Tooling Up the Layman

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 research insights and as a means of enabling the public to have a more direct impact upon the look of the products they buy.

The notion that “everyone is a designer” is being heard with ever-greater frequency. It is the essence of the RSA’s new Design and Society agenda, launched recently with the mantra “You know more than you think you do”. It’s author, Design Director Emily Campbell, describes the profession of design as “common resourcefulness refined by a technical education” and believes “Design can re-awaken citizens’ own resourcefulness”. The programme of projects aims to transfer knowledge currently the preserve of designers, to the public, on the understanding that it will give them the tools to become better citizens. As well as targeting the school curriculum and the public at large, designers are being encouraged to make explicit the often-implicit social role of their work. Design that creates behavioural change (to some, a euphemism for social engineering) is given centre stage.

Fig.1 Adhocism - The Case for Improvisation by Charles Jencks and Nathan Silver

In parts, Design and Society is reminiscent of sentiments expressed in Charles Jencks and Nathan Silver’s 1973 book Adhocism – The Case for Improvisation (fig. 1), which, with a hint of anarchy, states “a new mode of direct action is emerging…where everyone can create their own environment out of impersonal subsystems. [Adhocism] cuts through the usual delays caused by specialization, bureaucracy and hierarchical organisation.”

Important though these developments are, one wonders where this leaves the professional designer working at the sharp end of defining the final outcome of our products and buildings. With the public encouraged to become designers, and designers encouraged to become politically active managers, the flair and talent for creating the physical, that has been the traditional currency of the designer, appears to be losing its shine.

The furore over Design Council project manager Hilary Cottam winning the 2005 Designer of the Year award (akin, as furniture designer Jane Dillon put it, to “giving the gold medal to the coach”) revealed that plenty of designers were stung by the encroachment of management upon territory conventionally reserved for celebrating the craft of the profession. The baying crowd of “real designers” hardly helped their cause by their vitriolic attacks on Cottam (for allegedly taking credit for the authorship of the design work in the projects she’d managed), bringing their motives into question and perpetuating the stereotype that designers are only interested in stamping their signature on all and sundry. In the cacophony of accusations, the form-givers missed their opportunity to state eloquently what their work brings to the public.

Yet expecting those whose gift is manifested primarily in visual (rather than written) language to win a war of words is unfair. Regardless of the worthiness of a project, there is social and cultural value in having it physically shaped – “designed” in the traditional meaning of the word – by someone able to make intuitive decisions about the power of forms, who has a sensitivity towards materials and can bring about a result that has an immediate resonance with the viewer that comes before rational interpretation i.e. to create beauty. These are not skills found in everyone – and some cannot be taught.

With the upcoming launch of a company whose on-line software allows customers to “drive” rapid manufacturing technology without any specialist training, enabling them to order products they have “designed” themselves, professional form-givers may sense an attack from another flank. Digital Forming is a consortium of four partners who have developed a platform for the mass-customisation of “designed lifestyle products”. Demonstrated recently at The Science Museum, the experience promises far more than it delivers. Members of the public choose a product (options on show were a pen, a lamp (fig. 2), a lemon squeezer or a pair of sunglasses), which is presented to them on-screen as a 3D model along with a handful of sliders. Moving each slider changes a pre-set parameter and morphs the model, making it more faceted, smoother, lumpier etc. When satisfied with the result the customer can order their creation to be rapid-manufactured (a luscious misnomer in this context, being as it is, extremely time-consuming when compared to serial production processes) and posted to them.

Fig. 2 Lamps from Digital Forming

The noble cause of providing people with objects they have a personal attachment towards has been diminished by the restrictions placed upon the user. In the name of ensuring they cannot modify the object so as to render it “useless” the extent to which they can “design” it is limited. It has already been designed. The user is simply choosing from among the many possible combinations of slider positions dictated by the team.

The aim of tooling up the layman should be to enable them to come up with ideas that challenge the conventional wisdom of the professional. The results may not be pretty to the trained eye and may be inappropriate in many contexts, but naivety holds the latent possibility of overturning blind convention to reveal the sublime. A system that limits the layman’s options to those pre-conceived by the professional renders itself impotent, not to say boring.

There has been much hype about the future of home 3D printing, but it no more makes product designers out of us all than sewing machines made us fashion designers, blogging made us journalists or desk-top publishing made us graphic designers. If those examples are anything to go by it will actually increase the awareness among amateurs of the skills of the professional.

So designers need not feel threatened by the tooling up of the layman, either with design thinking or access to new ways of making. Both should be welcomed. But in the excitement we should recognise that there is still a place for the professional designer, both at the boardroom table and at the drawing board. Doing so will help us not to lose sight of what constitutes quality in the tangible outcomes of this ever more nebulous process we call design.

First published in the October 2009 edition of Blueprint Magazine

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