Reading List – Design alone can’t save UK plc

[This is the first in a new series of posts from the folks here at Meld Studios.]

Janna sent round this article yesterday – Design alone can’t save UK plc – a cautionary tale of design determinism, arrogance and hubris. In it, author James Woudhuysen delivers a somewhat scathing attack on the arrogance of Design, and designers, looking specifically at the UK, but applicable more broadly.

A lifelong enthusiast for design, I believe that its current pretensions don’t do it any favours…

Woudhuysen takes issue with the pretension that Design is the only creative industry, a view he traces back to the years of the Blair government in Britain (late ’90s), and their implicit message that engineering and science are not creative. And certainly, during this period, British manufacturing (dominated by science and engineering types) was certainly lack-lustre. (It is, in my opinion, overly simplistic to blame the decline in British – and US – manufacturing on a failure of creativity. )

He sees “Design’s current bout of narcissism” as being fuelled by the success of Apple, and the clearly design-centric strategy they pursue. But he also sees some well-deserved optimism:

at the margins, as a differentiator – ‘the difference between customer satisfaction and customer delight’, according to Cridland [John Cridland, director general of the Confederation of British Industry] – design can be a profitable exercise.

However, it seems one success implies others that, in the mind of Woudhuysen, are less deserved…

Why can’t boosters of design be satisfied just with that? The answer lies in what Mandelson forgot in his aphorism about rebalancing. Both New Labour and the Lib-Con coalition want not just more plain engineering, but more social engineering, too. As a result, ministers love to talk up service design, especially the design of public services. In these sectors, designers are exploited in ways that try to legitimate government, cut costs and put some clothes on David Cameron’s notoriously vague ‘Big Society’…

…The UK government hopes that, with hip haircuts and Post-It note brainstorms, designers can give its plans credibility. To get people to ‘make informed choices’ around carbon footprints, saving water and community participation, the state flatters design.

This portrayal of Design and designers is illustrative of a credibility problem we have as an industry. The message has not yet gotten through that design is not just how things look, or even that vague cliche ‘easy to use’. Design is more than ‘how it works’, too. At it’s most strategic, Design can inform ‘what it is’.

But the salutary lesson from this portrayal is a reminder that, whatever the endeavour in which designers operate, they tend to succeed best when surrounded by, and working closely with, a diverse group of collaborators – the engineers and scientists. Designers who acknowledge this contribution from their colleagues with humility and respect will achieve much more – will be afforded a much greater opportunity to succeed, than those for whom arrogance and hubris dominate.

Whilst I do not completely agree with the author’s characterisation of Design or designers, the reminder is well-taken, and the caution is well-timed.

  • Janna DeVylder

    July 5, 2012 at 10:40 am Reply

    Another thing I’d question about Woudhuysen’s stance is the suggestion that R&D is not a space where Design plays. I’d argue that if Design has no place in an organisation’s business-as-usual functioning it should absolutely be in place within R&D. Not sure why he drew the line there.

    Otherwise- agree that we will undermine our efforts and will sound naive in thinking Design alone is the panacea.

  • Steve

    July 5, 2012 at 1:06 pm Reply

    Agreed. You don’t have to go far to find examples of companies using design – and design research – to inform and direct research and development efforts within more traditional engineering- and science-based manufacturing/production environments.

    Intel springs to mind as a good example, through the work of the Interaction and Experience Research Lab under Genevieve Bell.

    The alternative approach – one decried recently by Jon Kolko in his article: Heart of darkness ( – in which technology is developed and released as almost an end in itself. These become the technologies in search of meaning that litter the fringes of industry, and the warehouses of manufacturers.

    Design per se is not the silver bullet, but I think the author is over-reacting to the ‘narcissism’ of design.

  • James Woudhuysen

    July 30, 2012 at 9:51 pm Reply

    An excellent and balanced account, Steve. And Janna, I fully agree that R&D IS a space where Design plays – though I’d like to hear more about that! In fact, the article only drew the line between design and R&D in that the latter can creates millions of jobs, not the former.

    Steve, you say “you don’t have to go far” to find examples of design informing and directing research, but the BIG POTATOES workgroup on Design could really use some of yours. I do take your point, though: when I worked at Philips, Design was loved by the scientists and hated by the marketing and market research people….

    At one level, of course, there is or should be no dichotomy between science and design. But given how many designers have been truly narcissistic, unlike scientists, ever since they were sanctified by TB’s Cool Britannia, I don’t believe this author is, er, over-reacting….

    Today I tweeted @jameswoudhuysen, quoting Thomas Heatherwick: “At the root of what we do is rationality. Finding a design solution is like solving a crime… We analyse.” How often do we now hear something different from “Me-me-me” from designers, the people I’ve known and loved for 40 years? The fault of narcissism is not of their making… but the often furious and deeply personal reactions to the article, some of them from longstanding friends, doth protest too much.

  • Steve

    August 1, 2012 at 9:56 am Reply


    Thank you for the reply. Two examples for me that sprang to mind when reading your article were Intel and Nokia. Both have well-established social and design research practices, coupled with Design labs that in turn inform technology R&D. Your example of Philips is another good one, I believe – but I am less familiar with the dynamic between design & science at that company.

    I guess the crux for me is that invention & innovation can come about in a number of ways, and part of that realisation is in the identification of meaning (for consumers), opportunity, and vision. I believe Design has an important role to play in that space, informing the direction of technological research. I would also argue that service innovation is less dependent on technological progress, and is therefore more ripe for Design’s input. In that space, Design has the potential to create millions of jobs…

    But potential is not reality, and until Design – and designers – deliver on that potential, it probably behooves us to tone down the rhetoric and narcissism. That said, programs like New Zealand’s Better By Design are doing just exactly that, embedding design practice into NZ manufacturing, and helping to create that difference. In Australia we’re seeing similar programs (at a State level) in South Australia, Queensland, New South Wales and Victoria (to varying levels of effort).

    Thanks again

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