Are design grads still sprouting like mushrooms in other countries? How are other industries getting better at integrating design thinking in their work? Are TV shows like Grand Designs good for the design industry? Design exponent, writer and professor Guy Julier visited Design Studies in Dunedin late last year, in his role of William Evans Fellow, and tackled a wide range of issues within design industries and culture. He spoke to designers, staff, students and planners about sustainable identity, design activism, design education and community-led design initiatives. And weirdness.
Interview by Alex Gilks, Department of Design Studies, University of Otago.
Alex: You talked about that nice community project in the village of Methley in Leeds, and about triggering the imagination of the people who lived there with the vernacular kind of signage and the public screenings.
Guy: What shifted the imagination was that they turfed the street for one week. There were two parts to that. One was really just about having some fun, getting people out onto the street, getting people to know each other a bit more or better and so on. But the other thing was about shifting the realm of possibility in people’s minds. I think if design can do that, if design can not just create beauty but also create a reframing, rethinking about everyday life, then that’s really good.
Alex: What about creative work places? How much is creativity a function of the environment, and can you really have a methodology for the creative?
Guy: On a huge larger scale of course, the big influence in Europe has been the work of Richard Florida, an American former academic, who wrote this book called The Rise of the Creative Class about five years ago. It has had a huge influence on cultural planning. Basically his argument is that the economically successful cities, at least in the US, are those which have large levels of creativity going on. Places like Los Angeles and San Francisco. His argument is that weirdness stimulates creativity, so you have to have what he calls third spaces: bars, restaurants, cafes, and also cultural infrastructure for creative types. I suppose that conception is also translated into some areas in commerce as well. It’s really getting away from a Tayloristic or Fordist notion of what the office is. A critique of Florida’s concept is that you can’t just parachute creativity into a place even if you’ve got some sort of infrastructure of bars, cafes to make the places attractive – you also need a meaningful infrastructure of industry to host that creativity. LA has got the film industry, and then it’s got a big furniture industry that to some degree feeds that film industry and so on. So what’s happening in UK and European and perhaps American cities is a constant of that ‘me too’ sort of approach that somehow the creative industries are going to really regenerate places. Well the creative industries in UK cities represent about (depends where you go) between 5% and 8% of the GDP of those places, which is quite big but it’s not massive. But it’s interesting the way that creativity is not just seen as an end in itself, but as being about a symbolic value for a place. What does it say about the population there? Going back to work places though, weirdness can be good.
Alex: Weirdness in workplaces!
Guy: Although many everyday office jobs have become increasingly what George Richwell called ‘MacDonaldised’. For example working in banking has shifted from being about making fairly autonomous decisions to basically a computer operator going through a pointing system to decide whether someone’s worth 10 grand or 50 grand on their credit card. So I think what’s happening at the same time is this: it’s a bit like the TV show The Office. A lot of work is incredibly mundane and routine so you invent sort of weirdness now and then just to keep people interested in working there.
Alex: Like jellied staplers and that sort of thing. That brings us to this article in the local paper: this proposed harbourside development in Dunedin. You’re saying there’s some danger in those things happening – something that you’ve witnessed in other metropolitan areas.
Guy: Yeah. I’m encouraging of it only if it’s done interestingly, and creatively, and with imagination. I think if it’s not going to be done with those three things, don’t do it at all. As I’ve said before there’s an argument to be made for not doing something sometimes. I was talking the other night about this thing in Rotterdam where they’ve created design-free zones and it came out from a report by a group called Urban Unlimited, a kind of radical planning group in Rotterdam. They argue that, for example, if you want creative industries in a place you’re better off leaving people to it, rather than creating these clusters and creative quarters … partly to do with the fact that designers tend to network across very broad areas.
Alex: When these kinds of developments do go wrong, in your experience, what particular parts of the process go wrong?
Guy: They go wrong when property developers, who are basically box tickers, say things about interaction with the local community – consultation, stimulation of local employment – often they’re paying lip service to these things. The thing is, waterfront developments create problems in all kinds of ways, and they may look fine in themselves, but they run the danger of draining capital and resources (both private and public resources) from the rest of wherever the place is. That has happened to some degree in many places such as Cardiff. The second thing is that they basically replicate models of all other waterfront developments around the world, and waterfront developments have been around for a good 20 – 25 years now. They started off in America in the 1980s, particularly in Boston. You’ve got this gatey community effect as well, because often a waterfront development is looking away from a city and looking out to sea. And you’ve got then this problem of connectivity between the main part of a city and this waterfront development and so on. It’s a very delicate thing.
For the [Barcelona] Olympics in ‘92 effectively they grew a new city out of the old city. It turned the character of the city, because suddenly you’ve moved from a city whereby you could walk home from most places in the city reasonably easily to a much bigger metropolis and so the conception of that city has shifted. You’ve got to deal with that in terms of connectivity, you’ve got to deal with that in terms of transport, you’ve got to deal with that in terms of the identity of the place as well, and in so many of these developments you end up with a ghost town approach to these things. I was in Docklands recently – it’s a huge development to the east of London which took place in the 1980s. I was at a conference, there was a conference dinner that was about half a mile away and you couldn’t walk there, you had to get there by railway costing about four pound seventy and they didn’t have a Bicing [public bicycles] system. Often, as in London, you’ve got people who are using these spaces already, often they are large warehouse spaces either being used by industry, and you’ve got artists and people using the low rent opportunities of those kinds of spaces, sculpture workshops and so on. In Leeds they’ve developed a kind of creative media centre type of place on the waterfront and they had to evict the Leeds Sculpture Workshop in order to develop that area, so they had to evict creative people in order to create this creative area.
If you do waterfront development in the standard formats, I think that it’s run it’s course and lets do something different, lets think of a harbourside development as part of a wider city plan, in terms of what a city might be about. In Barcelona they were able to do it, they had a political resonance because their opening up of their waterfront was about the orientation of the city across the Mediterranean to the rest of Europe. What Barcelona really wanted was to turn their back on Madrid and the rest of Spain and say “we are Catalan, we are European and we are outward looking” across the sea to Italy and France and so on. They were able to do something symbolic with it. A harbourside development in Dunedin could be a great opportunity … what do we want to make distinctive about it, I don’t mean that in marketing terms, I mean in terms of it’s everyday life and aspirations.
Alex: Behind every great real project or student project is a whole lot of other stuff. A lot of it is not so impressive, and that’s hidden from the public isn’t it?
Guy: Yeah, but the thing is, it gets different when you’re working with service or interaction design, because always by definition the outcome is open ended – a service or interaction is always going to be evolving. So whilst, I suppose, a corporate identity program can be summed up in a logo (even though many brand and corporate identity people say that’s just one part of it), at least there’s something then, whereas with service design or interaction design, what you’ve got is a whole system, a kind of network rather than an object.
Alex: Did you have a flourishing tertiary design teaching industry in the 90s and early 2000s like we had here? Have you got a huge saturation of design graduates?
Guy: Huge, huge. Statistics often show that art and design have expanded in the tertiary sector faster than any other academic discipline apart than medicine in the UK. It’s something like 10 years ago 47,000 students studying design at higher education level now it’s probably around about 60 — 70,000, something like that.
Alex: That’s a lot of designers.
Guy: That’s a heck of a lot of designers.
Alex: Even if a fifth of them get a job in the industry.
Guy: Absolutely, and I think this is to some degree negative. You might be accused of training students for which there aren’t jobs of course, and in a sense why should there be. There’s only 180,000 to 200,000 designers in the UK.
Alex: The turnover’s not going to be that great.
Guy: Right. On the other hand, hopefully you’re turning out more design-aware kinds of people when you look at education. I’ve been party to a lot of these kinds of debates of “are graduates design industry ready?"
Ready for what? For what industry?”
I think there’s a huge amount of work to be done still in the professional world in general around being a good design client. And that’s growing, there’s increasing numbers of design managers or creative managers or something like that. And brand managers, to some extent, in the public and private sectors. For example, in the UK in local authorities, and in the National Health Service and things like that, we’ve got these things called ‘design champions’. They are people who are meant to be champions of design and within the health service. Their job is very much about design procurement and brief writing, that sort of thing. Now I’ve spoken with a lot of these design champions and a lot of them feel very nervous about that, because they haven’t got any background training. They just happened to be at the executive meeting and no one else would step forward, or they had a copy of World of Interiors or something like that in their bag. But I think the issue is that if we can have people in those kinds of roles who actually do have a design training or partial design training I think we’d get more demanding clients. Clients are getting more demanding anyway, but [we need] more aware, more flexible, more imaginative clients.
Alex: And relating to that, what about the portrayal in the media and columns, television news and television programs, book shops, that kind of thing. If there was a continuüm of design which was beautification and consumption at one end and along the other end critical and imaginative analysis of how we live, do you think there’s a big shift or a small shift in recent times towards that more critical and imaginative area?
Guy: There’s a small shift, and you can see it even in the TV media. I always start with the Changing Rooms thing, which you’ve had in New Zealand. The concept was started 15 years ago or so, in fact it was a design historian and a lot of designers who were up in arms about this thing, because it made design really banal. I actually felt it was quite positive because it showed the inaction and negotiation that takes place in design. Albeit in very different circumstances. But you could see the process and production, also the consumption, you could see the response to that. On channel 4 in the UK, they've recently screened a really interesting series about the regeneration of a town called Castleford. The show is called Kevin McCloud and the Big Town Plan. The TV channel put 100,000 quid into kick-starting a project, and then it drew in all kinds of other funds. The town itself was a dreadful mess and so they’ve done a bridge, some parks, some exhibitions and this sort of thing. What they’ve done is shown the different approaches to each design challenge by different architects or designers or urban designers or landscape architects and, OK it’s TV and it gets watered down, but it shows the process of participation in the design process and in the outcomes and responses to that kind of thing. So for example, in the second of the series they did three parks, one was designed by Martha Schwartz, a famous American landscape architect, and it’s a ghastly horrible thing – not just visually, it’s ghastly and horrible because there’s only lip service paid to any local consultation on this thing, and so there’s no buy in. It was, of the three, the most visually challenging kind of thing. The other two were fun, engaging but then will have a longer life because the local residents were involved in the design process and now have become stewards of the space. So what I’m saying is that I think the media is slowly moving into a quite interesting, more critical approach to design where it’s beyond being about lovely spaces and so on. I actually wonder if the property meltdown is even contributing to this because we’ve had a decade of horrible TV programs about how to make your home better so you can sell it for an extra ten grand, and now that kind of race is over. Maybe it’s forcing people to think around design is more than just financial value.
Alex: You were talking about Hans Monderman, who is writing about removing constraints that manage risk for us, and instances of these changes making for being pretty nice results for the users. Do people respond better and become happier if there is less of this kind of controlling?
Guy: Yeah sure. On a kind of philosophical level I suppose it’s about trust and humanity. But I think it’s back to this opening up of the imagination in a way, and sometimes you just live with things for so long you just don’t notice them. For example Thomas Bley was presenting his work that he’s doing on this alternative transport thing, and he said it himself, the issue is not just with the hardware of the vehicle you’ve designed but also the hardware and software of the streets in which you work. I said one way you could introduce this tricycle type of vehicle into Dunedin, which seems to be a great idea, would be to take away all the road markings for a start because the road markings are the width of the cars currently.
Alex: People would automatically jump up and down and say “Well everybody is going to get hit by a truck if there are no road markings.” This other thread of thinking says that people will manage, that they’ll take care, that they’ll toot and swerve and all that.
Guy: In the Netherlands cyclists have right of way over cars in whatever situation, so it’s easier probably for Hans Monderman to think these things from there compared to from Detroit. But I think you have to keep experimenting, and part of that experimentation will require some evaluation. They evaluated Monderman’s work, and so on, they showed there’s a 40% reduction of accidents. Hopefully that is power to it being rolled out elsewhere as well. Kevin Lynch, an urban designer, talked about this notion of legibility as a science and not an art. Currently under Highway Agency guidelines in the UK, they run contrary to the disability discrimination act, because the Highways Agency say their curbs have to be at a certain height and they have to have railings here, there and there, and it actually makes it very difficult for people say with limited eyesight and so on to negotiate these spaces.
Alex: So you still need some sort of empirical study backing up this philosophical instinct.
Guy: It helps to get a bit theoretical about this. Pierre Bourdieu, a French sociologist, talked about what he called ‘cultural intermediaries’, people like designers who are always on the edge and bring in new ideas. He saw it very much in terms of bringing stuff from the avant-garde to the mainstream. He also talks about the role of the cultural intermediaries as being in needs production. What that means is that we probably need plumbers and electricians currently, we probably need doctors and nurses, but the argument might be that people in therapeutic stuff, herbalists or shiatsu practitioners or even designers and artists, you could probably just survive without them in some way. Now I'd actually take issue with that, but nonetheless so much of the design profession is about continuing to persuade clients that they need their services. If that means going back to objective evaluation of things in order to make that point than let's go with it. There’s a lot of really interesting research being done in health design around that, about the way in which design can aid recovery rates – having a painting on the wall or a good view out a window in hospital, things like that. There’s a huge amount of work done in the States around that.
Alex: You are showing many nice case studies that might fall under the definition of interaction design. Is that a word that you’re using in your teaching and your studies to describe these kinds of innovations?
Guy: No it’s not, and nor am I using ‘systems design’ at the moment, but perhaps I should. But sometimes when you label something you kill if off. That’s what [design writer] John Thackara argues around the constants of categorisation of forms of design. On the other hand, if it helps students to identify other examples, case studies, and practitioners, so they can position what they’re doing, maybe then that would be helpful. But interaction design is something that is a discipline or sub-discipline of design that is still being defined. It’s a fairly new area in itself.
Alex: We’ve had a wave of visiting staff and visitors from overseas who have taken pains to emphasise that design should be a lot about interactions between people, and about new things, and that we should be pretty wary of design where it’s taking always the traditional form, and the outcomes are art objects or art exhibitions and things like that. So would you say that is pretty widely understood in the UK?
Guy: No actually. In the UK you have this round of degree shows, of graduating exhibitions round about June, and then a month later, there’s a big, very commercial show called ‘New Designers’ where universities have to pay thousand of pounds to have a stand there to showcase their best students and their art. Sometimes they organize this themselves and it’s really very much the cattle market of design. And what tends to happen is that because it’s an exhibition of the more traditional high design stuff which gets a lot more of the coverage. For example the year before last Blueprint magazine did a review of that exhibition and they said that a lot of the work was very individualistic, and that there wasn’t a lot of social design. And they made reference to a hoodie that one of our students had designed, that it was just about individual space. But the journalist hadn’t understood that project at all. In fact the project itself was the fruit of a year’s work the student had done on autism, and what she was doing was designing clothing and apparel for autistic teenagers who have this agoraphobic response sometimes, so they wanted to create something which facilitated wellbeing in public spaces for these teenagers. But the journo hadn’t read the caption. So the problem with the whole sort of exhibition-driven form of student design outcomes is that it privileges certain kinds of approaches to design over others – the very photographable furniture and so on.
Alex: The very beautiful graphic design.
Guy: Yes exactly. Design reports, design audits, or a system design: these are difficult to photograph. If you look at IDEO’s web site (and I’ve had conversations with people at IDEO about this) it’s all these kinds of very sexy products which actually not very representative of what IDEO do. I think we’ve got this problem with the representation of design currently, and I don’t know how to move beyond it without writing many words. But on the other hand, as the Dutch thinker Burt Mulder said “A picture can say a thousand words but a thousand and one words can say an awful lot more”.
Guy Julier is a design author and Professor of Design at Leeds Metropolitan University.