that the end result must be user-centred, and the process must be participative. Yet curiously this manager is often unable to acknowledge the results of doing research if they disagree with the solution they’ve already decided on. This kind is a ‘me-too’ empathy. It throws up an interesting issue, about how you can tell whether research is really empathetic or not. Or, is something that appears to be empathy good enough?

Finally there’s anti-empathy. In psychologist Simon Baron-Cohen's view, we owe much by way of scientific progress and technology to individuals who operate with less than normal empathy. On Star Trek, there are several characters who are anempathetic, notably the Ferengi and the Klingons. The android character Mr Data also lacks empathy although he’s very polite. Baron-Cohen says that empathy deficiency can lead to evil, but it can also be associated with a propensity for systematization and quantification. So he sees a positive connection between mathematics, engineering and Asperger's syndrome.

In design research terms, this is the stance in which designers don’t do much imagining of users, because they don’t need to. This is ‘sod the user’. The negative impact of this is all the appalling designs we have to use when we interact with organisations and systems.

If we take this simplified typology, empathy is not singular. It’s complex, contradictory and it hides the power plays involved in studying and interpreting what goes on in the world and the intended and unintended consequences that follow. So what is my problem with empathy? It’s not so much a problem with empathy, as much as problem with current accounts of empathy.

The first issue is that what we hear described as empathy often presents it as an individual quality. On the one hand, there’s an emphasis on sensitivity to others. Counselor Troi is the emblematic empath, which is apparently linked to genetic traits she inherited from her betazoid mother, and possibly to her cleavage or the clothes she wears. But on the other, Troi’s sensibilities and skills exist within a collective world. She’s part of an organisational structure within Starfleet. She has a job to do, and a rank, and it is through her interactions with Picard giving her a seat at the table, and her other colleagues that her cognitive and affective empathy comes into mattering - part of the apparatus around her empathy.

If we were to borrow concepts from Science and Technology Studies, we could say that Troi’s empathy is not a stand-alone quality, with clear boundaries, that exists outside the object of study, which is waiting to be investigated. Rather, this view sees empathy as constituted through intra-actions with the structures, reward systems and behaviours on board the Enterprise, the habits she picks up and the routines she takes part in. This version of empathy sees it as a collective accomplishment.

The second issue I have is, why empathy now? How is it that technology giants are investing in public narratives about empathy? Or governments redesigning public services, at exactly the same point their political legitimacy is low as hardly anyone bothers to vote, and their interest in people’s experiences coincides with cutting costs and getting people to deliver things themselves? There’s the usual argument that all organisations have to innovate to create new markets to still be players in five years’ time. But dig deeper, and it begs a question about how the circulations of global capital have spawned a generation of people who want to render experiences visible in a world of dematerialised interactions. Someone else’s second-hand thoughts and feelings can be a powerful challenge to the ebbs and flows of immaterial capital. Strong emotion is often a starting point for action. It drives people to activism, to bringing about change. But too much focus on all the emotion can provide a distraction from the actual power relations. So there is a danger in being so caught up in the detail of the experience and ignoring the issues they are part of.

A third issue with empathy is what it does to design research. Having made a distinction between affective and cognitive empathy, my colleague Steve New and I also make a distinction in our paper between a rational version of consultancy and an aesthetic version. Although this is crude, this delineates some of the differences between the modes of consultancy that exist as design research, and the mode that is business consulting. An even cruder version would say that on the right-hand side, where design research is located, are the nice guys. They care about users and their worlds, really want to understand and engage with them, and have their feelings too. But over there in the other quadrant is where the clever guys operate. They may have an empathetic relationship with their client, but they pretty much try to fit the client’s problem into a universe of problems with which they are familiar. On an individual level it’s clear there are people who can flip between these modes. The more interesting discussion is about whether organisations have to be in only one of these spaces. So does design research want to be operating in the domain it’s currently in, being nice guys, or does it want to be over on the left hand side with the clever guys?

A final issue is that empathy often looks like a dumbed-down version of ethnographically-informed research. The danger here is that researchers think that the data “out there” is the truth waiting to be discovered and interpreted. This approach – based in Positivist science – gives researchers the idea that they are neutral carriers of that data back from the field to the sites where decisions are made.

Crucially, this ignores what ethnographers trained in anthropology call reflexivity. Ethnographers are attentive to how they as researchers are brought into relation with the object of study. Instead of trying to walk an uncomfortable path between objective truth or subjective reality, ethnographers have developed an understanding that their work is constructivist. This means they pay attention to how they include and exclude different data, and their work of interpretation. 

I think there are other ways to do design research that avoids these problems. This approach harnesses some of the resources that empathy in its different variants brings, but does something slightly different and which is part of existing traditions in design research.

Firstly, if we go back to the bridge of the Enterprise, what Troi’s practice does, and what some design research does, is expand the ontology of stakeholders and actors to increase the variance. What that means is that in constructivist design research, a diverse group of people and things are brought into relation with one another. Counselor Troi picks up what other lifeforms are thinking and feeling, and her analysis of this then changes what becomes possible for the Enterprise’s crew. This kind of design research changes what an issue is made up of. It involves creating not just artefacts or representations of research findings, but also new configurations of people and things, which involve new symbolic structures, behaviours and scripts and new value relations being formed. It doesn’t start with a given world, but creates a trajectory for a different one. It draws things together into new combinations and this is an active practice of including some things and excluding others.

Secondly, after Troi has made her analysis and other colleagues have given theirs, this prompt questions about whose data is right, whose feelings, whose worldviews, or whose interpretations, matter more. Constructivist design research involves creating contestable boundary objects [3]. It sets up these differences as a problematic to be worked through rather than ignoring the power plays in any project or organisation. Done well, it draws attention to the unintended consequences of decisions and the temporalities over which these come into play. It helps participants such as the people we call users, staff, managers, and clients help make sense of and situate themselves inside these configurations, and surfaces disagreements about them.  

And thirdly, this kind of design research prompts the researcher to investigate how to situate herself in the work. It offers what anthropologist Lucy Suchman calls located accountabilities. If we look at what happens with Troi, by accessing these other lifeforms’ worlds, Troi becomes mutually accountable to them. By making public these accounts and her own affective empathy, Troi then involves other crew members, resulting in an expanded set of accountabilities for the Enterprise. Constructivist design research helps participants become visible and accountable to one another as actors within these unfolding configurations.

If these issues I have outlined matter, then it is time to start talking differently about the thing that is currently called empathy.

This involves a move away from thinking of empathy as an individual trait, towards a collective capacity. The opportunity is to create a version of empathy that recognises its potential to constitute new configurations of people and things. So empathy becomes less about individual sensibility. And more about organisation design, culture, routines, habits, behaviours, reward systems, roles, and core assumptions about the nature of change and agency.

In closing, I want to leave you with some questions to pose next time you reach for empathy to differentiate you from other kinds of researcher. Remember Troi. But don’t focus on her Starfleet suit, or her emotional sensitivity.

Before you reach for empathy, ask where are you located and to whom and what are you accountable? All those emotions you are picking up, or experiencing yourself – what are they stopping you paying attention to? What do you get out of being a nice guy? What would happen if you stopped being a nice guy?

[3] Contestable boundary objects is not quite the right term but see also Noortje Marres (2005) Issues spark a public into being: A key but often forgotten point of the Lippmann-Dewey debate. In B. Latour and P. Weibel (Eds.) Making Things Public. Karlsruhe/Cambridge (MA): ZKM/MIT Press, and Carl di Salvo (2012 Adversarial Design. Cambridge (MA): MIT Press.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Design and design thinking in public services

Design Commission Inquiry into Redesigning Public Services
Evidence from Lucy Kimbell
Session 11.10.2012

This is an edited version of the comments I made giving evidence to the Design Commission Inquiry into Redesigning Public Services taking place over the past few months, led by Policy Connect and its Associate Parliamentary Design and Innovation Group. This has involved many people from a wide range of backgrounds giving evidence about the role of design and design thinking in public services to the expert steering group. The Social Design Talks series I co-organise with Jocelyn Bailey of Policy Connect and Guy Julier of the Victoria and Albert Museum/University of Brighton is also feeding in to this process.

Lucy Kimbell: This is quite academic so I apologise but I do think it’s useful… I’ve made some notes to organise my thoughts and they’re in three broad categories. The first: what is design? What is that word doing? And for who? Secondly, is design thinking changing that in some way – in terms of how, operationally, you can embed design in organisations… and then thirdly design as a professional field and its weak institutional base and why, even though design people think we know how to sort these things out, we somehow don’t have the institutional power to be in there straight away – we have to make the case constantly.

One of the first things to address is that even if you’re in design, it’s incredibly hard to define what design is. Do we mean design in the mode of engineering, do we mean architecture, do we mean communications design, do we mean digital interactions? And even if you look at the academic literature on design, there are two major distinctions, which then come out – is design about giving shape and form to things? And that thing could be a physical product or it could be a digital interaction. Or is it about making change happen? 

The important definition here is from Herbert Simon, from 1969: everyone who devises courses of action, to change existing situations into preferred ones, is doing design. Anybody who is trying to change anything into a preferred situation is basically doing design. And that is not about giving shape and form, making stuff. That is a massive tension that comes up again and again in these discussions.

Then that stuff around changing behaviours and interactions and services and systems is much more palatable when you look through that second lens. But that tension is incredibly strong – this is not trivial, that design is really hard to define.

Let’s turn to a third definition, which takes that Herbert Simon idea, and pushes it a little bit further…
In Herbert Simon’s book, The Sciences of the Artificial, 1969 – he won the Nobel prize for economics – he did a lot of work in computer software and artificial intelligence, and he came out thinking the thing that we’re all doing is actually design. That quote I just gave is the most famous quote from it. But it’s part of a much longer chunk which then goes on to say, in essence management, medicine and engineering are all design professions. And if you say that to a doctor they think ‘well I diagnose and then I’m trying to change the state of the patient – which has a physical effect – so yes’. But then you have this problem which some designers go into of saying actually ‘design is everything’. If you push it that far you are saying design is everything, and therefore designers can tackle anything. Which is not necessarily the case. So that definition on the one hand seems right, but it also alludes to this question about design and management – are they really different? Management is about supporting people to do whatever they want to do better – which might be citizens, or might be customers buying an airline ticket…

Armand Hatchuel is a professor from the Ecole des Mines in Paris – which is an engineering school, but he basically writes in management theory – and he is the most interesting and profound person writing in design theory in the last 10-20 years. He revisits Herbert Simon and says ‘Simon was absolutely right, design is critical for organisations and mostly ignored.’ He then presents two situations. You’ve got a group of people who want to go out on Saturday night. They decide they want to go to the cinema – they’re going to ‘design’ their Saturday night. Going to the cinema is basically choice selection. You’ve got a these films on in these cinemas, how do we choose? But we know what the end result is. We don’t know how good the film will be, but it’s a defined problem. That is choice. Making choices.

Actually, what design is: the example he gives is designing a party. It’s the same group of friends, on a Saturday night – not going to the cinema, they’re going to design a party. What’s a party? It could be any number of things. It could be ten people, or a hundred people, it could be with dancing, it could be with food. It’s an unknown – the outcome isn’t yet defined. And that (although he has a much more theoretical version of it, actually quite readable) that is what design is: it’s about expanding the set of options. Not about selecting between options.

Herbert Simon, although he is saying design is important, actually means selecting between options. Whereas design is about the creation of new options. So it is about creativity and generativity.
A limited number of people actually read Armand Hatchuel – even if you’re in management – but design theory people mostly don’t read him. So while this is theoretical stuff, it points to these problems that most of us on the ground have in conversation with a client, which is about ‘what actually are you doing?’ Are you designing a physical thingy, or are you helping us change how we engage with citizens? Which is a change process, which is then a different thing, and necessarily involves ‘the organisation’, which most designers are terrible at doing. They don’t know how to do that: it’s not their training. Some of them might have ended up being good at that, at working with people and facilitation, but they don’t have the analytical skills for doing stuff inside organisations. And unlike for products, when organisations are designing services, the consumption and production is happening at the same time. The organisation is the entity that is the service: it is just a load of interactions with digital and physical things, and with people.

This raises a lot more questions which, quite frankly, for me, are not answered right now. But it comes back to this definition: what is design about? And in reality you’ve got both of those things – you do want the webpage to be well designed, and the leaflet, and the interaction with your Citizens Advice advisors – the person-to-person face time stuff. Those all do require designing. But does it mean that designers are necessarily good at that? That’s one of the reasons why this is so hard: and it is really hard. It is not as though academics – those of us who read and write about this stuff – are in agreement about what is the core of design.

A simpler version of this is – if you look at the dictionary definition, there is the verb and the noun. When you’re talking about the ‘design of a service’, there’s the noun: the actual finished arrangement of the service. And then there are blueprints and artefacts along the way, which are designs towards the final design. Then there’s the process of ‘doing designing’, and then there’s the field as a profession. So that’s four different potential meanings for the word design. And if we’re talking with a local authority manager who is buying design: what are they buying? Which of those four things? And again, what does a person who calls themselves a designer, who maybe went to CSM and did web design and is now peddling service design: what is it that they are offering? Are they good at all those things? I’ll come to this again later – how we know what to go on.

So, another thing then from within the management perspective…  I have read a lot of the management literature, I teach design on an MBA, where I am confronted with making a space for this design stuff, but  there is a sense that all my other colleagues are asking ‘well what are you adding? We already teach that.’ ‘What do you mean by design?’ always comes out. Hence I’ve bothered to read all this literature and get clearer for myself. But for them, it’s two things. Really it’s a phase in new product development. Design is not the same as new product development. It is a phase in new product and service development. There’s your first ‘research and discovery’ – what you’re trying to do, your aims and objectives. Then your engagement with the detail of the users etc, the analysis of what they want, and segmentation. And then there’s design, and then there is prototyping and roll-out. So design is a phase. If you look at management literature design is a phase. But for example, what the Design Council are saying is, as designers we own product development. We can do that whole arc. And maybe some do, really well, but actually in most organisations that I’ve come across, ‘a manager’ does that whole arc. A product manager, with a management training, or a project manager, is responsible for that whole arc – and the design bit is a bit in the middle. But designers want to take over the whole thing. And some do incredibly well at that.

But there is a tension there again about what that word ‘design’ is doing.

Thomas Kohut: So would a design manager say ‘well I can do that whole thing?’

Lucy: No it’s worse than that, some designers think they can do the whole thing. They can elicit what the users want or should have or could have, analyse that, interpret that, engage with stakeholders, articulate the requirements, visualise, prototype, idea generate, blah blah blah – through to then someone delivering it. So a designer will try and do that. My observation about organisations I’ve worked with, which range from Deutsche Bank to Vodafone – there are few people called ‘design managers’. They exist in the Design Council’s universe. They barely exist in most organisations unless they’re very product centric.

Julian Grice: Well they’re certainly not service innovation people… And of course (and I agree with everything you’re talking about), as a designer you always stray to the very front of the argument – because actually it’s all about the user. And sometimes there will be some insight that modifies ‘this plan for that particular service’.

Lucy: But the designer doesn’t own it. They own it. And this is one of the things I’ve learned from teaching MBAs. I used to teach at the Royal College – I used to teach designers who were utterly brilliant, but at the end of the day when I started teaching MBAs I thought ‘oh this is so much more fun’. Because these are the people who own the project. They hire a designer to help them with this whole arc. And the venture and the opportunity and all of that. They scope that, and then they write the brief, which a good designer will probably then turn into a different brief, and do that front end work. But the management people own the design. Not the designer.

Carol Moonlight: What we’ve seen – and maybe a parallel shift is needed. What we’ve seen in the online world, is the IT people, the techie people own it, which is invariably a bad idea. They should be called on as consultants, and give their expertise as appropriate, but they shouldn’t own the end to end process.

Lucy: So that’s why this is actually about management, not about design. It’s about who owns that thing. And that comes back to the Herbert Simon definition – it’s about change. It’s about the shift online, or the changing relationship with users, or saving money by getting citizens to cut costs by doing whatever it is. Those set of aims at the beginning of a project – which generally designers are not involved in – are formulated around policy and organisational goals. So the design of public services is actually a management question, not a design question. But there are then opportunities for designers, design thinking, to play into that, because those managers rarely come from that background.

Jocelyn Bailey: You might be about to come on to this, but how is it then that the design profession has ended up positioning itself entirely outside of that process?

Lucy: Exactly! So if most managers think that they are designing a service – and I work with people who are designing a service – I’m currently working with the Metropolitan Services Trust, a housing provider and particularly offering services for older people… They are designing the service. I’m not designing it. They just hired in The Young Foundation, and my team to do a little tiny bit of work – they are definitely designing it. We’re just helping them with a few gaps where I’ve said ‘I can help you here… and I think you should do this…’ and they said ok. But they are designing it.
So the design response to the fact that actually managers own all of this, whatever they are technically called in an organisation, is to say either: ‘we can do the whole arc for you… give us everything and we can do that. We’ve got this thing called “design thinking” that you can’t do. You think you know your users – well we can know them better. We’ve got some special methods, we’ve got some special participatory ways of eliciting more deeply what they want. You’ll sit them in a room in a focus group and ask them, we’ll go study them. So we’ve got methods ’. Which I am going to come to shortly.

And the other design response – like from the Design Council’s work – is about trying to quantify ‘our impact is “this”. If you hire us you’ll get a better design’ – which is incredibly hard to measure. And I would say, having read a lot of the literature, most of those attempts to define the value of design, aren’t very good. Yet. And as you know the Design Council and the AHRC are commissioning some work on that. It’s not easy to measure… to get clear comparative studies. And most design consultants want them. They want to be able to say ‘I did this, if we hadn’t involved ourselves… the impact of us on your project was this, this and this.’ But it’s very hard to get that… And we’re in this culture where you have to have statistics, and maybe some qualitative evidence… So that’s one of the responses as well, is to say ‘let’s get some really good data to prove that we’re really great’.

One response is to say ‘we’ve got this magical design thinking’, the other is to say ‘we’ll get you better data’. And then the third, which I think is more tricky but more interesting is to reconstitute the problem itself – to say ‘this isn’t even the right question’. And just to do stuff, in a completely different context, which then reframes what the question should be. An example for me would be My Society – they’re not necessarily designers, although they’ve got some designers in there – where they just say ‘we’re just going to go and do it over here’. Which then changes the nature of the debate. They don’t ask the DWP to hire them as consultants, they just go and do it because something should exist, and they believe that’s the way it should be done.

Returning to the Herbert Simon definition of ‘making change’… they’re making an artefact. A different artefact, over here, that is great – and then it forces other people to realise they can’t do it themselves. ’We would never have asked for that, we would never have written the brief, but oh look it does all this other stuff and it changes how the conversation happens.’

Carol: Just returning to outcomes… Evidencing that is expensive – longitudinal studies are expensive. Very rarely do we get the money to do it.

Lucy: There are potential ways around that though. If we’re in a culture where we need to have better research about outcomes… universities for example are really good at research. They would be the potential organisations you could work with…

Julian: Whilst designers always complain about the brief never being right – it’s the collaboration in that arc that is important. And designers will always bleat on about the fact that they do have voice, amongst a number of other voices that is worth listening to, before you present them with their phase. Consumer brands are better at that than public services, broadly.

Lucy: You’re also battling against professional culture. But to get on to the design profession… the third thing I wanted to say is then, is the design profession – meaning the people who went to design school of some kind, call themselves a designer (not a manager), think about this stuff a lot – what is it that that profession is doing right now.

And one of the important things is that, unlike engineers and unlike architects, those other kinds of designers are not a chartered profession. They are not strong institutionally. They weren’t founded in the 1880s, they don’t have a Royal Charter, they don’t have a guiding professional body. They don’t have strong rules about who is in and who is out, and what happens if you fail. You can’t get sued in the same way – you’re probably not going to kill anybody from your bad design (whereas you might if you are an engineer and your building falls down). So then the boundary work – that managing of who is in and who is out is done by those institutions. In the sort of design worlds that we’re in – anyone is in. Anyone could call themselves a designer tomorrow – print a card saying user interaction designer – and then everyone would say, ‘oh, really?’ It’s a culture, it’s not institutionally strong…

And that matters because it’s about the ability to speak to power, and make claims about your authority and your professional expertise. So I would say design, meaning not engineering or architecture, which of course are diverse design fields anyway and design is a multitude of fields, obviously… But it’s institutionally weak. It’s got a poor academic knowledge base. It’s got utterly brilliant practitioners, but they are mostly working in very small firms, with good interpersonal links and so on, but there is not a strong knowledge network, and ways of recognising what is good knowledge, and what isn’t. And maybe that was fine for product design or graphic design or communications, maybe that was fine… But it’s really not ok for this context. For talking to government.

So there are some people who are trying to now create a stronger charter for design – but they’re about 150 years too late in creating that institution.

Jocelyn: Who is doing that?

Lucy: I think James Moultrie is involved. And a design lecturer at Nottingham Trent. Anyway so there is a bunch of people on the back of the same analysis saying ‘right we’re going to try and make that thing’ – whether that works in the current environment, where professions don’t have the same value as in the 1850s… It’s a different thing. Though we are all professionals flogging our skills and knowledge to other providers.

Julian: There is a huge irony in all of that designers are schizophrenic on their own topic: they desperately want credibility and authority and voice… but on the other hand they love fragmentation, divergence – and they can’t possibly agree.

Thomas: And they are in business and making money without it. You can see they would question the need for a professional body.

Julian: Well they all say that they do. But the reality is convincing them they are all part of the same thing has been challenging. What you need, is a crisis. A crisis in the design sector which creates a complete lack of credibility…

Lucy: Yes. Some really terrible things happening from bad design. If buildings falling down did that over some decades for architecture… death and destruction is one kind of crisis. So what is the same thing for design…? I’m not sure it’s going to play out in that way. And the other interesting parallel is that management consultants don’t have that, and they do just fine. They peddle recipes and methods, they peddle professional knowledge – they don’t have authorising bodies either, so maybe it’s not required. But they have numbers. They have different modes of operating as well.

So those are some questions for the field – for the multitude of professions. For me it’s not surprising that this is incredibly complex  stuff and difficult for government departments to buy, because they don’t know what design is – because no-one else does – they don’t see professional authority, and competence that is validated in ways they understand…

And then we come to design thinking – one of the other things that’s being peddled. I think that’s been an interesting development. And when I think about what characterises a designerly approach (so this refers to people from the culture of design, who studied design, work in design consultancies, care about user experience and what things look like – as one symptom of their behaviour) I think there are three or four different characteristics. These vaguely map onto design thinking, but I have a particular take on that which we could later get into…

So one is the focus on – not human-centredness, I don’t think that’s the right term – but human scale. Focussing on experiences and capacities of users, which is very much the case in the citizen space, in a social and material world. One of the problems when that language of ‘human-centred’ gets adopted by these manager-types – they are just adopting marketing speak. They say they know they need their services to be citizen centred. I’ve already read lots of documents that say ‘our services will be citizen centred’. But they don’t know what it means. They can’t operationally do it. They are not of the culture which really profoundly attends to human experiences at human scale  and pays attention to the artefacts. Designers do pay attention to the artefacts within the social world. Most managers think the artefacts are something you do later once you’ve worked out the strategy. The artefacts come later (unless they’re within some aspects of operations management). So that is something that does distinguish the designerly approach: it’s at the human scale. It’s not the macro picture, it’s actually this quite small ‘what are we doing in this room right now, what are the objects, what are the human interactions?’

And I’m not saying that other people don’t do it. This is one of my problems with design thinking – when you look closely at these things – although you could say designers in this culture do do those things, it doesn’t mean others don’t. For example: the army really cares about ‘stuff’. Because if that goes wrong, in the middle of an invasion, then you’re f*****. And the same with Citizens Advice – if you get the forms and the bits of paper wrong then it doesn’t work. So there are other professions that do care about the interactions of the people and the stuff and the teams. But certainly designers do do that. And the probably care more about the crafting of those things, as a starting point.

Secondly: I would say designers are analytical – to do any design work, somebody has to do some analytical work (the segmenting of the users, etc – and working out which of the things they’ve moaned about are the ones that matter). But actually I think more profound from a designerly training/ background/ profession/ skill is the ability to synthesise by giving shape and form. So it’s ‘I’ve listened to everything you’ve said, now here is my sketch for that webpage and how it should be.’ The very rapid synthesis, not ‘let’s write a list of how it could be changed, and then write another list, and then have another five meetings’, but ‘here it is right now, on a piece of paper’. Which is not the same as making it visual. For me the emphasis is on the synthesising. The ability to say ‘I’ve heard what you’ve said and those interviews from those five users and now I’ve synthesised it’. That very fast, very quick work. And that is in the production of artefacts. In which the visual plays an important part. And a lot of designers will say it’s because they are visual – and that is part of it but more important for me is the synthesising ability.

A third thing is: coming back to Hatchuel – the generative and the creating. The creating of the new. And I think for cultural, psychological, cognitive, motivational – all sorts of complex reasons – some people are really good at generating ideas and some people are not. So I think those designers generally are good at having lots of ideas. And some of those managers sitting in DWP are not. They might have one idea, and then they really stick to it. Typically the studies of designers show they have a gazillion ideas, and they just keep having more and more. And there’s for them a sort of pleasure in having lots of ideas. And other people are not like that. So there is definitely something about generative creativity, which is celebrated and practiced in design culture. And rewarded.

And the fourth thing is an exploratory inquiry approach, which includes prototyping. It’s not that you have the right answer… You may get solution fixation, but you may also just keep throwing away your ideas from one day to the next. So it’s not just the generation – it’s the co-evolution of the problem and the solution (Nigel Cross in design theory writes about this). So it’s not a linear model, where you understand the problem, and you work towards a solution, which is the model in books. It’s more like a real life model – you have an understanding of the problem, you suggest a solution, and the insight that gives you makes you keep going back to re-evaluate the problem and find better solutions – you keep evolving the problem and solutions. This often gets translated as ‘iterative’. The fact that is it iterative is not the important thing, it’s the fact that you keep refining your understanding of what the issue is that you’re working with. Most organisations are not geared up to do that. They want to define a problem, sort out a solution, put some resources to it, and then make it go away. Again, it’s not only designers – entrepreneurs do this as well – but research shows it is certainly true of designers.

One other thing that is part of that exploratory approach is the assumption by designers that they don’t know best – they usefully don’t know. Their lack of expertise is generative for a project. The whole design approach is actually about continuous learning for the organisation. Now of course there are management things that are about continuous process improvement – which aren’t a million miles away. But they’re less fun/ messy – much more outcome-y – there is something culturally distinct about them, although there are overlaps.

If you look at design thinking and the people who write about it, you can see echoes of these things. This is just my formulation of some of the key distinguishing things. And so it comes back to the question of who has authority to do it. Other people may well recognise in their work, that they already do these things – so then it’s really hard for designers to claim that as their professional territory. Because if other people are already practicing these things – what is it that designers are contributing?
The only thing I can suggest is what I have observed from people who are not designers coming on my MBA course. And they choose it not really knowing what it is, and by the end of it they are better able to see the service world they’re in.

Through all of that stuff I’ve just given you the condensed version of, the students think about their world of work differently – they see themselves as being in a learning process, they pay more attention to the artefacts at human scale – they see that the touchpoints and the artefacts matter more than they thought. They are aware of what good design is, in a different way to before. That is achieved by a learning journey that is partly reading some theory, but also doing designing. And you could equally well do that with some senior civil servants. It has potential amazing effects. It’s not about a designer standing there telling them about a great web page.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Why a design dinner in Oxford in 2012?

On Thursday evening, around twenty people will gather for a dinner in Oxford. Curated by Phil Clare and Caroline Bucklow of the Knowledge Exchange and Impact Team in Research Services at the University of Oxford, and me (an associate fellow at Said Business School), this dinner aims to stage a new conversation about design within and around Oxford and its global and local networks.

In contrast with other design dinners, often associated with events such as the Salone furniture fair in Milan, this one is perhaps less glamorous, although we do include some internationally-renowned practitioners and academics among the guests. In contrast to many other Oxford dinners, we’ll be talking about a field of expertise and practice that perhaps curiously is not well-represented in the university, which has schools of engineering, computer science, business and fine art, but not industrial design, product design, communications design or architecture.

Guests include leading people from the design world, including from small, emerging studios, people working in established innovative consultancies and others from large corporations with an interest in design, as well as academics from different faculties and resources across Oxford University, as well as guests from Oxford Brookes University across the city. Although I haven’t checked – there are 800 years of archives to look through – this may be the first such dinner in the Oxford ecology. We think it’s timely for these reasons.

Firstly, the profession and practice of design are taking up a new place on the world stage. Borrowing a term from art history, we might see as designers working within an ‘expanded field’. There are numerous examples of designers and architects such as Josiah Wedgwood or Victor Papanek addressing the issues of their day. But what is striking about the last decade is how designers trained in design schools now see their role as contributing to global challenges such as educational standards, climate change, public service design, or humanitarian disasters. Examples are Project H, and Participle.

Secondly, several academic fields have been exploring what a design-based approach can bring to research and teaching. For example in research, the Arts and Humanities Research Council and Design Council are scoping out a research programme in the design of services. Within management education, there are now several universities around the world (including Oxford) teaching “design thinking” – the application of designerly approaches and methods to solving “wicked” problems and stimulating innovation.

Thirdly, within business, developments such as the cloud, 3d printing, mobile broadband, and a focus on delivering services, experiences and interactions, has lead to designers and design-based approaches being brought in not just to make things look pretty, but develop and explore concepts from day 1. Examples here are Berg London, Samsung and Intel.

Fourthly, the London 2012 Olympics and other cultural events have highlighted the role of the symbolic in day-to-day life. Creating and staging collective experiences requires the design and production of places, artefacts and signs, and paying attention to the design of the social interactions in which meanings are created. These are all activities that are central to designerly practices.

The aims of our dinner are however more modest. We won’t necessarily discuss these issues. But we do hope that participants will enjoy having conversations about their work and hearing from others, within an institution that has a great deal of history but also is a site of critical thinking and innovation. We believe this will provoke new relationships and lines of enquiry that might lead to new projects.  The design of a dining experience seems a good way to start that.