Explaining Designer Innovators: The Specialism of the Generalist

By: Professor Andrew Walters Date: 13/06/2017

Last week I had the great pleasure of working in Greece with design aware colleagues from all across Europe as part of our EU funded project Design4Innovation. The task at hand was to work closely with government innovation teams to uncover how they can further support small companies to better use design. The challenges discovered might be as expected, and amongst others included: do the rules allow the funding of design?; can companies discover appropriate support?; is the bureaucracy worth the reward?; and, can innovation teams communicate the broad value and impact of a design approach?

This last point, I think, is worthy of further discussion. On our second day of meetings in sunny Thessaloniki we visited the Centre for Research and Technology, Hellas (CERTH). It’s an impressive research institute undertaking some fantastic (and globally recognised) engineering and technology research projects. They focus especially on applied research to solve real-world problems. Following a presentation on the work of the Centre, a discussion ensued on what role design might play in future projects. CERTH gave examples of projects they’d undertaken, and myself and the rest of the gang responded with how a design approach might have assisted. It was a good debate, with many details and aspects of the design process described. However, as we left, a design colleague (a very senior figure in international design support) turned to me and said ‘I just don’t think he got it.’ We chatted further, in the air-conditioned bus as we made our way back to the centre of town, about how often highly intelligent leaders in industry and academia simply don’t get design – I think we almost convinced ourselves that it’s their fault!

On the walk between the bus and the hotel, the sea breeze providing slight relief from the dart-like sun rays attempting to melt my wimpy northern European skin, I reflected on the afternoon’s discussion. Why had I failed to be convincing in demonstrating the benefits of a discipline I am so passionate about? It struck me here that we talked in different terms – he gave examples of specific technology driven projects, we responded with general advice on understanding the user; he spoke of experts who’d dedicated their lives to narrow fields, we responded with wild claims of applicability to any project. OK, so we don’t think they are wild claims, but is that because we understand that our value is in the process, being comfortable with uncertainty, naïve enough to ask the daft questions, and open enough to bring in new experts. In projects we’re proud to be first proxy and then mediator to the end-user and other stakeholders, yet unwedded to any preconceived outcome (and rebellious to those that divert from a real user need). Following this reflection, next time I speak to a recognised technology leader I hope to better articulate the real impact projects might achieve if designers are included. But, coming back to my earlier point, if I, with 20 years’ experience in design sometimes fail to sell the value of design, how are government intermediaries with a suite of business support options to choose from meant to identify when to point companies to a design solution. This trip to Greece, with forward thinking managing authorities from Malta, Spain, Poland, Belgium, Latvia, Greece and the UK, shows that we do have our supporters in the civil services, but there is still a steep hill ahead for us to climb.