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Design Council Issue 1 46/47

Magazine Winter 2006

one day all designers may be this shape

The T-shaped designer sounds like another hunk of

American business jargon but, says Rhymer Rigby, if
designers, educators and business leaders don’t pay
heed to it, the UK could lose a crucial competitive edge

In an age when management buzz words come and Jamie Hewlett, the award-winning designer of the
go so fast that by the time they have been run up the cartoon rock band Gorillaz, to Ralph Gilles, the
flagpole the world is already saluting something creative genius behind Chrysler’s über-saloon the
else, the idea of a T-shaped designer sounds like 300C, have often driven innovation and added
a jargonistic conceit. But there is a meaning behind financial value.
the mantra, as Lesley Morris, head of skills at the But the application of design thinking to an array
Design Council, explains: “The stem of the T is the of corporate and social problems does represent
depth of knowledge in their specialist subject while a cultural and educational challenge to British
the horizontal cap of the T represents the breadth – designers, to the system that educates designers and
their ability to make their method, skills and thinking to British industry. As Morris says, “The idea that
work in a different context.” design is a way of thinking about a problem and not
Like 97% of such buzz words, the T-shaped a purist skill hasn’t caught on in Britain as much as it
designer originated in America, where design has in the US.”
consultancies like IDEO and Jump have identified There is some concern among designers that this
a need for, in IDEO’s words, “specialists with a new breed of polymaths or hybrids will dilute what
passion and empathy for people and for other subject makes design distinctive. One man’s polymath is
areas.” The T motif taps into another of the hottest another’s jack of all trades and master of precious
management trends in America: design thinking or, little. “Some designers won’t want to broaden out,”
to put it another way, the use of design processes and says Morris, “they’ll be happier remaining in their
methods to foster innovation and grow businesses. specialism.” Jonathan Ive, the British designer
There is some debate about whether design behind the iPod, is of this school. The world of
thinking is simply an extension of traditional design MBAs and general management didn’t suit him.
skills or a new discipline. The best designers, from Yet this attitude hasn’t stopped him joining the
The Stanford view design thinking can help create What type of projects do you 48/49
George Kembel, executive an innovative culture. work on?
director of Stanford University’s Real-world messy problems
d. school, on why we need How do students learn? where solutions are not
a different way of learning. By doing. The students do obvious, such as lighting for
most of their work in developing countries or water
Why is the important? interdisciplinary teams, get out systems for rural farmers.
In the 21st century, it will be in the field, make observations
impossible to run innovative and iterate prototypes. Are there disagreements within
businesses without being Students are guided by the multidisciplinary groups?
more human-centred and industry executives and Yes – then the students must
prototype-driven. Universities, experts. We want students to decide what’s important and
businesses and countries are leave confident in their how to move forward. This
all hungry to figure out how to personal innovation process helps create future innovators
be more innovative and are and with greater empathy with who will be breakthrough
very receptive to the idea that different disciplines. thinkers and doers.
A snapshot of life at Stanford
University’s, where
design thinking is considered
the glue that binds multiple
disciplines together. This

In the specialism of design, our schools are probably better than America’s… But
approach has begun to find
favour in the UK

they’re better at the broader picture where design thinking fits into innovation
Apple board as senior vice president of product. The report, from Sir George Cox, chairman of the about being sympathetic and sensitive to the needs
But design thinking – and the idea of the Design Council, proposed a network of regional of those who work in them.”
T-shaped designer – has led some American business centres of excellence that offer multidisciplinary In IDEO’s view, vertical specialist depth was
schools to broaden their curriculum, some American courses combining management studies, engineering acquired at undergraduate level while the horizontal
design schools to change their approach and even and technology with design and the creative arts. The understanding of other disciplines and professional
inspired b-schools and d-schools to collaborate. The word ‘centres’ conjures up images of actual buildings contexts could often be developed in a post-graduate,
French business school INSEAD is now allied with but, Morris says, “they could vary from new types of masters-style course or through early experience in
the Pasadena design college, Art Center. Design courses – possibly in design or design management – the workplace.

Lesley Morris, head of skills, Design Council

thinking has begun to influence design education in to creating virtual or physical centres that use Martin Binks, professor of entrepreneurial
some of the UK’s EU rivals, with design academies in multidisciplinarity as a driver of innovation.” development and director of the Institute for
Eindhoven and Helsinki pioneering this approach. To make sure that Britain was up to date with the Enterprise and Innovation at Nottingham University,
This poses something of a dilemma for the UK best practice in multidisciplinary education and favours a model where “design becomes part of what
because – and let’s have no false modesty here – when assess how relevant and adaptable these models were you’re working on,” which, he says, gets students out
it comes to the quality of design education Britain is to the UK, Morris led a fact-finding delegation of staff of their comfort zone and allows the transfer of tacit
a world leader. Equally, complacency isn’t an option – from UK design and business schools to America in knowledge, so you get something akin to the Stanford
note the use of the word ‘still’. The trouble with being September 2006. On their five-day trip the delegation approach but in three dimensions.
near the top of the pile at anything is that, if you sit visited Stanford University’s well-known “The basic part is that tacit knowledge is a three-
back, there’s only one way to go. Britain has a proud (led by David Kelley, the co-founder of IDEO), the dimensional activity and that’s where the future lies.
and productive tradition of producing design purists – Illinois Institute of Technology’s Institute of Design The focus is on trying to do that on a larger scale.
people who are great at design, wonderful craft-based in Chicago and the Massachusetts Institute of Entrepreneurship is very close to creative design.”
solo specialists. Technology, all of which have successfully combined The danger, he admits, is that multidisciplinarianism
British designers are among the world’s most design and business. can be taken too far. “Some American courses try to
famous. Apart from Ive, the most famous include So what did they learn? For some, the spectre give you both an MBA and a full design qualification.”
IDEO’s president Tim Brown and Ford’s head of of gifted designers being turned into mediocre John Miller, director of design at University
design, Peter Horbury. All three now work in T-shaped hybrids receded. Professor Penny Sparke, College Falmouth, believes that the UK has always
America, a fact that has caused some patriotic pro-vice-chancellor (arts) at Kingston University, was produced skilled collaborators. But he does concede
agitation. But their Atlantic crossing seems as convinced that the UK should learn from what the that places like Stanford do a better job of
inevitable as Michelangelo’s move to Rome, once he delegation saw at Stanford’s, which takes communicating this through such concepts as their
had decided he wanted a chapel ceiling to paint. students from the university’s other masters T-shaped people. The Institute of Design in Chicago
Strong as the system that trained them is, this doesn’t programmes. “We need to introduce a much more has deliberately set out to ‘demystify’ design to bring
Lessons from America: Apple’s
obscure the fact that, says Morris, “the Americans are multidisciplinary approach in design schools. In it into mainstream business practice. Jonathan Ive, top, thinks
better at the broader picture where design and design Stanford’s, design isn’t a single discipline. The failure of communication, Miller believes, designers should be designers,
thought fit into innovation.” We need to train specialists, but we need to teach may even extend to the graduates themselves. while David Kelley, IDEO co-
founder, believes in combining
Strengthening the link between design and them to have their feelers out. It isn’t necessarily “Designers need to learn to speak a different language design and business at
innovation was at the heart of last year’s Cox Review. about training people in all disciplines. It’s more which is neither design-speak nor the sort of Stanford University’s
Changing spaces type of accommodation at the 50/51
One of the less expected schools and agencies visited
themes that recurred strongly affected the process
throughout the UK educators’ of innovation. The,
fact-finding mission to the US which moves to a new building
was space. in 2009, is planning to
incorporate sofas, coffee
In essence, educators and tables, large tables, common
designers felt that having the areas, flexible spaces (walls on
right space – the kind of wheels) and breakout spaces.
informal area that has made
Starbucks increasingly popular Collaborative, non-territorial
with American teenagers – was space is easier to legislate for
key to creativity. For James in a land as vast as the US but
More, dean of design at it’s a lesson British educators
Northumbria University, the would do well to heed.

Creative thinking in action at

the Illinois Institute of Design.
But is British business ready to
welcome a generation of
design thinkers, as opposed to
of what you’re working on. Entrepreneurship is very close to creative design technical purists?
We need multidisciplinary environments where design becomes part

consultancy-speak coming out of Stanford or the IIT’s multinationals have such deep pockets and business notably the ambitious redevelopment of
Institute of Design.” Miller agrees with the Cox culture is more inward-looking and secretive. Northumbria University – are steps in the direction
Review that designers need to interact with businesses In Britain, where the Design Council’s research that Cox outlined. At the same time, the Design
of all sizes. “Our graduates need to be able to go into suggests that eight out of ten businesses don’t see Council is reviewing basic design education to
companies with 50 or 100 employees, understand design as a strategic advantage, design thinking is examine how that too needs to change.
their needs and show how design can address them.” almost as much of a challenge to business as it is to Looking at design education as a whole – at school
Martin Binks, professor, Nottingham University

Professor Clare Johnston, head of the textile designers. Many business executives might agree and further and higher education level – Morris says,
department at the Royal College of Art, admits: with the US design agency who said that watching “We don’t have the option of maintaining the status
“There’s still something of a problem with how designers give business advice was like “watching quo.” Johnston believes that the UK must not lose
business and design interact. Rather than being seen a cat bark”. The irony here is that IDEO’s Tim the depth for which it is world-renowned – just add
as a craft, it needs to be seen as part of the division of Brown, the poster boy for design thinking, learned his the breadth offered by rivals. The specialisation of
labour. At the moment, design seems to see itself just craft in the British design education system. But his British designers is a global draw. That’s why so many
in terms of creativity. We need to take it one step gospel is yet to spread through British boardrooms. young designers come from overseas to study here.
further without taking the pizzazz out of it.” The obvious danger here is that, even if Britain did Johnston says: “The quality of what we offer explains
The intricate way higher education and business groom thousands of Brownalikes, they would, like why some businesses are almost obsessive about
are entwined in America may, to some extent, be a Brown, have to cross the Atlantic to make their mark. hunting for UK graduates.”
cultural thing. An MBA is a prerequisite for many jobs If design thinking is really going to sharpen But after touring the US, Johnston thinks there is
in the US in a way that it still isn’t in the UK. America Britain’s competitive edge, T-shaped designers have one lesson that British educators need to heed. “One
is blessed with a large number of multinationals and to find kindred spirits in T-shaped business people. In of the things that struck us is the extraordinary
wealthy individuals with the means and the will to an economy where, according to a survey by the Work confidence they have in the system and the amazing
sponsor schools and universities. The scale of Foundation, 57% of employees think their bosses PR and gloss.” This is not, she says, intended as
sponsorship is so vast and continuous that some lack vision (and where even the Chartered Institute a criticism: it is simply an observation that the
programme leaders actually refer to their industrial of Personnel and Development concluded, this year, traditional British approach of dissembling, blushing
sponsors as their ‘clients’ and their students as their that British firms were hampered in the global market and trying above all not to draw attention to yourself
‘product’. For Miller, such sponsorship is not the main by a dearth of effective leaders), finding business may not be the best way to do business in a global
aim of collaboration but he does admit, “We need to leaders who can see beyond their vertical strength in economy where others are perfectly happy to shout.
be smarter about attracting this sort of funding.” manipulating Excel spreadsheets might prove more Ultimately, the driving force behind the need for
The absence of such strong links in the UK isn’t problematic than in the US. change is the global economy, especially the massive
necessarily the fault of designers or their educators. British business will soon be put to the test. The investments in design now being made by China,
Best of British: Jamie Hewlett, The MIT Media Lab has an intriguing sponsorship Higher Education Funding Council for England is India and Korea. But, as educators in China and India
who designed Gorillaz (top),
and Burberry’s Christopher model. Companies donate around £100,000 as part of currently studying proposals from various parties to privately admit, too many of their young designers are
Bailey have scooped up an industrial consortium sharing intellectual property fund varying kinds of centres of excellence. “Some of taught to ask how and not why. The ability of British
awards and, unlike such and have access to the MediaLab’s pool of talent. what Cox stipulated is already happening,” says designers to ask why – and for that question to be
compatriots as Tim Brown and
Jonathan Ive, have not had to Innovative as the MIT model may be, the institute Sparke. “We’re seeing the Royal College of Art heard in a broad business context – could prove
leave the UK to prosper has found it harder in Europe, where fewer linking up with Imperial College.” Other projects – a serious competitive advantage.