The designer as synthesiser (Kevin McCullagh)
Jane Pavitt: Our final provocateur of the evening is Kevin, Kevin McCullagh, who is director of the product strategy consultancy plan, and formerly a director of Foresight at Seymour Powell. His clients have included Ford, HP, Nokia, Orange, and so on. He' s a regular writer and broadcaster and speaker on design technology in society as well. Oh, and he' s written about the design synthesiser.
Kevin McCullagh: Which might be the same as catalyst? Hi, everyone. Okay, so this, I think this debate has been framed and between two polar opposites; kind of on one side the humble facilitator of co-creation, mass collaboration, collective innovation, or collovation as I heard it called recently; and on the other side the genius, the individual genius, the creative genius. And I think if I' m going to be provocative, I' m going to have to say a plague on both your houses. I' m not going to buy into that for a few minutes anyway. And I say that from a kind of some familiarity with both perspectives that back in the 80s when I was at college I secretly saw myself as a budding Philip Stark who dreamed of having his kind of aesthetic tour de forces published in double page spreads in Blueprint. And that was very 80s of me really. And then in the 90s, you know, left college, recession, but wised up about the complex ways of the world, and I got very much into situating design in context, so understanding the social, economic, technological, cultural drivers of design. And hell, I even taught a course on it for a while. But in practice, that basically meant working on design and understanding perspectives of, and the language of, engineers, marketeers, product planners, and what have you.
Moving on to the noughties in a more sort of strategic context, more stakeholders enter the tent, so it' s now the brand guardian agency, the user, the consumer; they' re all invited into the tent. So gradually, basically, the workshop' s got bigger. More and more people are in the workshop. Workshops went from afternoons to two or three days, and it all got a little bit dispiriting to be honest, because the bigger the workshops got, the longer the process got, the more people entered the tent and learnt the lingo of innovation, the less innovative the design got, and the actual outputs became more and more generic and need-to and soulless. And then I also kind of had a revelation a few years ago where I realised I was missing the point. The quality of the design was no longer the main objective. The primary objective was engagement; it was engaging the public, it was engaging the different silos of the company. It was all about… the process was the end in itself, everyone feeling good about being involved and all the rest of it. And meanwhile, the actual end products were becoming more and more insipid.
So to kind of sum up on these two poles, I think the individual genius is a myth. Design… apart from if you' re talking about pots of chairs, I think in general, design is, and for a long time, has been a collaborative process. It' s a social collaborative process. But then if you talk about everyone being invited to the tent, and design is just one equal partner with the consumer and the logistics manager, or whoever else has been invited to the workshop, I think that' s just plain disingenuous, because design talent is distributed very unevenly. Most people are crap at design, including lots of people with design degrees I have to say. But basically, we need to probably define our terms a little bit because, of course, we' re all designers. Everything to misquote Goethe, everything that is not nature is design. Designing purposefully, planning and solving problems is what makes achievement. But pension plans are designed, scientific experiments are designed, so I don' t think that' s what we' re going to talk about. I think what we' re here to talk about is design in a visual cultural context that I think I' m paraphrasing Chris Frayling and Ron Arad here, but it works for me. So I think that' s what we' re talking about, and I think before people start mentioning Linux or Wikipedia, software design is different. It can' t be scaled out to the design we’ re talking about, and so I think individual talent has still got a very, very important part to play.
Now just to be a bit more measured for a second, I think that there is… there are obviously many futures for design, and I think there' s a very bright future for the star egos. There' s kind of a whole niche market opened up on the back of the art boom for those one-off pieces that sell through galleries and will only ever be seen once they' re sold in the gallery in penthouse apartments, and I think that' s probably a very valid part of design for the V& A to track, because people can' t buy that kind of stuff in department stores, or Scandia, or what have you.
So there' s a bright future there, and because design is now a top table issue, both in business and in the public sector, lots of people want to be involved, and there' s going to be plenty of work for the facilitators as well. So I think there' s money on both ends of the spectrum. I' m just going to get to the part of the spectrum that I' m interested in now which I' m going to call designer as synthesiser with attitude. And basically, just to give you an idea about where I' m coming from, I' m with a strategy agency and work very much for the private sector, so there' s obviously a part of the design world that I' m interested in. But what these private sector clients are increasingly asking us to do is basically take quite a lot of the spectrum in so that they' re asking us to definitely be multi-disciplinary, definitely understand what the engineers are saying, what the market segmentation is, what the consumer insights are, and very much respect the process, take part in a process. But they' re also expecting us to be really bothered about the aesthetic sensibilities, aesthetic craft, and having a very, very strong point of view. So they come to us as a point of synthesis if you like, and I think that' s kind of what was being talked about earlier with the catalyst.
And I think just to situate that in a wider discussion, I' ll give a plug to a book that was my favourite from last year which was Howard Gardiner' s Five Minds of the Future, and he basically argues that there are certain types of intelligence that are going to become more of a premium in the future, and other sorts of intelligence will be less important. So, for example, he talks about information recall was an important skill in the past, when you' ve got 24/7 access to Google, less important. But because you' ve got access to so much information, we need to filter it, make sense of it, synthesise it, it becomes more important, so the synthesising mind is one of his five minds for the future. So I guess what I' m kind of putting forward as one vision of a design of the future is a kind of synthesising design strategist who can knit together lots of different threads into a coherent whole whilst still staying in touch with the human behavioural elements, the sensitive experiential elements and the aesthetic craft if you like. So I' ve done my best to be provocative, but I' m basically falling somewhere in the middle, and I' m not quite sure what it means to what the V& A puts in its glass cabinets either.
Jane Pavitt: Thank you, Kevin.