design, a love rekindledNovember 10, 2008
When I discovered the power of design thinking about 7 years ago, it was rather like the experience of falling in love: I just knew that this was right for me, that it made sense. Still, like all real relationships, design and I have had a few rocky patches. And there’s no doubt that my time in Kent tested our relationship pretty hard.
I’m currently really feeling the love again, thanks to the work I’ve started to do with the team running the Design Directions student project on prison visits. I’m sure this project will yield more blogs in the coming weeks, but for now I wanted to capture the key themes of a wonderful phone interview I did this morning with a postgrad design student at Loughborough (let’s call him DK), whose background is in graphic and industrial design. We were mulling over the power of design, its implications for design education, and his own experience of the prisons project so far.
For DK, you cannot be a good designer unless you are genuinely interested in people and their take on particular problems or challenges. He was passionate about the importance of immersion in any experience you were seeking to design for; similarly he argued that engaging with the emotions of that experience was at the heart of design. As he said, ‘after visiting the prison, I had to go back to my book of notes from my secondary research and re-evaluate every single thing I’d written down’. He talked about how learning to be a designer had helped him to conquer his shyness – part of the role of the designer is to draw people out, to get them talking, to understand where they are coming from.
That said, DK argued that you shouldn’t go too far down this empathy route. Being a designer is not the same as being someone’s friend. He described how he works really hard to feel the emotions people have around a particular experience or product, but then how he has to step back from it, and put his designer hat on again to ask ‘what is the design insight from this emotion?’. This wearing of two hats is intriguing to me. It clearly had a particular resonance for the prison visits project too: as DK said, his sessions with the prison officers had made him realise that in order to create good outcomes, he would need to design for the interaction between officers and inmates, as well as the products and services that relate to the experience of visits between prisoners and their families.
His view was that designers should work across the many different fields encompassed by the word – from product, to graphic, to architectural, to interaction design and so on. He was nervous about the growing interest in designers-as-strategists, arguing that the skills of product and service design should not be isolated from the more strategic design thinking. In many ways his view of things reminded me of the ambitions of the original Bauhaus for its students – that they would be ‘hands on and minds on’ – the two are not mutually exclusive – in fact, far from it, they are each reinforcing of the other.
We also talked about the fact that there is little connection currently between design education and employment opportunities for designers. Again, this had resonance with the old Bauhaus view (most recently brought out by Richard Sennett in The Craftsman) that rather than teachers and students, what we need are apprentices, journeymen, and masters. Learning should take place in the workshop, not the ivory tower. The joint employment of a design intern by the Social Innovation Lab in Kent and design studio Engine hints at how this might work in the future – however it is but one tiny example…
Can’t wait to get into this prisons project a little more. And I think it’s safe to say that even at this early stage, it has rekindled the love affair between design and I.