Designing design policy.

design museum

Earlier this week, I was lucky enough to attend the rather swanky Design, Innovation & Technology Spring Reception, at the Design Museum, hosted by the Design Special Interest group. The aim of the evening was to discuss, through short talks and networking, the role that design and innovation has and can play in growing businesses, supporting organisations and generally making the world a better place. We were also told that we would given the opportunity to ‘contribute directly to public policy’ which sounded far more exciting than my usual wednesday evening.

So, to backtrack a little. The design special interest group exists to ‘support UK business innovation by building a community of designers and technology innovators’ They are just one of 14 different special interest groups that exist within the Technology Strategy Board, which in turn falls under the umbrella of the Knowledge Transfer Network‘s creative industries community. Simple huh? But this event was also co-hosted by Policy Connect – ‘the leading network of Parliamentary groups, research commissions, forums and campaigns working to inform and improve UK public policy.’ They support the Design Commission which is the research arm of the All Parliamentary Design and Innovation Group. Still with me? I swear if ever any event was in need of an infographic, this was it.

Essentially, these organisations exist to nudge businesses and government towards the creative industries, and extoll the innovative virtues of design and technology to all and sundry. They’re also there to create links and connections between organisations and individuals, to ‘bring the design and technology communities closer together’. The ideals behind these organisations are worthy indeed, and I think there’s a real need for more and better design in government. But there’s one big problem. These are all government organisations. And the problem with government organisations is that they’re so wrapped up in red tape you can barely see past the bureaucracy.

But back to the event. After initial schmoozing, Beatrice Rogers, the director of the Design Special Interest Group (hereafter DSIG for short, because typing is hard) invited us to take our seats and introduced the evening. Each speaker would have no more than 5 minutes to tell us about how design changed their life. Or, y’know, how design, innovation and technology partnerships support UK businesses and aids competitiveness. They would just present with slides, no time for questions. Kind of like the Pecha Kucha concept, which prevents waffling, if slightly panics presenters.

First up was the Dani Salvadori from Central Saint Martins who was championing the art school as a hub of innovation- not just creativity. She used her time to tell us about projects with CSM students and outside organisations that have been successful. Did you know that the M shaped bicycle stand was designed in partnership with the University of the Arts London’s ‘Design Against Crime’ group? (Incidentally, don’t you just love the title of that group? I’m just imagining uber hip designers stalking around Shoreditch- magnifying glass in hand…) Her point was that all too often, people view art schools as these great creative ponds, but not brilliant at organisation or business acumen. This is clearly not the case, and so many art and design schools are leading the way in terms of forming lasting partnerships with brands and organisations that can see the value in hiring young and innovative designers.

Next was Jim Maltby, a ‘strategic analyst’ from the Defence Science & Technology Laboratory (Dstl). He was there to tell us all about how working with the DSIG had helped Dstl, not only with one particular project, but also impacted on other areas. I’m so sorry Jim, you are super awesome and so is the project you’re working on, but this talk was super dull. The project, was all about predicting forecasting the future, (or at least possible future scenarios relevant to people working in defence areas) and had benefitted from visualisations by DSIG, which had been helpful when selling the idea to senior stakeholders. I think there was a some more stuff in there too, but I was so overwhelmed by the management speak that I may have zoned out.

Bruce Tether from Manchester Business School followed with the promise of enlightening us about ‘investigating the contingent value of investments in design’. I feel the same way about academic language as I do about management speak. It is boring, and it doesn’t aid understanding. Bruce’s talk was an unfortunate combination of the two. He felt that it was important to distinguish between innovators and inventors is, and protect the intellectual property of designers, to prevent imitation. He mentioned the difference in robustness of intellectual property laws across different areas – for example, IP protection in pharmaceuticals is incredibly effective, but design protection (particularly in physical form) is weak. I would have really liked him to mention Elle Decoration’s ‘Equal rights for design’  campaign which was incredibly successful in raising awareness of the limitations of existing copyright laws for design, and influential in pushing through an amendment to the Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Bill.

Chris Warkup was up next. Warkup is the CEO of the Knowledge Transfer Network, so oversees 14 different special interest groups and is not an expert on design or anything to do with design. He was very clear on that. He also said this: “I am a biologist, and in science, design has unfortunate connotations, as we tend to associate it with the word intelligent”. I get it Chris, you’re making a funny joke about how intelligent design is this whole Christian thing, and biologists are normally all about Darwin, not creationism. But the thing is, it also kinda sounded like you were also talking about how designers aren’t associated with being intelligent. Maybe I’m being over sensitive here, but that’s kind of what it came across like.

He also managed to make ‘creatives’ sound like an entirely different species. As if creative people exist in their own creative universe, thinking about typefaces and form and pretty surfaces, unfettered by the complicated boringness of running businesses and making money. So here’s the thing Chris. Design covers a lot of areas. Designers are often incredibly technical people doing incredibly complex things. Many designers come from scientific backgrounds. Many designers also run their own businesses, so know more about the day to day functioning of companies than most. Designers have incredibly wide areas of expertise that span across whole categories of interest. Designers are not distinct from everyone else in their own little creative universe. So when you say things like “it surprises my colleagues that I am so supportive of creative endeavours when I am such a boffin”, you’ll forgive me for wondering if I’ve been transported back to 1959 and am listening to CP Snow talking about the two cultures of art and science.

The penultimate talker was Gillian Youngs who is a professor of digital economy at the University of Brighton, who was talking about designing the digital revolution. Interestingly, she mentioned that one of the strengths of design, was that it ‘allows us to explore ethics’ especially in the realm of big data, which is all too often treated like a thing, rather than information about people. Unfortunately at this point I managed to skilfully pour my drink into my bag, so got a bit preoccupied by rescuing my laptop from rivers of elderflower cordial, and missed the rest of this 5 minutes. She seems super interesting though, and I would like to talk to her in the future about design and the digital economy. Perhaps at a time and a place when there are no drinks to tip over.

The last speaker was Alexandra Deschamps Sonsino, founder of DesignSwarm and product designer. She was also the only designer to talk at the event. Which was an event about design. And had only been asked to speak, 3 days prior to the event, but anyway. She has been involved in the ‘Internet of Things’ (so, smart phones, smart watches etc) for 10 years, and said that for 8 of those years, most people thought she was crazy. It is only past 2, that there is a greater understanding of what the internet of things actually involves- so the connectivity between objects, users, and the internet. She used her 5 minutes not to talk about herself and her projects, but about what she’d like to see for the future of design led start ups. Founding an organisation that creates ‘smart’ objects is incredibly expensive (the electronics involved and data storage alone will eat up 80% of most budgets), and the cost of a start up can be anywhere between £80,000 to £250,000. The UK is especially bad at providing opportunities for funding, either through government money, or venture capitalists, which means that we are losing a lot of our young innovators and designers to the US, where funding is more readily available. For Britain to really lead the way in technology, design and innovation, we need to make funding easier to find, and encourage financing from private sources by championing the benefits of design.

After listening to the talks, we got the opportunity to ‘contribute directly to public policy’. This was via a giant board and a frankly obscene amount of post it notes. In the middle of the board was a sign asking us ‘Imagine that designers were a political party. What would we propose?’, and surrounding it were subsections such as ‘foreign office’, ‘transport policy’ and ‘environment’. The idea was that we were supposed to write all of our inspirational policy ideas down on the post it notes and stick them into the areas/departments that they were most relevant to. Pleasingly, I was not the only guest who was completely baffled by the concept of this board, which not only unwilling to have notes stick to it for any length of time, but also swaying slightly drunkenly back and forth. Most of the comments that had succeeded in sticking, were much more general, rather relevant to individual sections, such as ‘please define design’ and ‘stop making it sound like ‘creatives’ are a different species!’ (ok i admit it, the last one may have been mine…)

manifesto for design

Good design is important. Great design changes lives. I think design is an incredibly important part of every single faction of society. I truly subscribe to Bill Moggridge’s view that “Few people think about it or are aware of it. But there is nothing made by human beings that does not involve a design decision somewhere.” It is really encouraging to go to an event where the majority of guests feel the same way, and are championing the use of design in the manufacturing process. It is especially encouraging that government organisations are holding these events and cheerleading British design in such a major way. I just wish that they would do it in a less governmenty manner, with fewer working groups and sub groups, and baffling terminology. I am interested to see what the DSIG does next, and how its work continues to support design, innovation and technology, but what I would really like to see, is a bit more clarity and a future that is just a bit better designed.

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