Putting People First

Daily insights on user experience, experience design and people-centred innovation
Audience Business Culture Design Locations Media Methods Services Social Issues






















Experience design

Interaction design


Service design

Ubiquitous computing












Mobile phone


Virtual world






User experience

User research


Financial services


Public services



Urban development


Digital divide

Emerging markets


Social change


Search results for 'thackara'
15 May 2007

Improving the lives of those with dementia and their carers through design

Alzheimer100 is a UK project that aims to come up with creative solutions to the challenges presented by dementia.

Alzheimer100 is a part of Designs of the time, a year long project based in the North East and lead by John Thackara (recent interview: En / It), exploring how design can make a positive difference to our daily lives.

People with dementia, their carers, service providers and experts in the field lead the project. The groups work together to share their experiences, thoughts and ideas via videos, photographs, journals, web logs and other means and design new services and products.

The aim is that over the course of the Dott 07 year, and beyond, an innovative pilot will be produced that will improve the lives of those with dementia and their carers through design. The possible outcomes are very broad, however, and will not necessarily focus on the new, with existing services also being scrutinised to see how they could be added to or improved.

19 April 2007

Torino 2008 World Design Capital launches Torino GEODESIGN

Torino 2008 World Design Capital
Yesterday I went to a press conference by Torino 2008 World Design Capital at the Milan Design Fair which presented TORINO GEODESIGN.

TORINO GEODESIGN (described in more detail in this Core77 article) is an international competition which will bring designers from all over the world to collaborate with communities and businesses in Piedmont. It will be one of the major events of the Torino 2008 programme.

It is based on the concept of “self-organised” design, that is energetic and highly experimental. The project is generated by a community of consumers, living in large metropolises undergoing change and in cosmopolitan European cities, who transform themselves into suppliers of services.

Speakers were Sergio Chiamparino (Mayor of Torino), Stefano Boeri (project leader of Geodesign competition), Fernando and Humberto Campana (designers), Guta Moura Guedes (President ExperimentaDesign Biennial, Lisbon), and John Thackara (director of Doors of Perception and Dott07). Zaha Hadid was caught ill in New York but contributed via a written statement.

After Stefano Boeri’s presentation of the project, Guta Moura Guedes underlined how design is more and more an issue of people, and therefore increasingly democratic. Cities, she said, are becoming places for bottom-up experimentation in the design field aimed at improving the quality of life for and by those who live within those cities. Design is becoming flexible, hence the overall theme of Torino 2008 (“flexibility”), adapting to different circumstances and issues such as social change, political change and climate change.

Torino’s Mayor Sergio Chiamparino said that three elements in the project were important to him: the in-depth creation of knowledge about the city, the concrete collaboration with citizens and with the topics that matter to them, and the development of a future vision for the city.

Working with local communities is something that the Campana brothers have been doing for quite some time now and they presented several examples of how they work with the rich tradition of handicraft in Sao Paolo, Brazil.

John Thackara finally endorsed the GEODESIGN idea but connected it with the topic of sustainability. We would need, he said, 100 design cities to make a fundamental impact and the radical transformation that is needed. 80% of the environmental impact of the products in our world are the result of design decisions. A large part of the answers can come from other cultures or from other times, where people learned to live sustainability. How can we learn from them?

As described on the new website (and previously illustrated in my interview with Torino 2008 director Paola Zini), the year has been divided into four phases — Public Design, Economy and Design, Education and Design, and Design Policies — each aimed at four specific target groups: the citizens, businesses, the world of education and the institutions.

“Each of these groups represents a cardinal point in the life cycle of contemporary design. Each phase studies, develops and promotes the relationship between design and the urban fabric. This cross section involves the various actors who interrelate within the city and help delineate its aspect.”

Experientia contributes to Torino 2008 website

The editorial section of the new Torino 2008 website, i.e. the part that changes all the time, is curated by me (Experientia partner Mark Vanderbeeken).

Every month the site will feature an interview, an essay, a profile of a foreign design centre, and a short reflection on the international press. The first interview is with Ranjit Makkuni of the Sacred World Foundation and the first essay is by myself on people-centred design as a means to affect cultural and social change.

11 March 2007

Doors of Perception taking on the global food crisis [Business Week]

Doors of Perception
Diane Brady of Business Week reports on The Doors of Perception conference in Delhi which focuses on applying design thinking to modern challenges in food, water and waste.

“John Thackara is doggedly pragmatic. The British design guru likes nothing more than to get designers, agitators, and average folks in a room together to hash out innovations that will improve daily life. His biggest and most celebrated gathering of the minds takes place every two years at the Doors of Perception conference. The celebrated design and innovation network’s goal is to apply design thinking to modern challenges, with an emphasis on putting ideas into action.

The latest event was staged in New Delhi on Mar. 2 and 3. And while Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales talked about his new search project, and Nokia’s Hannu Nieminen mused on the future of technology, most people were focused on the issues of food, water and waste.

Dubbed “Juice,” the gathering produced moments of true inspiration, as well as a few missteps. Its overall mission is to find design solutions to the growing crisis in global food systems—trying to cut the excessive energy use and spotty distribution while helping people feel more connected to what is actually on their plates.”

Read full story

23 January 2007

Innovation and the prosperity of nations [Core77]

Competitiveness Summit '06
“At the recent Competitiveness Summit, the connections between business and innovation were made starkly clear,” writes Nico Macdonald in a Core77 article.

In November 2005 the UK Treasury published the Cox Review of Creativity in Business, addressing “a question that is vital to the UK’s long-term economic success—namely, how to exploit the nation’s creative skills more fully” where the “emphasis is on the use made of creative skills by smaller businesses, with particular concern for manufacturing.”

This December the UK Design Council, of which report author Sir George Cox is Chairman, convened the Competitiveness Summit ’06 in London to brief people on progress with implementation of the report’s recommendations and ‘build momentum’ around it. Specifically the Summit was intended to showcase the role of creativity and design in UK competitiveness, discuss how they may be further embedded, and examine future trends; consider threats and opportunities from abroad; and examine the role of education and its relationship to industry.

The Competitiveness Summit was probably the most serious and eminent design event in the UK in the last five years, though the balance of the audience was from the design and consultancy industries, government policy and funding, and education, rather than the ‘client side’ of the equation.

Some conference participants:

  • Sir Terence Conran
  • Rt. Hon Alistair Darling MP, UK Secretary of State for Trade and Industry
  • Professor David Gann, Principal of Imperial College London’s Tanaka Business School
  • David Godber, Director of Nissan Design Europe
  • Graham Hitchen, Project Director of the Cox-proposed International Centre for Design and Innovation
  • David Kester, Chief Executive of the Design Council
  • Geoff Kirk, Rolls-Royce Chief Design Engineer for Civil Aerospace
  • Professor Stuart MacDonald, Head of the Aberdeen-based Gray’s School of Art
  • Bill Moggridge, co-founder of IDEO
  • Professor Jeremy Myerson, Director of Innovation RCA at the Royal College of Art
  • Bill Sermon, Vice President, Design at Nokia Multimedia
  • John Thackara, Director of Doors of Perception
  • Malcolm Wicks MP, UK Minister of State for Science and Innovation

Macdonald ends with serious critical reflections on the event that are worth a read and a thought.

Read full story [Mirrored in Business Week]

18 October 2006

EU project to make the smart home more user-friendly

“Smart homes have been talked about for decades, but beyond a few concept houses and a few gadget-happy homeowners, little has been achieved in making them a bricks-and-mortar reality,” reports the EU’s IST Results website. “The TEAHA project team plans to enable all of us to call our house and tell it to start the laundry, fill the bath or crank up the heating.”

“Until now the business model has not been clear, there have been too many different standards, and too many technologies that are not interoperable. And, most importantly, people did not see these systems as being user friendly – they were generally viewed as too complex to use and maintain for the benefits they offered,” explains project coordinator Enrique Menduiña of Telefónica I+D in Spain.

“Numerous obstacles have hindered wider uptake of smart home systems. In part, this is a result of the multitude of different business actors involved when trying to interconnect home appliances with each other and to the wider world. To date, appliance manufacturers, telecommunications firms, utility companies, software designers and system installers have often taken very different paths toward deploying new technologies in the home.”

“The IST-funded project TEAHA brought companies from all those sectors together. The outcome, according to Menduiña, will be the first open smart-home platform to allow any home-device – using any technology and made by any manufacturer – to interoperate seamlessly with the Teaha system.”

Despite the nice talk about user-friendliness, the solution to achieve this ‘seamless interoperability’ seems entirely technology based, and no mention is made of any type of research exploring what users actually want and need. John Thackara formulated a critique last year about the tech first approach in EU research and innovation. This tech driven EU research project claiming to make our lives easier seems to be confirming that analysis.

Read full story

5 October 2006

Book: Designing Interactions by Bill Moggridge

Designing Interactions
Digital technology has changed the way we interact with everything from the games we play to the tools we use at work.

Designers of digital technology products no longer regard their job as designing a physical object—beautiful or utilitarian—but as designing our interactions with it. In Designing Interactions (which is not only a book but also a DVD), Bill Moggridge, designer of the first laptop computer (the GRiD Compass, 1981) and a founder of the design firm IDEO, tells us stories from an industry insider’s viewpoint, tracing the evolution of ideas from inspiration to outcome.

Moggridge and his forty interviewees discuss why personal computers have windows in desktops, what made Palm’s handheld organizers so successful, what turns a game into a hobby, why Google is the search engine of choice, and why 30 million people in Japan choose the i-mode service for their cell phones. And Moggridge tells the story of his own design process and explains the focus on people and prototypes that has been successful at IDEO—how the needs and desires of people can inspire innovative designs and how prototyping methods are evolving for the design of digital technology.

The early chapters are mostly about invention of precedent setting designs, forming a living history. The center section is structured around topics, so that one can find several opinions collected together for comparison, about designing in a particular context. The later chapters move more towards the future, with trends, possibilities and conjectures. The introduction and final chapter combine to describe the approach to designing interactions that has evolved at IDEO. The book is illustrated with more than 700 images, with color throughout.

Says John Thackara in a short review of the book: “Gillian Crampton Smith answers the question, “What is Interaction Design?” The original designers of The Mouse tell us why and how they did it. There are fascinating encounters with Brenda (Computers as Theatere) Laurel and Will (The Sims) Wright. Larry Page and Sergey Brin describe how they made the ultimate less-is-more interface for Google. Service designers Live|Work, Fran Samalionis, and Takeshi Natsuno describe how they derive useful purposes for all this tech. Hiroshi Ishii, Durrell Bishop, Joy Mountford and Bill Gaver describe their ongoing efforts to design multi-sensorial computing. Moggridge concludes by discussing “Alternative Nows” with Dunne and Raby, John Maeda and Jun Rekimoto.”

On the website you can see small video segments of all interviews.

9 September 2006

Where to study experience design?

Experience design has become a hot industry theme. Companies are looking to hire experience designers. New consultancies devoted to experience design are being founded nearly every day. Major industry players like Apple, Microsoft, Nokia and Philips are increasingly putting the user experience or experience design at the heart of their innovation strategy. And experience design is now also making inroads into other fields such as education, healthcare and tourism, to just name a few.

But where can you study it?

The short answer is that you can’t really study experience design. To my knowledge there is only one small programme of experience design at the Design Academy Eindhoven in the Netherlands.

An alternative is to go to a design school with a strong user-centred and experience design focus such as the one at Stanford or at IIT, both in the US.

One can also study interaction design, a field that does not always have the same user focus as experience design, and there are programmes now in many countries, including Australia (University of Melbourne, University of Queensland), Canada (Simon Fraser University), Denmark (Copenhagen Institute of Interaction Design), Ireland (University of Limerick), Japan (Keio University, University of Tokyo), Sweden (Chalmers, Malmo, Umea), UK (City University London, Middlesex University, RCA, University of Dundee), and the USA (Art Center College of Design, Carnegie Mellon, Indiana University, ITP, Parsons, Savannah College of Art and Design, University of Baltimore, University of Maryland).
[This is just a provisional list – see here, here and here for more discussion on interaction design education]

Other related fields are communication design, HCI and information design, or you can join a programme in what in Europe is sometimes called “new media” or “multimedia”.

Amsterdam also host the European Centre for the Experience Economy.

Bob Jacobson, the entrepreneur and visionary thinker behind the Total Experience weblog, just raised the issue in an email he sent to a selected group of people including Bill Moggridge, John Thackara, Donald Norman and some 26 others, where he underlines the need for an Experience Design Institute, as a place of study and research, as a site of serious reflection and discourse. I think his call is most appropriate and timely (if not overdue), and as per usual with Bob, well thought through. Why have I received 625 email newsgroup messages in the last four months mentioning “experience design” and there is only one study programme explicitly dealing with this?

The challenge is out there. Who is taking it on?

UPDATE: 12 September 2006

Apparently, some institutions are taking on the challenge and preparing experience design programmes or labs. Interestingly, they are not in the U.S. The Utrecht School of Arts (The Netherlands) is in the planning phases of a new bachelor course called Ambient Experience Design. Also the Belgian Media & Design Academy is setting up an Experience Design Lab (disclosure: I am working with them helping them in this process). I hear some interesting things coming out of Portugal, but I am still inquiring to find out more. The most developed for now seems to be the “design para a experiência” initiative of the Nomads center at the University of San Paolo, under the leadership of Marcelo Tramontano.

9 August 2006

The Journey to the Interface: how public service design can connect users to reform

The Journey to the Interface
Engagement and co-production will grow only out of a deeper, richer understanding of how services relate in practice to people’s everyday lives.

Drawing on the principles and practices of the emerging discipline of ‘service design’, this pamphlet (book, really) by Demos, the UK ‘everyday democracy’ think tank, argues that the common challenge which all service organisations face is how to create more intimate and responsive relationships with their users and customers.

Drawing on over 50 interviews with service innovators from the public, private and voluntary sectors The Journey to the Interface makes the case for a fresh approach to public service reform – an approach that is less about competition and contestability, and more about closing the gap between what people want and need, and what service organisations do.

From cleaning the streets to checkouts, from looking after our elderly parents to selling us holidays, more than 20 million people in the UK work in the service sector. The so-called ‘service economy’ now makes up 72% of our GDP. And while most of us work in service; all of us depend on it for many aspects of our existence. The giving and receiving of service has become an unmistakable part of everyday life. But this expansion of the service sector has not heralded a service revolution. Too often people’s day to day experiences are alienating and frustrating.

The pamphlet argues that service design can offer policy makers and practitioners a vision for the transformation of public services, as well as a route to get there. It outlines an agenda for action which spells out how service design approaches can be applied systemically.

- Download pamphlet (pdf, 2.8 mb, 118 pages)
Book review by John Thackara

(via Usability News)

6 July 2006

More information on Dott, the UK regional design initiative

Dott 07
Dott is a ten year programme of design innovation, initiated by the Design Council, that will take place every two years in a different region or nation across the UK.

The programme encourages the innovative use of design as contribution to economic, cultural and social success of the UK and will provide the opportunity for designers, businesses and public service providers to engage with citizens in improving national life through design.

Dott will be an inspiring, involving and educational initiative for young people and various groups of citizens. Its aim is to raise knowledge of the value and importance of design to our wellbeing.

Each Dott biennial will respond to the specific needs and ambitons of the region concerned. The aim is to foster an inclusive and participatory approach to design that will stimulate long-term change and create a lasting legacy.

The first Dott – Dott 07 – takes place in North East England in 2007. It is organised in partnership between the Design Council and the region’s development agency, One North East and led by programme director John Thackara and executive producer Robert O’Dowd.

Dott 07 will take eight core themes – energy and environment, sustainable tourism, school and community, health and wellbeing, mobility and access, town and country, food and nutrition, and housing and home – and work with local communities within the region to frame specific challenges as design opportunities.

Dott 07’s projects are organised into three programme strands: Public Commissions, which involve real people in real places, exloring how design may improve an aspect of daily life; Education, aimed at school pupils, college students, teachers and local communities, working together in collaborative projects; and Design Showcases, which are events in museums, galleries and festivals that explore the present and futures of design.

The recently relaunched Dott 07 website – which comes with its own blog – illustrates some of the projects, which are already in the works: Lo Carb Lane, Future School, Health Wise, Alzheimers 100, Move Me, Smart Town and City Farming.

The results of all Dott 07 projects will be presented at the Dott 07 Festival in October 2007.

27 April 2006

Samsung’s DigitAll magazine devoted to design

Samsung's DigitAll Magazine Spring 2006 - illustration by Cam Chesney
The Spring 2006 issue of DigitAll, Samsung’s webzine, has just been released and it is entirely devoted to design – with a big slant towards industrial and product design.

The magazine, which is luckily not as over-branded as the last issue (which was just plain awful) despite its URL, contains some interesting feature stories.

The edge effect by John Thackara
John Thackara asks “how to design a world that relies less on technology and more on people?” and claims that the “edges may hold more answers than the center”.
A short excerpt: “The capacity to think across boundaries, to spot opportunities at the juncture of industries and draw relevant analogies from seemingly unrelated industries, is as valuable as deep experience of a single sector. “Sow the seeds of change at the margins,” says business writer Julian Birkenshaw. “That’s where they will do best. Go for multiple actions at the fringes. Let direction arise.” When edge people, ideas, and organizations are brought together, something interesting happens. We need to recombine relationships—among people, ideas and organizations. We need to search out scientific, natural, and cultural knowledge that is usually ignored—whether it is mimicking biology or learning from traveling storytellers in India. Putting old knowledge into new contexts creates new knowledge.”

Detail dreamer
Yun-Je Kang, 38, is the creative director of a Samsung cluster design team responsible for new AV products such as home theater systems, TVs, and DVD players. In this interview he argues for the need to find “a beautiful balance between form, usability and function”, underlining that the company now has to focus on “how to make sure new features are really convenient and easy to handle from the user’s point of view.”
Yet, he is not a fan of co-creation in design: “It’s one thing to say that consumers should be able to choose between products. But professional designers bring skills to the table we can’t expect consumers to have: namely, a sense of creativity and emotional insight about design, just to start. When it comes to TV design, the best way consumers can enter the design process is to design the space where they’re going to put their TV. Let the designers do the designing.”

17 January 2006

“Experientia interviews…”: a new interview series on user experience and innovation

Experientia, the international experience design consultancy (that is also responsible for this blog), launches today “Experientia interviews…”, a series of dialogues with leading professionals on the topic of user experience, user-centred design, design strategy and innovation.

The inaugural interview is with Richard Eisermann (pictured here), Director of Design and Innovation at the UK Design Council. He discusses how the Design Council is using a design approach to help business, public services and educational institutions develop new products, services and strategies or redevelop existing ones, and how Italy can use some of the same ideas in its own approach to innovation.

The interviews are part of Experientia’s strategy to help stimulate a culture of user-centred design, which is also the motivation behind Putting People First, Experientia’s successful experience design and innovation blog.

The interview series will cover people from all over the world, with an emphasis also on Italians who are internationally active and provide crucial professional contributions.

Feel free to link to these interviews also from your own site or blogs.


Richard Eisermann is Director of Design and Innovation at the UK Design Council. In this interview, he discusses how the Design Council is using a design approach to help business, public services and educational institutions develop new products, services and strategies or redevelop existing ones, and how Italy can use some of the same ideas in its own approach to innovation.

The interview was conducted by Mark Vanderbeeken and took place on 12 January 2006.

* * * * *

You were working as director of design at Whirlpool here in Italy for many years before you went to the UK to help define and implement a new mission for the Design Council. What was driving this new mission?

I think the Design Council realised that they needed a much more direct and engaging approach. Over the last three years, the organisation has become very involved in working directly with businesses and public entities to help these organisations understand how design works and how it can help them solve their problems. The Design Council has moved from just being a promotional body to being an enabling body, a “do tank” in contrast to a “think tank”. While promotion is of course still very much part of what we do and we continue to work on inspiring organisations and managers around using design, we are also there to enable them, to use design in the most effective way possible, and to help connect design professionals to situations and organisations where they can help solve problems.

You told me that this change was driven by a new director?

Yes. The new chief executive, David Kester, came from the D&AD, the leading British body for design and advertising design. It is primarily focused on the advertising, print and communication design world and has a world renowned design awards scheme.

So he brought this more business driven design approach into the Design Council?

Before David arrived, the Design Council’s emphasis was on promotion. He wanted to actively bring “design” back into the organisation. He wanted to make sure that design was front and centre in everything the Design Council was doing. And I was the first person he hired to help him do that.

But you came from a white goods company, which was a rather different thing altogether?

I think David was interested in the totality of my experience, not just the Whirlpool experience. Previous to Whirlpool, I always worked as a consultant. I was at IDEO for a number of years, where I led the design team for the new high-speed train service for Amtrak, called Acela. Through IDEO, I had also been consulting quite a bit with the Italian electrodomestics manufacturer Merloni. And previous to that I was working with Sottsass, also in Italy.

You have quite a wide and international range of design experiences.

Yes, and David was looking for someone with that background. One of the fundamental mind shifts David brought to the Design Council is that it’s not just about promoting British design. It is also about gathering design knowledge, information and insights globally, bringing that back to Britain to help British designers and business understand the global context of what they are doing. There are also many British designers working abroad who are very well placed to be ambassadors for British design.

People tend to have many different ideas of what design is. The Design Council has a rather broad vision of design. What does design mean for you?

When I talk about design, I try not to mention the “d” word anymore. I try to talk about value. There are three types of value that design can help create. First, there is economic value for business, the impact on the bottom line. Then, there is social value, the creation of value for people. The products and services we design need to be responsive to user needs, and need to have social qualities that are positive and reinforcing.

But there are lots of disciplines that can provide this, not just design?

Yes, there are. So the third value is rather unique to what design can do, which is to provide aesthetic value, the visceral pleasure and satisfaction provided by a product or service. This aesthetic quality positions designers very uniquely in the creation or development of any kind of product or service.

Design is therefore a threefold process.

Precisely. To put it all together, design is the creative process by which economic, social and aesthetic value is first imagined, then shaped, and finally embodied in a meaningful and desirable outcome. First you have to forecast what this value could possibly be, imagine it in some way, generate an idea, draw it, and then you have to shape that idea. You shape an idea by iteration, by prototyping it quickly and by testing it out.

And then you have to deliver it.

Yes, you have to get it into people’s hands, because a good idea without some physical manifestation or outcome is nothing more than an idea. The goal of design is always a meaningful and desirable outcome.

That’s a wide view of design.

Yes, and it is debatable one, but it is important to have the broadest view possible about what design is and what it can do. Of course, design is a verb (he/she designs the chair) as well as a noun, (the design of the chair), but I prefer the idea that design is a process.

What do you actually do at the Design Council now? What is the scope of your work?

I am the Director of Design and Innovation, responsible for our design campaigns. When I arrived and joined the Director team, we started out by looking at how the Design Council would need to evolve over the long term. This had structural implications. Our focus was on making the Design Council more outcome oriented. That meant organising the personnel into project teams, rather than having them organised by discipline.

So you reorganised everybody’s job?

Quite a lot of changes were made. Of course there were some difficulties in the transition, but it is a natural progression for any organization. The world is constantly changing and organisations need to change with it.

Why project teams?

We wanted to connect the various activities at the Design Council much more. There had been a lot of activity, but it lacked a strategic framework. There were individual pockets of very good and very worthy activity, but there was no structure that tied it all together. We tried to implement a coherent structure to let work flow through the organisation. This also allowed us to “punch above our weight”, meaning we wanted to create a small organisation that gets a lot done, influences quite widely, and uses a highly developed network to implement the ideas that it develops.

And you succeeded in a certain way: the Design Council is very present for an organisation of only 75 employees.

I think we could even do more frankly. Look at the Danish Design Council. They are very small, but are very strong and do a lot of good work. But they also have a country and a culture predisposed towards the idea of design, which makes it a little bit easier. Design awareness is not as strong in the UK.

I was reading that 69% of UK companies do not even invest in design.

Luckily, that’s a relatively easy number to change. It is in a way a conversion process. All of a sudden a light goes on in these managing directors’ heads, and they say “Ah, now I get it. We have been doing this work for eighteen months now and I finally see where you are going.”

How do you work with them?

It started out very much as an experiment. We got a group of companies together and dropped some designers into these companies for a day to see what would happen. We convinced the companies to participate by telling them that it was only a day, it was not going to be a big deal, and that there was not a lot of investment in time and money. But if they liked what they saw, we could help them build on that. That’s how we started out. We called it a “design immersion” and it is now part of our larger “design for business” programme.

How does such a design immersion work then?

In a typical design immersion, we take three very experienced designers from different specialities as well as a design mentor, who we ask to work with small and medium size enterprises for a day. During that day, they work with the managing director and his executive team to understand what the design opportunities are within the company. In short they do a survey and a workshop and at the end of the day they come up with a list of recommendations. The design mentor then follows up on these opportunities, helping the managing director develop an action plan and then help with its implementation over the next 18 to 24 months.

What companies could join the programme?

There were some criteria that needed to be adhered to. First of all, the company had to be viable. Our work was of course not meant as a last gasp handout of free consultancy before the company folded. So the companies had to be willing to open their books to us. They also had to be committed over the long term to participate in regular, paced interventions over the course of the programme. That was very crucial for us. After all, you can’t just go in and make a bunch of recommendations and then leave and expect somebody to change. Change happens over time and you have to facilitate that journey. Thirdly, they had to commit managing director input. We needed top management involved. If those three criteria were accepted, the company was accepted into the programme.

What kind of companies did you work with?

We started out with twelve companies and concentrated on manufacturers of consumer goods. Some were very small, five employees, whereas others had up to three hundred employees. In the second round, we worked with some slightly larger companies as well, of a few thousand employees.

Did these companies accept the input from the designers?

Some companies were more receptive than others, as could be expected. We worked with designers who had experience, gravitas and a high profile, people like Paul Priestman and Dick Powell. They were designers with ideas, knowledge and an understanding of the commercial realm, who could be very sharp in their assessment, but also had a lot of respect for clients and were able to back up their comments and criticisms.

They were quite outspoken, I guess.

Some of the things they said were rather strong. There was a wood products company that Dick Powell went to visit as part of the immersion team. Their design studio was in their basement. Dick immediately argued that one cannot have a design studio without light, without air, and with leaky pipes and radiators all over the place. He was convinced that the company needed a design studio that could inspire designers, let them breathe, let them see things and also give them some profile within the organisation. And he succeeded. They moved the design studio that same day and it made a huge impact on the way the company viewed design. The design studio started to become the place where the managers would bring their clients to show them new product ideas. The design studio became a focus for how the organisation presented itself to its market.

And there were many examples of course of that sort, I presume.

And in many areas, such as branding, for instance. One company agreed to participate on one condition: we wouldn’t touch the brand. The immersion team always involved one brand specialist, and of course the single biggest recommendation form the immersion day was that they had to change the brand. In the end, the company did and with great results. They achieved much more clarity in the marketplace about how they were positioning and selling themselves and how their products and designs were perceived.

This was all done in one day?

The recommendations came out in one day, but it took another eighteen to twenty-four months to translate these recommendations into concrete outcomes. It took quite an amount of time before we could see actual results, bottom line impacts of the programmes that had been initiated.

And then you implemented these ideas on a wider scale?

The idea behind our “design campaigns” is to work with a small group of related organisations, be they companies, schools, primary care trusts or whatever, to understand the issues that underlie the situation they are facing in the marketplace, vis-a-vis their customers and their users, and then to develop an idea, a concept of what it is they need. We then turn that into a programme, which we test with a second group of companies. Since we didn’t have to do all the investigation, and already had some ideas, this of course goes much more quickly.

So you prototype the programme first, test it out, and then formalise it.

Yes, once we are happy with it, we use a delivery partner to help move the ideas and the work out of the Design Council. After all, our goal is to affect change on a wider scale, without growing ourselves. We work a lot with partners. We are very much network based.

Was this in London or all over England?

The manufacturing campaign has taken place all over the UK, with representation from all regions. Many companies were from the West Midlands, which is a heavily industrial area of longstanding traditions. Other companies were from the London area or even the North East. We consciously distributed the programme, because we didn’t want to be London-centric. The design industry is already perceived to be quite concentrated in London.

What are you working on now?

Now that the programme has been developed, tested and certified, we want to transfer the material and processes of the “design for business” programme to a wider arena. It’s essentially the development of a service.

The “design for business” programme is more than just these “design immersions”. What are the other programmes?

The immersion is really one of the deeper programmes that we offer. There are actually three levels of intervention in the “design for business” programme. The first aims to inspire companies about design through seminars about the importance of design. The second level gives organisations a deeper understanding of how design works through a lighter touch immersion of one day. And then there is the full blown immersion, which is a much lengthier, more transformational intervention.

What is Futureproofed?

Futureproofed is a concept we used in our annual review to explain that design can be an insurer of a secure future. If you design things well, you can anticipate the future and keep your company from failing. Our technology campaign is very much based on helping early stage ventures and start-ups secure their futures through design. In the manufacturing campaign, we focussed on established manufacturers. In the technology campaign, we worked with entrepreneurs and inventors, people who were developing new technologies but didn’t really have an understanding of how design could help get them to market faster and with better result for users. Many were boffins in garages, developing cool technologies without a clear understanding of the implications of what they were doing. We worked with them to help them understand the design process, mostly with an emphasis on end-users. We wanted them to understand that they have to make sure that users are front and centre in their development and in their thinking. And that to attract more investment, they needed to be very much better at telling their stories from the perspective of their users.

Have you been involved in the design of public services?

Certainly. The focus of our research and development group, RED, is the design of public services. One of our design campaigns is also in the area of public services, specifically, the design of learning environments. As with all of our work, users come first. They are the key to unlocking innovation.

Design for you always means user-centred design.

Indeed. In the learning environments work, we wanted to understand the implications of design for the development of new schools. It started off as a project focused on furniture. We wanted to understand how a basic element like furniture could affect the design of a classroom, and what happens in a learning environment when the furniture is more flexible and allows you to change the context in which that learning takes place. But the campaign quickly grew to encompass thinking about the learning environment as the place where an educational service is provided. That campaign has helped administrators and teachers to look at what they are doing much more as a provision of a service that should also involve its customers, i.e. students, in a very active way.

So a user-centred or student-centred education?

Very much so. That programme which applies the design process to schools has led to a number of interesting outcomes that do not just deal with the physical environment, but also with the way schools communicate with parents and teachers, with how to develop a sense of community, and with the systems and processes that support that community. For instance, how can the lunch experience in the canteen be improved? Is it just a question of the food? Or could a different approach to the schedule provide an alternative solution.

Are you working still on an experimental level with a few schools or are you already applying these insights within the wider education system?

We just finished our initial investigation and will be coming out with our recommendations in the next couple of months. There are of course a number of other entities working in this space as well, such as RIBA (Royal Institute of British Architects), CABE (the Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment), PfS (Partnership for Schools) and most importantly, BSF (Building Schools for the Future), which is a major, government programme to renew school buildings in the UK. We are very much trying to influence their agenda around design and that seems to be having effect. The BSF programme is very ambitious. The aim is to rebuild or refurbish every school in the UK over the next twenty years. It is a massive capital spent. Until now, the process hasn’t involved users as much as it should. Some consultation with teachers and local educational authorities takes place, but it is very brief, and doesn’t allow many issues to come out. What invariably happens is that shiny, new, architecturally pleasing schools are built, but they house old systems and ways of doing things.

Design for you is really about designing both.

Exactly. This is what we want to show. You can design the service and the provision of the service and reflect that desired service in the architecture.

Charles Handy, who is a social thinker, has recently been looking at entrepreneurs, people who create something out of nothing. He wrote a book about this, The New Alchemists, where he shows how important it is for these people that they are encouraged at a young age, that the educational system gives them space and lets them develop.

We are trying to get kids, students involved in the development of their futures. We want to go for a model of co-creation of the educational service, rather than the existing Fordist model. Students currently going through lessons and grades in an assembly line fashion, with tests at regular intervals, standardised evaluations, and yes or no gates to determine whether they pass on to the next level. This is a very rigid and formal educational service that is not really preparing people for how things are already working in the workplace. Massive change has taken place there, but the educational system hasn’t kept pace with these changes.

You mentioned four design campaigns. What is the last one?

Whereas the first three campaigns are all about creating demand for design, the fourth one is about the supply of design, and as such about design skills. We are working with educators, from the university on down, to help design students understand issues around business and engineering, and just as importantly, to help business and engineering students understand what design does. We are creating synergies at the university and upper school levels between design students, business students and engineering students, and aim to create more coherence and syntony between these groups.

This is done with the schools directly or also via the government?

Both. We are working with “Creative and Cultural Skills” which is a government panel that has been set up to address skills in the creative industries. There are twenty-eight sector skills panels, governing all professions. Their aim is to help the educational system understand what it means to operate and function as a professional in a particular sector. With “Creative and Cultural Skills” we are working on a workforce development plan for design. Our aim is to engage the design community and the higher education deliverers, and to arrive at a clear understanding of what one needs to properly function as a professional in the design world. This work on design skills is the essence of the fourth campaign.

The UK Government has just launched a strategy to put the user at the heart of public services. Are you involved with that as well?

That would be the responsibility of RED. They are specifically looking at public sector issues and the role that design can play in the development of public services. They have been working quite intensively on health, energy, citizenship, and more in general on how to design the relationship between an individual and the state, what the manifestation of that relationship can be, how that works (or not), and how design can influence and help nurture that relationship. RED is a very vibrant, active group that is doing short, sharp interventions and prototypes rather than longer-term projects. RED develops concepts which are then elaborated elsewhere into larger campaigns.

What is DOTT about?

DOTT stands for “Designs of the Time” and is the Design Council’s programme that will provide the chance for designers, businesses and public services to engage with citizens in improving their lives through design. DOTT will take place in different regions throughout the UK every two years. The One North East Regional Development Agency is DOTT’s first partner, for 2007. World renowned design thinker and writer John Thackara will be DOTT’s director and Robert O’Dowd, an experienced businessman, its producer.

Let’s talk about Italy. You know this country fairly well. You also speak the language quite well. You know many people here. You have worked here. In short, you know a lot about the difference in culture and approaches between the UK and Italy. What of the approaches that you have been applying in the UK over the last three years, would make sense for Italians or Italian decision makers to take a look at?

The Italian situation is a bit more politicised than the one in the UK and that makes it somewhat more difficult to operate. But on the positive side, there is a lot more understanding and sensitivity to design, although this sensitivity is still very much based on the idea of aesthetic value, rather than social or economic value. Italians, like many others, have a rather classic idea of design rather than a larger, more comprehensive idea of what design can do. What is very strong in Italy is that life goes on in spite of the political situation. People just get on with things and try to ignore the kind of machinations that are necessary to get things done. Case in point is the lack of a design museum in Milan. Now finally the Triennale has taken on that role but it has been years that it has been debated and thought about. Another thing that you don’t see much of in Italy anymore is large public works projects.

Now the railroads are doing interesting work.

Yes, now it is the railroads. Before that it was during the World Cup in 1990.

When you come to Turin, you will be surprised about the amount of public works that are now about to finish ahead of the Olympics.

I was on an Alitalia flight this weekend and the in-flight magazine was all about Turin. It is very exciting. There is a lot going on. Turin is in a very similar situation to what is happening for instance in the North East. Great Britain as you know has very much devolved power and the distribution of money to the regional authorities.

That process is also going on in Italy.

The North East has been blessed with a very visionary team. The regional development agency has got a very strong vision and a solid longer-term view of how the region needs to develop and what the future of the region is going to be. They see design as one of the drivers for their future, hence their backing of DOTT. Don’t forget that the North East was the cradle of the industrial revolution. That’s where it all started. They have gone through a number of different stages over the years, and had a massive collapse of industry in the eighties. Now they are looking at how to rebuild and how to determine the next iteration of their region. They want design to play a really strong role in the development of that region.

But let’s come back to Italy. What is it that Italians can learn from the approach that you have been testing with success in the UK? What is it that can be applied in the Italian context as well?

One is the idea of creating a destination, be it architectural, cultural or social, and setting up the conditions for investment to happen. In other words, creating a condition that draws people to visit, to see and to experience what you are about. This is not just a communications exercise, but also about creating the infrastructure to support all that. In the North East they developed the “Baltic“, a major centre that has become an anchor for all manner of cultural development in that region. There have also been a number of important, very visible architectural projects that people go visit because of their architectural quality. These projects have a huge impact in the way the region communicates. They help create and share a vision of what the region wants to do. In parallel, the North East also has on the ground activities like DOTT, where they are connecting to the general public to try to develop a sense of what design is, what it can do and how it can really affect public services, such as spaces, health, transport or the education system.

What about businesses? What can they do? What can they learn from this approach?

The North East is now setting up a design centre, a real hothouse where technologists, designers and business people will be housed together to develop the products and services of the future. The region gives them a place to work and to create, and supports that process with knowledge, help, connections and networks.

The UK and Italy seem to have a lot more similarities that one might think.

And this could be fostered of course. There are a lot of synergies between the two countries. There is a lot that Italian industry could teach British industry about working at a small but very networked level, because Italian business is extremely good at that. The Italians on the other hand could probably learn quite a bit from the UK about the development of services. Service design is becoming a real discipline in the UK. There is a growing awareness that design has a central role to play in the development of services.

You will be leading a short workshop here in Turin with political decision makers and visionary people from industry. What will you do with them?

I think is important that they go through an experience and actually produce something. A workshop is not really valuable unless there is some type of tangible outcome. For sure, it will be interesting for them to get information and see examples of what is happening in the UK and elsewhere, but it is fundamental that they become inspired by these examples, start to examine their own situation through some exercises, and come up with scenarios and concepts for where they see their region going. I want them to get a sense of possibility and opportunity for what they could be doing.

Turin will be the World Design Capital in 2008 and they are looking at ways to extend that beyond the year. They want to use 2008 as an opportunity to get people in the region to think more structurally about design as a tool for innovation.

I think that is the crucial challenge. The 2008 opportunity should not be fireworks, a lovely and beautiful explosion that everybody talks about for the evening, but then people wake up the next morning to the same old, same old. Turin’s main challenge will be to sustain the effect over the long term. I believe design will play a central role in helping Turin sustain the magic of its current initiatives.

12 January 2006

Recent Design Council publications

This morning I interviewed Richard Eisermann, Director of Design & Innovation at the UK Design Council, and you will read more about that soon.

He pointed me to a number of interesting Design Council publications. They are all available for download:

  • Futureproofed: A look at why the UK needs design and a report on the Design Council’s work across business, the public sector and the design industry
  • Red Paper 01 Health – Co-creating Services: A new ‘co-creation’ approach to health care is set out in this paper from the Design Council’s RED unit
  • The Business of Design – Design industry research 2005:In-depth research on the UK’s design industry providing detailed data on everything from scale and economic clout to education and skills.
  • The Impact of School Learning Environments – A Literature Review: An overview of academic research commissioned for the Design Council’s Learning Environments Campaign
  • Learning Environments Campaign Prospectus – From the Inside Looking Out: How can we create school environments fit for learning in the 21st century? This prospectus answers the question
  • Touching the State: Can design improve our encounters with the state? Our Touching the State project asked the question, and the answers feature in a magazine full of insights and opinions.
  • RED Film 01: Health (mov file, 8.9 mb): this short film tells the story of two Design Council projects that used design methods to innovate in heatlh and to develop new concepts for supporting self-management and enabling healthy lifestyles
  • dott07: this is a ten-year program in North-East England, lead by John Thackara, about supporting and encouraging design as central to the future economic and social success of the UK. The brochure is not online, but it contains not much more than the text of the website.

Click here for an overview of all Design Council publications.

5 January 2006

Creativity and design as tools for regional innovation

Here are some links for those interested in the role of creativity and design as tools for innovation, especially in the context of regional development.

Creative London: realising the economic potential of London’s creative industries
London’s mayor commission on the creative industries focuses on four themes: nurturing and commodifying creativity, developing Production Chains, management and growth, property and place.

Creativity, Design and Business Performance (pdf, 1.05 mb, 76 pages)
Economics paper by the UK Department of Trade and Industry (DTI), published on 25 November 2005.

Nouvelles villes de design/New Design Cities
This 330-page, richly illustrated, bilingual book, published on 22 September 2005, stems from a symposium on the same topic (Montreal, 6>8 October 2004) and coincides with the introduction of the city’s new design action plan. LThis book involves case studies (i.e. actions or events) that are at the foundation of the emergence process of seven cities as cities of design: Antwerp, Glasgow, Lisbon, Montreal, Saint-Etienne, Stockholm and New York’s Times Square. These concrete examples are supported by reflections by three imminent thinkers of the modern city: Francois Barre (Paris), Saskia Sassen (Chicago), and John Thackara (Amsterdam and Bangalore).

(thanks to Giovanni Padula)

2 January 2006

The experience of everyday things

On January 12 the symposium ‘The Experience of Everyday Things’ will explore how the human sciences can inspire, feed and provoke designers.

Four speakers operating in the field between the human sciences and design – Donald Norman, Josephine Green, Henk Janssen (Indes) and Paul Hekkert (IO) – will provide position statements in engaging presentations. The four positions will form the basis for a lively debate between the speakers and an audience of designers and design researchers.

Entrance to the symposium is free of charge.

Visit symposium website

(via John Thackara)

29 December 2005

Video games as substitute play environments for children

A long essay by Henry Jenkins explores the cultural geography of video game spaces, one which uses traditional children’s play and children’s literature as points of comparison to the digital worlds contemporary children inhabit.

Specifically, it examines the “fit” between video games and traditional boy culture and reviews several different models for creating virtual play spaces for girls. So much of the existing research on gender and games takes boy’s fascination with these games as a given. As we attempt to offer video games for girls, we need to better understand what draws boys to video games and whether our daughters should feel that same attraction.

The essay starts from a reflection on the changing spaces of childhood. In the nineteenth century, children living on America’s farms enjoyed free range over a space which was ten square miles or more; boys of nine or 10 would go camping alone for days on end, returning when they were needed to do chores around the house. Henry did spend childhood time in wild woods, but these are now occupied by concrete, bricks, or asphalt. His son has grown up in apartment complexes and video games constitute his main playing spaces.

Read full story

(via John Thackara)

20 December 2005

Renewing Britain’s legacy of innovation [Business Week]

Business Week comments on the recent Cox Review of Creativity in Business (see also my previous post) and publishes excerpts of an interview with the author Sir George Cox. According to the magazine, the report’s findings are worrying.

“Far from reassuring Britain that its creative edge is well-honed and immune to the global competition, Sir George discovered that the country needs immediate economic and academic support if it’s to remain a creative leader. He noted that Britain’s proportional R&D spending lags behind not only that of the U.S. but also France and Germany. Less than one-third of British companies have launched a new product or service in the past two years.”

“To make matters worse, the report found that Britain has only 5 to 10 years to get its act together before Asia and Latin America threaten to dominate the world of innovation. In the past few years, Korea and Taiwan have built vast design centers to showcase national work and house creativity conferences.”

Read full story

28 November 2005

Design Council launches DOTT, a £50m regional design initative

The UK Design Council launched today Design of the time (DOTT, in short), a £50 million, ten-year initiative to re-design the UK that begins in North East England in 2007.

DOTT, which is lead by John Thackara, gives the UK public the chance to help design the places where they live, work and play. It will, according to the organisers provide a unique opportunity for designers, businesses and public service organisations to engage with the public in practical explorations of the role that design can play in improving every aspect of people’s lives.

Every two years the Design Council will work with a UK region or nation to roll out an ambitious, year-long design programme. The aim each time will be to improve national life through design.

The first DOTT, in 2007, will be a partnership with One NorthEast, the regional development agency for North East England. It will have three distinct elements: public design commissions, education programmes and a programme of design showcase event.

dott07 brochure website
John Thackara post on the issue

27 November 2005

Politics of the drawing board [The Observer]

A very insightful story by Geraldine Bedell in today’s Observer explores the latest thinking on the role of design as a means to develop solutions to services, business models and social issues, and the controversy this has generated in the UK. Yet she argues, “we could all benefit from this new thinking.”

As an example of the new approach she points out that “tomorrow the UK Design Council will announce its biggest initiative to date: a 10-year project [lead by John Thackara] to design solutions to social problems in five regions of the country, starting in the North East. At the end of each two-year phase, the region concerned will be left with up to 10 new practical public projects.”

The controversy stems from the fact that some believe that this is “strategic planning, or project management, and should not be confused with design” and that the “term designer is now [being] abused”.

However there is increasing openness to the new thinking: “Politicians and chief executives are starting to recognise that design can offer a more sensitive approach to social problems than their old, rather crude methods of information gathering, assumption forming and top-down solutions. Starting from users, they believe they can create more personalised, responsive, human, elegant and efficient solutions to social problems and business.”

Concluding, she argues that “establishment designers should relax, feel less threatened.” […] “The rest of us, meanwhile, should be delighted, because new design opens up the possibility that we could all begin to apply design thinking, become much more involved in devising solutions to the problems that plague us. Which ought to be a lot more interesting and rewarding than just having more designer stuff.”

Read full story

21 September 2005

Users as designers of public services

Demos, the British think tank for everyday democracy and the publisher of The Greenhouse weblog, organises a series of monthly discussions about innovation and future leadership in education and public services, called Open Secrets.

Tellingly, the latest discussion, which was lead by John Thackara, focused on the questions of how public service professionals can act more as ‘hubs’ capable of connecting users to significant others, and more in general, to what extent the role of users can re-define the terms of public service provision.

Update: A report on that discussion can be found here.

(via John Thackara and CPH127)

5 September 2005

Smart Internet 2010

“Smart Internet 2010″ was an 18-month project conducted by Australia’s technology research consortium, the Smart Internet Technology CRC, to examine what the internet might evolve into by 2010 and the implications for end-users. The report was spearheaded by leading Australian scholar Trevor Barr, Alex Burns and Darren Sharp.

It uses a schools of thought methodology to develop four scenarios: the Adaptive User Environment, Not The Smart Internet, Rich Media and Chaos Rules. The report includes interviews with global ‘thought leaders’ including Howard Rheingold, Cory Doctorow, Douglas Rushkoff, Mark Pesce, Katie Salen, Eric Zimmerman and many others. Specific domains that are discussed include the Open Source movement, Social Networks, Digital Games, Voice Services, E-Health and Mobiles.

Download executive summary (pdf, 681 kb, 34 pages)
Download full report (pdf, 1.28 mb, 170 pages)

(via John Thackara)