How can metadesign augment design management?

Transcript from her talk at the colloquium on metadesign on 29th June 2007

By Naomi Gornick

I am going to try and tackle this word ‘Metadesign’. And what I am very interested in at the moment is new contexts for design practice and education. So, what we are going to look at to begin with is some questions. As designers, in our lives, what has changed? What is the status of designers today? How do we view non-designers and how do they view us? How can we expand our understanding of client aspirations? What are the client expectations of designers’ activity today and what new knowledge do we need? So now I am going into a bit of a history lesson and its rather personal. We have asked these questions and I will try and answer them. But first of all, we are going to go back and look at the emergence of design management in the 1980s.

Design management was formalized in the 1980’s, it has existed long time before that. For example, there was a wonderful gentleman at London Transport called Frank Pick who actually performed all the duties of design manager in 1930’s but in the 1980’s it actually became much more formalized, why? Because there was still a divergence between design industry at that time, in spite of lots of promotion all over the world, and especially in the UK. And there were key roles in large state industries. In British Rail, for example, and London Transport, British Airways, and the Post Office. There were huge corporate identity programs at that time undertaken by design consultancies who acted when they went in to their clients like management consultants. And finally, there were a large amount of government based research reports which were tremendously important. The first of these is one that is very dear to my heart and it’s the Corfield report in 1979 put out by a government agency and it was looking to encourage British companies to use design for their own companies and also for the economy as a whole. This was 1979. In 1985, this was a Margaret Thatcher quote that the Design Council publicised: “Good designers have never been more important for the success of the British economy”. Now the Design Council has been going since the end of the war like 1948 and it has been putting out this message all the time. And it seems to me that when they get really worried about whether people take on the message, the type gets larger and larger. So this is really a frantic occasion. Good design has never been more important for the success of the British economy. When this publication came out, this was produced in Japan, you see this is a sort of sobering thought here. Also in 1985 this pamphlet on design and the economy which was very seminal. This publication: Managing Design, which is very dear to my heart, published by the Council of National Academic Awards, the organisation that looked after design institutions and the Design Council, the Department of Trade and Industry looking at putting design content into management courses. This was 1984. Of course this actually didn’t happen. What happened was the emergence of something else. That design schools were beginning to look at this subject and what they should do about it.
I was on a lot of these committees for a lot of these publications. And what happened to me personally was: I realized that it was so much talk, I am reflecting on something that Ian has just said, I think… it was a lot of talk, there was a lot of concern about the subject, the relationship between design and industry. But it was like holding it at arm’s length, looking at it and not engaging with it at all. So I decided that I would make an experiment with a Masters course in a design school. And this was to encourage industry to understand the value of the design resource in companies, by training specific design-based personnel who would integrate design in organisations. These new design professionals, as we call them, would take up roles in companies similar to their management colleagues, and through their design thinking and new knowledge, create an organisation-wide climate for design to flourish.
This was the idea of what we did originally. So what we were doing, reaching out, now the 1990’s, was broadening the curriculum, broadening the design curriculum. And I am beginning to call this ‘pathways to Metadesign’. And why am I doing this? When John and I, we, first started working on the Metadesign project as part of the research, the larger research project, Elisa Giocardi wrote a paper looking at the elements of Metadesign, and I read this paper and I was tremendously impressed by it. What she said in this paper was: the emergent design culture for Metadesign, was a focus on the design of general structures and processes, rather than on fixed objects and contents. The need for methods and techniques that are fluid rather than prescriptive. The call for environments that can envolve and the necessity of relation settings that allow systems to be based on a mutual, an open process of affecting and being affected. Metadesign has been conceived, she said, as co-creation, a shared design endeavour, aimed to sustain an emergence, evolution and adaptation. According to this development, the operational terms and potential of designing at a higher order level must be joined to a more reflexive and collaborative practice of design.

So this is what I am thinking we were actually doing, we were talking about a higher-order level of design and design education. So, the programms at RCA and Brunel University were a new platform of education that had a core thought …. Based on case studies, current design and management literature. There was an emphasis on team building for investigative research projects. There were links with the schools of business for teaching input and there were formal industrial collaboration leading to employment opportunities through team building, with companies and internships. We worked with over 40 companies at Brunel. This is the brochure when we started, and it wasn’t called ‘design management’, it was called ‘design strategy and innovation’ and it started in 1994.

At the same time, at Goldsmiths, my friend John sitting here, started his Design Futures course, which had a concern with environmental issues. He says the program offers a ‘licence to dream’ combining ethical and entrepreneurial aspects, and the course is philosophical, discursive, and open ended. Now I felt, when I was going through my development of the programme at Brunel, that we were working in tandem, in a way. We were in different directions, to be sure, but there were certain over-arching principles which were the same in both programs.
So, what did we have in common? At Goldsmiths’ Design Futures and Brunel’s MA Design Strategy and Innovation?
First of all, we were experimental programmes, so we had to find support from the institution and the staff, and I can’t tell you how difficult this is. This is going into the Lion’e den, if you like. It is like going into the lion’s den, because you are trying to persuade an institution, which is quite highbound in the way they wanted to teach design, that you have got something experimental going on here, and you hoped that they would support it. You are not only needing the support of the institution, you need the support of the staff around you and other departments so that they understand what you are doing and can work with you and collaborate.

So, in a way, I think that was a Metadesign pathway that we had discovered, even when we were not taking about Metadesign then. What we were doing is raising the bar on design education, trying to develop personnel that could be used in different ways in organisations.
I was always accused of trying to make designers into managers, this is a thing that people always used to say: “We are trying to make designers into managers” and that wasn’t the case at all. We wanted people to retain their design thinking, to retain their design ethos, but to use it in a social and organisational wide way, in order to promote design in a quite, gentle way by a conversational way. This was certainly happening in many ways.

In both programs, all the students had a map of skills that they developed, but they also had specialist outcomes, they all ended up with some sort of specialisms and so their careers were quite different.
There (pointing) a document-based assessment to enable greater flexibility in a changing world, there was no product at the end… I can’t speak for John in this respect, but I was very much against the degree show, with an iconic product at the end, that sort of stood on a shelf in isolation, with no relation to any context. It was a beautiful new hairdryer, it was a beautiful new electric kettle, I mean, great! But, you know, what did they relate to? What was it there for? It was stood on the platform like a sculpture.
This is how I think we were working.

Looking at the relationship of the individual to the team, to the organisation, to the industry, to the society as a whole and then, to the world as a whole. I think there was a much broader outlook to our programme. There was a spectrum of vision, and it reminds me always of the marvellous (and all designers would know this film) “The powers of ten”, and I would love to show it to you, Otto, because there is lovely scene in “Powers of ten” when the camera goes through the man’s hand and shows up all the cells, and things that you love, so you would enjoy that.
So, now I am going fast forward to the 2000’s and I am looking at the evolution of design management now. I was talking about emergence before, now I am looking at the evolution, because certainly it has evolved, and in fact, I believe it is going through a metamorphosis now. But what we find now, in the 2000’s, is the emergence of new design-based roles in organisations, to promote creativity and innovation, and there is a variety of roles… It is extraordinary, you can go into organisations and meet people with extraordinary titles and find out that they have been trained at design schools.

Raymond Turner talks about design being part of the DNA of an organisation, this is for you as well Otto, DNA of an organisation. In Harvard Business Review there is a concern with behavioural aspects in organisations, ___ is talking about temper radicals: these people in organisations that actually spread the message that they don’t have to be on the board of the company, they can be somewhere in the middle of the organisation, but they actually work in a way where they are able to be sensitive to the organisation, and understand the sort of messages they want to get around. Also, in Harvard Business Review, they were talking about new ideal practitioners - people who can generate good ideas within organisations, and find ways and means to have conversations and meetings with people where these ideas can be developed.

So, what we find now, that is in a lot of in-house design teams, large teams, for example in Nokia where I worked, and Procter&Gamble and Phillips, there are design managers in all those teams and they are now talking about the difference between design management and design leadership, for example. There is a lot of talk around Design leadership or “we shouldn’t talk about design management anymore”… concerned about the term but it is useful to discuss.
So, that is where I think we are now. At the same time, in the 2000’s’ there are new management imperatives that are quite important to look at, for example, in this book of by Zuboff & Maxmin, that you may know about, ‘the Support Economy’, they are talking about the need for massive corporate organisation to change or counteract what they call ‘a transaction crisis’ between institutions, companies and consumers, which requires a new support system to humanized business practice. Now, we have been touching on the relationship of design and the economy, but I think this idea of transaction is very important for designers, and I am talking about maybe designers involving themselves in what we may call ‘Transaction Design,’ now, it is a different area.
Also, Henry Tippie, the management guru, is talking about MBA programs, as responsible for many business´ problems, teaching stresses, analysis and control rather than visions and networks. He is beginning to analyse business courses to see how relevant they are.

Also in Harvard Business Review, breakthrough ideas in 2004, corporate recruiters are now seeking Masters in Fine Arts instead of MBAs, as their skills can help generate new ideas. Now, this is an extraordinary trend where business has got the idea that design is perhaps a good thing, and design thinking is certainly a good thing, and that has come through a lot of press and consultancies like IDEO spreading the message, so you can begin to see, if you like, a convergence between management imperatives and design activity.

If we look at new management roles and new design roles, this is what the new ideal practitioner looks like, for example, this is a person who is attune to the economical and social environment, values interdisciplinary perspective, builds a logic between the idea and the organisation, I like that one. It is optimistic, devoted to new ideas, intellectually restless, boundaries banners; and if we look at what we were trying to do in our programmes with new design professionals, we also called to the boundary crossers, understanding design holisticly, able to develop creative ideas and environments, motivated leaders with enhanced communication - which is very important for designers, because they are not usually very good talkers- long term ambition for social improvement. That is a design asset and exhibit constructive discontent championing design, so there are similarities there.

In 2005, the design council did a bit of research on the design industry itself, because they thought there were problems with the design industry, and it pinpointed some rather worrying aspects. They asked them: are business skills important in design education? Of course, I have been trying to push business skills in design education, undergraduate education, for ages and this was the result:
93% of the designers think that business skills are either essential or useful in the design curriculum, and 54% of design colleges think that business skills are either essential or useful. There is a huge resistance to change in design education. The argument I normally have is: “Naomi, it is typical of you, you are trying to ruin the creativity that we are trying to foster in the design school”… and I think this is looking at creativity as a sort of very fragile flower that will die if you try to give it any information or water it with another kind of water. It is not going to flourish.
I think creativity is much more robust than that, I think, no matter how much business studies you throw at it, it will manage to grow weather the storm.

So what skills would businesses like the designers to develop? One in five design businesses would like to develop the design business awareness. Are designers undertaking job-relation training? This was all in this research book. Architects are more than twice likely as designers to be doing job-relation training. So, these are some comments from some of the designers:

Rashid Dean: “The quality and standard of graduates is falling year on year with few exceptions. The earness is falling on design groups to educate graduates with is time consuming, costly and unfair. Our effort should be focused on helping build careers not educating them in the basics.
Janis Patrick: “Rising competition from abroad, as pressure to an industry already long overdue for an overhaul, and perhaps not equipped to support its clients or the development of our economy.

You know, back to the economy again. These are very serious.

So, What are the key issues for design, now, that people are suggesting?
First, demographics and consumer trends, then sustainability and business ethics, then the internet of course, the technology revolution, global economics, new competitors like China and India, and the uncertain outcomes in politics… They think, and we think, that students should be aware and discuss these issues while they are also developing their creativity.

So, in 2007, what are the pathways and the possibilities?
I suggest there may be a new educational model for design, it is just a suggestion and lots of things could be added to this or substracted… but if we look at traditional education and towards a Metadesign education, we look at discipline pathways in traditional education: product design, graphic design, interior design, and when we look at Metadesign education - we could see design more holisticly.
Traditional design concentrates on individuals, every individual has a project at the end in their degree show, and I wonder whether we could do more with teams… Designers always talk about design, most of their criticism comes from designers, rather than outside the industry, so perhaps we should talk more about designers in context.
Designers tend to start from zero like artists, because they are in schools of art and design, and we should recognise more the value of constraints. And the balance between technical skills and some intellectual thought, and design and theory, and design and practice. I am a great believer in putting designers out into the industry to gain more experience.

So, if we just concentrate on context, for a minute. A central task of design is defining its context, and the act of defining helps designers to position their projects and validate that position. If we look at contextual studies, in a multidisciplinary sense, we can see that what we would like is an increased understanding of the relationship between the student’s own discipline with the other major design disciplines. When you are going to a design school generally and you are a graphic designer, then you are solidly in that area, you don’t have much relationship with interior designers or product designers.
And using creditable research to support arguments can help students’ personal skills in problem definition analysis and communication of ideas. So, when they leave school, graduates will be representing design to the non-design personal they meet in their working life, that is, the whole spectrum of design, not just the discipline in which they have been trained.

So inter-disciplinary studies - designers increasingly acknowledge the value of collaborative team working and the need for students to develop interpersonal skills is a key. The stars will always emerge but the majority of the design activity is team-based, due to the complexity of modern projects. Students will be better prepared for work if they understand the special relationship between designers and professionals in ethnography, sociology, marketing and management. In organisational issues, benchmarking case study companies with long-standing creative and innovative culture is as valuable as the recognition of the characteristics of manufacturing and service companies. Understanding the attributes of an innovative organisation teaches techniques of knowledge exchange between the individual, the team and the organisation as a whole. Designers’ work now overlaps very often with other organisational personnel. There is a new spectrum of design roles that students should be aware of and new directions for them to consider.

One of my students has made these comments about design history and business studies: “Design history in the UK tends to draw on history and social anthropology but avoids marketing and business case study material. In contrast, business studies and marketing texts emphasize the specific focusing on decision-making relating to pricing product, promotion and the target market. In both cases, each subjects have its own jargon and terminology which rejects any crossed reference”.
The aim in her paper is to explore the roles of both subjects and examine how they can be refocused and integrated to provide a more appropriate model for product design students in the phase of the new knowledge economy.

So, there are global issues, too; being aware of global business, social and economic issues, helps students to understand the relationship of world events to design activity. There is value in design history, but conditions have changed so profoundly and rapidly, that students must be encouraged to make connections between past events and the present. Massive technological advances and global economic shifts will affect the working life of design students, change will continue, though increasing opportunities for designers.
So, what are we talking about in contextual studies?
An understanding of context from the microscope to the telescope, an understanding of expectations, sound-bite knowledge, the power of creativity, there is no monopoly on creative skills.
An innovation imperative: designers respond to change, and designers should read all about their connections to the world outside college. What we should be asking is: what is it like out there?