Thoughts on a ‘Responsive State’

The Design Council hosted an event on Tuesday in anticipation of the release of their European Commission-funded report ‘Design for Public Good’ that brought together designers, policy thought leaders, civil servants and leaders from other areas of the public sector including the NHS and local government to hear about some great examples of governments using design and also discuss how to meet some of the challenges to moving forwards. The themes that loomed large in discussion were partly similar to those which always arise when people talk about how government should change the way it does things: how do we evaluate it to show whether it’s working? How do we combat risk aversion and how do we get buy-in and commitment from both the senior leadership and the frontline? Nothing too big then.

There were some very perceptive responses to these questions, but I can’t possibly do them justice here – or at least, not right now (tantalising taste of blog posts to come). Instead here are a few more isolated points I took from the morning:

Design is not the answer

At least, not on its own. Anne Dorthe Josiassen, Chief Design Officer at the Danish Design Centre, said that the aim in government should be to get design, science, technology and policy working together to tackle specific societal challenges. This might sound obvious but I think the design industry should say so more loudly and more often. I get some funny looks from people when I talk about design and public services and I sometimes wonder whether my listener is imagining health commissioning boards and all party groups people entirely by Apple-branded Central St Martins graduates wearing architectural knitwear.

Our track record

It might sooth such fears to point out, as Ben Terrett of the Government Digital Service did, that our state has many great design credits to its name already. He gave the London sewer system, the tube map and the Olympic cauldron as examples. Maybe part of the work of the design industry now is to change perceptions on what they are trying to achieve away from being a radical, high-risk revolution and towards being a continuation of our grand tradition.

The word

‘Challenges’ came up a lot. I found this encouraging because right now what I’m hoping to do with my project on procurement is introduce a new starting point for procurement focussed more on rewarding providers for addressing problems rather than meeting orders or achieving outcomes. I think that this is an approach that should be applied only to certain areas of public spending and procurement. I’m not really envisaging offering rewards to people who can meet the challenge presented by a local authority’s dwindling supply of pens. But the answer I think lies in diversifying the approaches taken to procurement so that when looking at big, complex problems like our energy future and the ageing population, the public sector has more ways of identifying and paying for solution than filling out a glorified stationery order.

Bonfire of the research reports

Ben Terrett boldly told a roomful of people gathered to recognise the release of a new report that there’s actually already far too much being written and not enough being done. GDS wrote their strategy after they’d delivered their first year’s programme of work. It’s a great point to make specifically relating to design, it being all about learning by making and doing, not reading and writing, after all. Good design is at its most compelling when you touch it and experience it for yourself, rather than read a report about it. I also wonder whether the whole question of evaluating social design is a fool’s game because, whilst evaluation reports are great for proving or disproving a political theory, good design often defies the application of any general theory because it responds so sensitively to its particular environment.


What the giga?

Look at this. How awesome?

Giga-mapping is a term I only recently came across. But I like the way it expresses the spirit of soft systems mapping. ‘Giga’ acknowledges the tech heritage of systems approaches but also the vast unknowability of systems involving humans. On the other hand, you could just say it’s an unnecessarily wacky way of saying ‘big messy map of a big messy thing.’

A giga-map is an endearing way of throwing a heap of information onto a page. Hugh Dubberly makes ‘concept maps’. I haven’t looked closely enough to decide whether there is a substantive difference. But I appreciate any example of this kind of communication as I need as many routes as possible out of my comfort zone of writing a twenty-pager on a given topic by way of comprehensive explanation.

I was speaking this week with a colleague about the prospect of redesigning the emergency fire response service to recognise the consistent decrease in instances of fire of past decades. So it was serendipitous to then come across this giga-map created to visualise the landscape of fire safety.



The purpose was slightly different here as the design company behind the map were aiming to create new fire safety products, rather than services. But still, in my enthusiasm I showed it to my colleague straight away. Look! This design thing I keep yapping on about can make cool things addressing the very problems we are trying address here too!

But his response was muted, to say the least. And as the hypnotic effect on me of this shiny new thing faded I began to sympathise. Look at it again. What does it tell you? To take any element in isolation is as enlightening as reading a sentence at random from the twelfth page of a twenty page report. But to look at the whole thing you have to stand so far away that you can’t read anything. I can see how this enigmatic characteristic fits well within a soft systems approach. But still, what does it tell you?

Reading around a bit on giga-mapping – to whit, this paper – helped. It seems that I’ve been too far inculcated by the infographic movement (and Liechtenstein) to believe that the purpose of a graphic is to say something precise and insightful loudly and often provocatively.

“GIGA-maps are process tools, aimed at helping the designer to reach a more inclusive and holistic conception of the task. They will only have communicative value in their final form. They are only fully understood by the people who create them. They are participatory and creative devices.”

I stand corrected.

It’s good to talk : the small print



Today I presented as concrete a proposal as we can hope for to the Master of Design group, and listened to, without exception, fascinating presentations from everyone else. Each one provoked discussion about the purpose of the projects, whether they were clearly enough defined, whether the scope was realistic and whether the methodologies and approaches were appropriate. There was also a good deal of communal whinging about how hard it is to know when to stop being broad and horizon scanning and when to zone in on a topic (I’ve written about my own mental tussles with this already).

However I think the main source of frustration for us was being challenged on points to which we had already thought through an answer, but which we had not addressed clearly in the presentation. For me this has been a constant through the MDes so far; I spend a lot of time thinking through the problems, doing research, analysing the research and so on and so on. Then I spend half an hour the night before the seminar knocking together six slides, which serve very little function further than assuring all present that I have been ‘doing things’. 

The fear of looking like a lazy good-for-nothing is greater than the fear of being comprehensively misunderstood. So I resolve to be much less of a lazy good-for-nothing in planning my communications for the benefit of my audiences as this project continues.

Research methods – why, how, why?

I presented my first go at an Action Plan to the group last week and although the clarity of the message on my slides possibly suffered from being put together pretty late last night, I felt by the end of the feedback and discussion with the rest of the group I had quite a good idea of what I am aiming at. After some persistent challenging from Sheila I realised that my plan to get more familiar with the subject of my research before narrowing in on a more focussed research question, which seemed like common sense when I wrote it down, was actually the product of exactly the kind of thinking that I have been trying to avoid. It is the antithesis of design thinking, of Agile development, of rapid prototyping, of any kind of iterative process. It’s waiting and waiting until the very end to produce something and then expecting that thing to be perfect. It assumes we’re dealing with complicated, but not complex systems (see Nesta’s report on Systems Innovation). Basically, it’s old school.

It was when I realised the importance of having not just a research question but also a hypothesis that everything fell into place. Like with prototyping, it doesn’t matter if the hypothesis is not right – in fact it’s probably better. Discovering that something is wrong gives you the opportunity to ask why and to learn more about what you’re trying to develop. This revelation then helped me to make sense of the research methods described in Real World Research by Colin Robson. It gives a basic outline of different research methods that can be used to study real world situations, including interviewing, observation and surveys. For each methods it describes subcategories as well as when these are appropriate, what activities they comprise, options for conducting them and advantages and disadvantages associated.

I’ve been really interested in these kinds of research techniques for some time, but never had an opportunity to use them. All the time I’ve wondered how it is that you can use observation and interviewing, which can come in various forms ranging widely in how structured they are, to produce evidence that is any more than a systematic kind of social value judgment. Once you have asked your questions and made all your notes on the various behaviours, then what? You can’t just take each sentence or action, or even pattern of actions, in turn and analyse all their various possible meanings in the hope of getting closer to some kind of insight or truth. But when I read Robson’s process of analytic induction, things started to fall into place:


This is yet another type of iterative development process! Pick a hypothesis, any hypothesis, and in doing so give your data something to fight against. Ask of that hypothesis, what does true look like?  If the data looks different then keep refining and gathering more data until you the truth of the data matches the truth of the hypothesis.

GOV.UK Design Principles… interesting reading, and getting me super excited for working with them!

On nondesigners.

Object Thinking

The extent to which members of the public not trained in design should be involved in the design process has become something of a hot topic over the past few years. Before the emergence of user-centred design, except for consulting market research reports or focus groups, designers were largely left alone to channel their predictions of the public’s desires and behaviour into their creations. Today in many areas of design and architecture, seeking the opinions of the public, and even designing with them, is now considered good practice. Global design consultancies such as IDEO expound the virtues of the designer acting as a facilitator, working in teams with non-designer stakeholders. Commentators such as We-Think author Charles Leadbeater encourage businesses to give up secretive in-house product development in favour of open source methods that make use of the creativity of “professional-amateurs”. Co-Design has become a business model, both for companies selling…

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A bunch of amateurs


A theme that has been common throughout all of the remembrances and obituaries to Sir Patrick Moore, who died on Sunday, is a universal respect for his great achievements within the realms of primarily astronomy, but also music and literature, all of which he achieved despite being an amateur. 

The Guardian described Sir Patrick as ‘an amateur but distinguished astronomer,’ the BBC points out that he ‘described himself as an amateur’, whilst the Independent pointed out, possibly unnecessarily, that he was for most of his lifetime, ‘Britain’s most recognisable amateur astronomer.’

But what is it that people, including the man himself, saw so clearly amateurish about him? Amateurism has many meanings. In sport when we say ‘amateur’ we mean someone who is not paid to play. But this could hardly be applied to Patrick Moore. In his case the label we can infer that the label was due to the fact that he practised his astronomy outside of the scientific establishment. He never received a degree that wasn’t honorary. The Royal Society refused to elect him as a Fellow, despite having written what was widely regarded to be the best standard reference book on astronomy (, 2012).

Whilst thinking about this I couldn’t help but recall the words of Charles Leadbeater at a recent talk hosted by Central St Martins and organised by Social Design Talks, which came with the tagline ‘social design for the other 90%’. In response to Steven Johnson of Collaborative Change, Leadbeater spoke with passion about the importance of grassroots design across the world’s emerging economies. The most important design is currently being done by nondesigners – people who would, like Patrick Moore, not identify with a professional label.

What is the purpose of such a distinction though? My instinct is that there are important roles for both amateurs and professionals in the field of design. Whilst the Fellows of the Royal Society and others high up the academic echelons of astronomy do vital heavy-lifting intellectually, I’m sure very few of them could tantalise a television audience in quite the way that Sir Patrick’s comparison of a solar eclipse to a Spanish taxi driver did.

I think it’s the same for design. Formally-trained designers can focus their expertise on complex and system problems and structured projects, whilst the grassroots designers generate new products and services that inspire others with their spontaneity and particular insight, just like Sir Patrick and his Spanish taxi drivers.