I guess the first thing to say is to thank folly and John for inviting me here. It was a bit of a surprise. I currently work in the Design Department at Napier University and we’ve recently restructured ourselves and now have the glorious title of the School of Creative Industries – whatever that might be. At the moment my post has 3 main responsibilities: first and foremost is to teach as a Design tutor and I have responsibility to undergraduates and postgraduates and also PhD students. I am also an active researcher and I am on the editorial board for Design Studies which maybe positions me quite well. One of my colleagues describes me as a ‘recovering reductionist’ - which I do think is a bit harsh - but I do take a more empirical approach to design research. Lastly I’m a design practitioner. We have formed a design collective in Edinburgh made up of a range of people: architects, furniture designers, multimedia designers, exhibition designers and over the last couple of years we’ve exhibited at Designers Block – part of London Design Festival. We have exhibited at The Lighthouse and plan to take it to Milan this year. So, there are a few things that I’m currently involved in.
To provide you with a little bit more context at present I’m Programme Director of a course called Interdisciplinary Design. It is a Masters course and we also have an undergraduate course which filters into this which is titled Design Futures. It is fairly unique in the sense that they take a social and cultural approach to design and less of an emphasis on commercial and technological aspects. So it has been relatively successful. Also, in the last couple of years I’ve published a couple of books and really that have focused on the diverse and wide ranging nature of contemporary design practice. The first was this one called ‘Crossing Design Boundaries’ which was published by Taylor and Francis and this was the result of a conference which the aim of was to get a wide range of people who were involved in many fields related to design. So there is a lot of contributions in the book from anthropologists; from psychologists; and people involved in the ‘soft’ aspects of computing (HCI), but also people that are perhaps under-represented in conferences and books of this nature – people that are jewellery designers or that design wearable products. Really we were trying to show how best those skills, knowledge and techniques could be exploited within a design context. The second book which is more recent than the first is ‘Inspiring Designers’ which is published by Black Dog in London and that is based on eighteen interviews that I conducted with what I think you could accurately describe as incredibly successful designers. In total I actually interviewed thirty designers across the world in Tokyo, Paris, the Netherlands, London and New York - it is important that I actually conducted each interview in the designers’ own studio. The interviews were an attempt to reveal what drives them as designers and ask them to question why they think they’ve been successful; how they have got to be where they are; where they want to go; and what are the major influences that affect their work.
I thought I’d show you a number of recent past projects from our design students. I think these four or five slides illustrate well the emerging nature of interdisciplinary design practice. This girl’s project included a range of clothing and accessories for Seasonally Affected Disorder (SAD) sufferers which is fairly prevalent in Northern Europe – it is certainly prevalent in Glasgow where we don’t see the sun on too many days. At present the range of products for SAD sufferers are incredibly clumsy. There is a sort of light box that you are meant to prop up on the table and eat your cornflakes at that is like a portfolio put on its end and beams a fairly substantial bright light at you. The other one is a skip cap that you are meant to wear all day long. But with the current threat of being given an ASBO (Anti Social Behaviour Order) or being described as a ‘Chav’ these are pretty clumsy, pretty god-damned awful to be honest. What Cookie proposed was a number of high fashion products including urban street wear – so the ‘Hoodie’ (which is actually in more danger of attracting an ASBO), a range of bags and a range of umbrellas. What is interesting about Cookie is that she worked with a wide range of people on the project and in many ways had to adopt the personas of these people. These included fashion buyers, pattern cutters, technologists and manufacturers. I think this project transcended many historical or conventional design boundaries including product, fashion, graphics but also has moved into fields such as electronics, marketing, dressmaking and branding. And as we speak I think there are possibilities of this proceeding further. She has interest from a couple of notable garment manufacturers in Milan.
The second project is all about good deeds. There is a book (the title of which eludes me at the moment) so there is a little bit of precedent before Joanne took this on. The concept really is to promote well-being and harmony amongst communities. It is largely Internet-driven and the good deeds service encompasses voluntary action such as cleaning your bosses’ car – so that is her actually giving my car a wash – giving a stranger flowers or taking your neighbours’ dog for a walk. Again, the project breaks a number of historic boundaries and disciplines including graphics, multimedia, branding but also the notion of entrepreneurship. What resulted from that was actually a published book which was incredibly successful.
The next project’s origins lay in concerns with the authenticity of food. Again, the outcome was a booklet titled Authenticity. It was not just about the authenticity of food but about authenticity in general. Leah was quite an interesting girl you would speak to her after the weekend and she’d tell you where she had been - places like ‘Ollo Rosso’ or ‘The Witchery’ in Edinburgh – places where people like me can’t afford to go. She’d tell you which restaurants she’d been to but her desire was to show where food was coming from and how it is authenticated. The idea here was this interactive table that would let diners know what is available that night, where it has been farmed, the reputation and provenance of the farmer and also the cost of the dish. Again, you can see fairly obviously that this project transcends many boundaries for a product design student to undertake.
Lastly, this is an award-winning Royal Society of Arts project which transcends several conventional disciplines. The concept was developed in response to the RSA brief which was all about water on the go and asking people to consume more water. The proposal here was advocating a dual branding approach which is fairly common in commercial product design activities. So you have things like Sony Ericsson and Levi’s – dual brands. The idea that Nick came up with was that the banks would actually collaborate with water companies. The idea is that just as you would go and top up your wallet with money that you would actually fill up your little bag or receptacle with water at the same time. They would be branded across both. This thing would fold up to the size of a credit card. So again, a fairly successful project.
I think what I’ve attempted to show in these examples is that design now (perhaps necessarily) transcends many historic subject areas. This isn’t new - I don’t think this is a grand revelation - because I think design has always been viewed as a bridge between technology and art. However, I think what is new is that in the publication of several books designers and design companies in general are now faced with adopting and utilising techniques and approaches that really until recently have been comparatively uncommon to them. One example is the use of anthropological techniques. There is a big word which is quite ‘buzzy’ at the moment in design circles and that is ‘ethnography’ and that is used increasingly badly by designers throughout the world. But I think if you look at the investment that designers and design companies make in anthropology and ethnography it is fairly significant. One company in particular involved in this is Ideo and also Sonic Rim. A lot of this is coming out of the USA at the moment.
So we can say that designers are now asked to transcend many of these separate disciplines. What I’ve tried to do is categorise or distinguish the change that design faces at the moment. In my view these changes are threefold: professional – there is really a blurring of traditional design disciplines. I think the changes are also linked to economics, funding and employment patterns and also obviously the easiest one is technological developments in computing and manufacturing power.
If you look at a couple of weeks ago in Design Week, Richard Seymour (who is a partner in Seymour Powell a fairly well-known design consultancy in London) is on record in a fairly lengthy article stating that design is mutating. He actually claims that design is on the verge of splitting into to two separate disciplines. He states that what is needed in a modern, dynamic and highly competitive world is a different breed of designer. He suggests there are two types of designer. One he terms the specialist executor and the second is the polymath interpolator and he says that sometimes you come across both – an individual who has both qualities but these are very, very rare. In terms of economic and funding change there has been a lot of debate on the electronic forums ID Forum and DRS Forum about the number of design graduates that we are actually producing in this country and also in the USA. Obviously, this is partly the result of the huge pressures being exerted at a national, regional and local level. I think this continuous subdivision of design courses is ultimately aimed at obtaining more cash and currently we’ve gone through a restructuring process. Presently we offer three courses in design and we’ve been faced with the task of turning those three courses into fifteen courses within a year with no more money or staff and if we don’t then we’ll be shown the door, frankly. In terms of statistics I would estimate that anywhere between ten to twenty percent (I would imagine that was a good year) of our design graduates actually find work in a design-related field. I would also throw in the caveat that we are actually a very successful design department so those figures are not great - particularly when kids come through the door and say what are the opportunities like? They are very, very competitive. Coming down today on the train I looked through Troutman’s Postgraduate Guide at the range of postgraduate qualifications – I completely overlooked undergraduate which I think is four or five times thicker than this booklet here. But the range of postgraduate qualifications available today extend to: DPhil, MA, MA Res, MCA, M Des, MAD, M Ent, MFA, MG Prac, MH Prac, M Lit, MM Prac, MPhil, M Res, MSc, MSc Res, MST, BDC, PDD it goes on and on and on. I don’t know how many there are there - maybe twenty different postgraduate qualifications and I think that there are at a rough estimate about a thousand postgraduate courses on offer in the UK. Probably more than half of them are in a design-related field. So I think there are massive pressures and change in terms of economics and funds available.
The obvious one and why many of us are sitting around this room today is the blending of computing technologies in and across creative disciplines has enabled designers to transcend what we’ve historically seen as distinct and separate design disciplines. What I would say is that I had a walk round with John this morning through the show and I think that is very evident and very clear in the wide range of fantastic and fascinating work that I’ve seen.
What I was trying to do here [slide] is give a couple of comparative case studies to illustrate what I see as the change or blur in disciplines – what I termed the professional change in an earlier slide. First in terms of the blurring of professional boundaries I think we can observe many similarities today between the working practices of what we would once have distinguished as fine art and what we distinguish as design. I would imagine that most of us, if not all of us would recognise this work. This is the work of Grayson Perry who won the Turner Prize a few years ago. What is interesting about Grayson Perry when you compare it with someone else is that these objects sell for thousands of pounds, they are generally found in prestigious galleries across the globe and in terms of size of batch we are talking small we are talking mainly one offs but maybe limited editions of between one, five, ten. Then, if we look at this work here it has some similarities – well there are a couple of vases at the bottom and it is also porcelain and has a certain sort of craft aspect to it. This work too sells for thousands of pounds each and is commonly found in art galleries throughout the world and similarly the batch is very small – sometimes one offs, sometimes a range of five or ten. But this work is the work of a designer the acclaimed Dutch designer Hella Jongerius. I think what is interesting about Hella Jongerius is that you can now trot along to Ikea and get your very own Hella Jongerius vase for a fiver. But where does art finish and design begin? Or vice versa. Very similar working practices.
The next comparison explores the fine line that I am trying to indicate there between what we see as artists and designers. This is the website front page of Marti Guixe a fairly well known Catalan designer that actually refers to himself as an ex-designer. If we look at the website home page of artist David Shrigley then we can see that there are very many more similarities in their work and their working processes than there are differences. It is extremely noticeable that they both have a very similar look and feel. The respective, clumsy, full cap, hand-written scribble is quite close. Similarly, if we look at their work – a lot of Marti Guixe’s work is based in the dematerialisation of products – he funds a lot of those sort of exploratory works by his day job which is the interior designer of every Camper shop throughout the world. Again there are similarities to his work and Shrigley’s and some of those similarities include tattoos and also the use of everyday objects in new contexts.
I don’t really have any examples to show of economic or funding change – its pretty boring really – let’s not get too depressed about it. But in terms of how technology has altered design I think that is fairly obvious. Technology has certainly altered design in the context of this man, perhaps for the worse. Karim Rashid has relentlessly produced blob after blob and he has attracted heavy criticism and I think some of it is just. But there appears no end to the long list of clients that sort of queue up for his services. But I think he’s tried to coin a new aesthetic of 'blobitecture' or 'superblob' or something.
I think Ron Arad has been a little more successful, certainly more successful critically and I think to a certain degree he has adopted the same or similar technologies to Rashid but perhaps has been a little more particular with whom he works with. Certainly Arad received critical acclaim for his Not Hand Made and Not Made in China series of lights which were produced as part of a V&A exhibition a few years back using stereolithography and I think his use of computers is generally found to be a success. These are only two of the many contemporary designers that rely heavily on emerging computing and manufacturing technologies – the list is endless – Ross Lovegrove, Frank Gehry, Thomas Heatherwick, I could go on.
To finish, I think I have listed a number of issues that as design tutors, design researchers or as design practitioners or as perhaps a bit of all three we would want to consider. That is this notion of do we wish to go down the path of specialisms or should we celebrate the generalist nature of designers. I think also what is local and global and where does design wish to go? There are many arguments for keeping design local and craft-based. Designers are regularly encouraged and frequently have demands placed upon them to be flexible and have greater flexibility in their working practices. Just how much flexibility can designers be asked for? There are questions of intellectual capital versus craft ability and in recent years there has been an emphasis placed on the former to the detriment of the latter. As tutors we should be aware of prioritising knowledge over craft. Finally, many of these issues have come out of the Bureau for European Design Associations. Designers, design students and design practitioners are asked to trawl through vast seas of data, information and knowledge and help create even more data, knowledge and information and how best can we as designers create environments to manipulate or utilise those vast amounts of data, knowledge and information in a creative way.