Archive for November, 2009

Where’s the place to be, if you are a young designer?


A couple of weeks ago I joined Richard Banks for the second of Jon Rogers’ Ideas Days at Dundee’s Duncan of Jordanstone school of design. The format is simple. In their third of four years students on the Innovative Product Design course that Jon leads work up 100 ideas for their final year project and then present 25 of them to a visiting group of experts. Then all the students come together to quiz the experts in a panel session. Last year I joined Anab Jain, Bill Gaver, NCR’s Charlie Rohan, Nic Villar, and Richard Banks.

This year brought Andrew Shoben, Bill Gaver, Daljit Singh, Richard Banks and I together for the panel (the NCR folk couldn’t stay after the ‘100 Ideas’).

I love watching panels where the panellists disagree – especially where they respect each others work. Last year Anab and Bill hade a heated debate about the similarities and differences between commercial and university based design (especially product, interaction, and service design). This year I think the most passionate disagreement came in response to a question asked by Eilidh Marshall. Eilidh asked “Where’s the ‘place to be’ for designers now?”

The answers were, well, odd. Andrew answered “On the web”. Indeed the web can be thought of as a place but that is a curiously 1990’s idea. Now, the community-like tools on the internet can be taken for granted and used as just that – tools. It is true that a web presence is important for designers, but it’s not really what I’d class as ‘the place to be’.

Next up Daljit talked about the lure of London. At the time I thought Daljit had missed the point, but reflecting back now after discussions with Pete Thomas I think Daljit may have been on-the-money. Some (or all!) of the current third year are thinking of setting up a design collective in Dundee when they finish, so Eilidh’s question may indeed have been “do we need to move to the capital?” If it was, then I’m glad I didn’t take Eilidh’s question that way as my answer may have brought me under fire! Regional (and national) pride leads to some truly amazing high-energy developments, but I always think that it is most rewarding to try to work where the best in your profession are. Even if you don’t think you’ll ever be one of them it sure ups your game to be surrounded by them. Try this. Ask yourself which composers lived in Paris at the dawn of the twentieth century? You might answer Ravel, Fauré, Debussy, Satie, etc. Now ask yourself which composers lived in Lille at the dawn of the twentieth century?

As I mentioned I love watching panels where the panellists disagree. Friend and colleague Richard and I provided that. Richard answered that it didn’t really matter where you were, and talked about his experience working with us in Microsoft’s Cambridge lab while still living in Egham. He gets around this commuting nightmare by coming in two days a week and working from home the others. Because of Richard’s diligence and our working style (most visitors and team meetings are on Monday and Wednesdays) it works. But I think, especially for a design role, more face time would be better. Design is not just about prettier pixels (though Richard’s designs are elegant), it’s about a way of thinking about a problem, a way of solving it, and a way of documenting one’s solutions. I think we’d benefit if more of the design way of work bled into the other disciplines represented on Richard and my team. And that requires more face time.

But to wrap up I wanted to give Eilidh a straightforward place based answer. Bill suggested his institution (Goldsmiths) so I went for ITP in the Tisch School of Arts in New York. It’s an amazing place and combines inventive insights, creativity, and remarkably little ego politics. Inspirational.

(N.B. On the plane home, I wondered why Berlin hadn’t sprung to mind for any of us. When the wall came down there was a sense that Berlin would take over as a design or cultural capital for Europe, which doesn’t seem to have happened; or has it? There was a series on BBC Radio 3 recently to mark the anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall looking at exactly that – the cultural legacy. We also had Pat visit (he’s now Hasso Plattner Institute in Berlin/Potsdam) so perhaps there’s more to think through about Berlin’s changing role. I’ll save that for another post.)

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Richard pointed out another write-up of the same event by some of the Dundee students present: