Professor Robert Young


We conducted an interview with Professor Robert Young in February 2012. Below is the excerpt of the interview.

Professor Robert Young is Chair in Design Practice, Head of the Innovate Academic Community and the Director for the Centre for Design Research in the School of Design, Northumbria University where he has directed research activities since 1991. He originally trained as an Industrial Designer.  Before taking up a full time academic appointment in 1984 he worked with the furniture and engineering manufacturing industries, as a design researcher with the Home Office and emergency services. He studied for his PhD in design methods for complex systems design through the CNAA and York University Institute of Advanced Architectural Studies whilst working as a consultant designer and lecturer. His research and consultancy interests involve; exploring the future of design practice, complex systems design, social innovation, service design theory and practice, design innovation and technology transfer to assist resilience in industry and action research in design practice including collaborative learning projects.

Briefly, please summarize what you do in your role and why you do it what you do.
I am the Professor of Design Practice at Northumbria University School of Design as well as the Head of the Innovate Academic Community of Practice. As Professor of Design Practice, my role is to develop research related to design practice. I would say that its one of the most important roles in the school, as the ethos of the school has always concerned the practice of design. In this sense, it differentiates from research and learning around design, where design is treated as an object of enquiry rather than a process and a practice of doing. That is a really important distinction for the School, something that the School has to be reminded about in order to understand its raison d’étre and key purpose. In terms of the Innovate Academic Community of Practice, the underlying theme is ‘Making Changes’ and this is interpreted as we use a variety of creative and innovative practices to effect changes in the world. Design is a subject concerned with making things happen, not just a theoretical or hypothetical discourse, but a sincere motivation to make the world a better place. Of course that leads us to a lot of qualifying questions – what do we mean by ‘change’, what do we mean by ‘better’? And that is really the subject of our research activities.

What gets you excited about design at the moment?
The thing that has always excited me about design is the creative oeuvre that lies at the heart of a designers practice. It’s that part of their DNA that is a fundamental aspect to their creativity. It gets them out of bed in the morning but drives them through the hardest project. I would refer to a paper by Davies and Talbot (titled ‘Experiencing ideas: identity, insight and the imago’) written 25 years ago, where they studied the nature of design and creativity and identified that there is something distinctive about the creative gene. That creativity is a natural form of adrenalin in designers, and one of the core things that drives them. For me, that aspect of creativity is not limited to products or artefacts, but pervades every aspect of life. It’s the kind of opportunity to work with people and introduce creative opportunities at every twist and turn.

Is the kind of creativity driving designers different from other types of creativity, for example in artists?
At its most fundamental level, the spark is the same. The difference between the two is the way that we address audiences. It’s in the translation of that spark through different processes for different audiences. Designers are very conscious that their role is in service of audiences; clients, commissioners and communities of practice etc. Whereas the fundamental role of the artist is to be the provocateur, the role of the artist as I see it is about making statements in order to provoke a response and perhaps the artistic creative act can be construed as a self referential and self-indulgent form of expression that may also be strongly linked to a like-minded community – a semiotic elite. I don’t think designers can afford that form of indulgence and leave their work merely as an aspect of provocation. There are some iconic designers that do that and there is undoubtedly a role for this approach. However whilst this approach might get people to think differently, it would never be the final output in the world of design that I inhabit where one’s work has to be embedded with the audience in order to create harmony with the people that you working with.

Creativity always gives me hope. It’s essentially humanity’s link with the divine. In my worldview, design connects you with divine opportunity and purpose. The relevance of creativity now is the same as the relevance that it has always had – it’s that fundamental capacity for humanity to make change in the world, to imagine an increasingly better construct for ourselves.

What are the current trends in design practices and what factors are driving these trends?
We have always rubbed shoulders with technology and latterly with other disciplines that bring technology to the market place and its interface with people. But technology on its own, for its own sake can be blind to social and cultural needs of people. It needs disciplines like design, fuelled by creative intent to translate its capacity. Design has embraced the digital world and that has had the emancipating benefit of exploring the interaction between different traditional design practices. Designers are increasingly moving across disciplines to confront the possibility of the new and this has refreshed the capacity of designers to work in ways that have a greater impact on society. The mediation of graphic and industrial design through to interaction and user-centred design, represents an increasing capacity to interface with the social and hard sciences in a way that maters – that generates new opportunities and has more relevance in contemporary society.

The opportunity of technological development itself is perhaps the main driver for change. We rarely see situations where artefacts are discrete, they have increasingly become parts of an evanescent, ubiquitous and interconnected system. Hence, designers have had to understand the complexity of these ‘things’ in relation to behaviour and systems that may have always been present in more discrete forms. Technology has enabled these things to come together in a more fluid way. Designers have had to become more knowledgeable to that fact and part of the process is to understand how to work with other disciplines and specialists. One of the more contemporary roles of design is to act as a mediating discipline across different branches of the social sciences and hard sciences, an ‘inter-discipline’, in a way that the reductionist approach of those disciplines might not allow. Whilst design may not be the exclusive discipline to play this role, it is a very important one due to its command of creativity and inherent opportunity to see patterns and interrelate problems with solutions. There is a kind of vitality and fierceness in design’s capacity to do this that a lot of the other disciplines lack. It comes back to the fundamental philosophy and purpose of those disciplines, which is primarily to understand the world, rather than change the world. Design is a way of ‘being’ as much as it is a way of ‘doing’.

Are these the same trends that will drive design education?
Design has to understand that its traditional evolved role in terms of artisan practices should no longer be the singular offering in design education
. This model still has an important role to play, as fundamental skills that we associate with design, creativity and making (referring back to the process of acquiring skills described by Richard Sennett in his book, ‘The Craftsman’). The challenge for design education is to take into account how it relates to other disciplines. There are massive challenges to address these issues – how people work and live together in an intense urban environment. Compared to our agrarian and hunter-gatherer society pasts, current issues and problems that we are encountering come about because we have to live in high density conurbation areas, revealing problems relating to these new kinds of living context. How do we provide people with the natural resources required?  How do we address the unique bond that people still want to have with their environment? Design education has to take its lead from how we contend with these issues. What this means for design education is that it can’t exist in isolation, purely as a process of art and design learning but must confront how designers work with other disciplines. The problem is – what to leave out in terms of the curriculum. Design education has always had concerns about what to put into its pot of learning, particularly traditional design skills like learning to see through drawing are time consuming. This aspect of learning through doing can’t suddenly be reduced and there is an acknowledged wisdom (according to Sennett) that an individual requires around 10,000 hours of practice to make him/her proficient. His argument is that until learning of basic skills is time-served, you don’t actually see the nature of the problem that you are dealing with because you don’t have the capacity to think beyond the act of learning to do.

I think we are at the point now where we seriously have to re-think the evolution of the design profession and the role of design in society. Design needs to equip itself much better in order to work with different walks of life. To do that, it needs to address the relationship between different types of knowledge. Between ‘know-how’ and ‘know-that’ (in reference to Nigel Cross’s book on Designerly Ways of Knowing),  between tacit, implicit and explicit forms of knowledge. We really don’t have that much credibility with other disciplines that are able to articulate their knowledge and skills more fluently– designers believe that if they are allowed to work on a problem, they can demonstrate value through their engagement in a project. This expectation is increasingly naïve, particularly so when the process of commissioning and establishing the brief or commission is discourse-based and based less on a portfolio review. Designers need to be articulate and confident in their capacity to explain the value that they can bring to a situation upfront. Therefore, one of the big challenges in design education is helping our students understand the competencies and values that they bring to these kinds of situation. They not only need to be taken through a process of introduction to identify the value that they bring, but also an appreciation of the knowledge and skill-base of other disciplines to help them understand how to interact with them. It’s about introducing them to generic knowledge that they can absorb in a way that allows them to have meaningful conversations with other specialists.

So to summarise; working out what is in the pot and what is out of the pot, working out the translation mechanisms that designers need  in order to collaborate  in multi-disciplinary teams are all really important points to consider.
It’s a massive challenge for design schools all round the world. Each school has its own heritage, which can work in their favour but at the same time can be the limiting factor. The fact is that most current design educators in the UK have come from a craft based educational tradition, which is great for producing designers of desirable products and artefacts but not that great for designers co-producing interconnected product, services and systems for tomorrow. We still have educators that think about the future by drawing too much from the past. The purpose of design education is to release the design potential of the student group, and not to hinder that. In this respect, the design educator’s role should be more about facilitation to learn rather than a direction in how to do. Astute staff know how to balance the two and enable new ways of thinking to emerge.

What would future design practices look like and what factors will shape it?
The best way to interpret this question is to ask ourselves where and how will design get done in the future. We know that only one company can win on price, all others must use design to sustain value. They must address other forms of capital effectively. What we are seeing is that the professions are increasingly portfolio oriented in career pattern, meaning that a professional rarely sticks to one organization over a long period of time. The designer’s portfolio therefore has to expand not only to show their traditional core design skills; creativity, analysis, synthesis and representation, but also their capacity to engage with other people; disciplines, professionals, clients, users, stakeholders. So there is a kind of dialectical element as well as a dialogical element.  I don’t think we are equipping students in the best possible ways for this future pattern of work at present. There are also questions as to whether design is best practised in manufacturing, service or communication organizations serving a consuming society. We are seeing that the nature of big business is changing. Their fundamental approach has changed and this inevitably changes the way designers work with them. It’s no longer sufficient to have a narrow range of core products and businesses are increasingly recognizing the need to be viral in their operation and to appreciate the wider ecology of the product and service systems they provide. Their ability to be viral is seen as a means of deferring risk, reductions in demand for products and services, or a sudden crisis in a particular, social, economic, environmental context. How designers relate to this change is interesting. Having portfolio capacity is important, as a design doer, in terms of solving current problems but also in demonstrating the capacity to frame and narrate convincing  representations of future problems and their likely solutions. This is where I see the growth area for design; to act as interpolators for companies, second and third sector organizations to manage the cross-fertilization of disciplines in order to make products and services come into being- to connect the dots. This is a massive growth area for design education and for designers. It takes them into realms that traditionally they have been excluded from. Ultimately it puts them into positions where they would be operating at a more strategic level in companies and organizations. A future role for design and design education is to become more proactive in leading the exploration of issues in society. At a more prosaic level this will see designers initiating products and service concepts for licensed exploitation by organizations, rather than the traditional mode of reactive designing commissioned by industry.

The traditional role of design consultancies has also got to change. Products and services have become interconnected and behaviors have become more complex. There are only one or two practices that can act as the purveyor of the iconic product specification, hence everyone else has to use design as a means of identifying and leveraging different positions in a marketplace. This is a great opportunity for design. In the last few years we have seen a growth of strategic design thinking and practices, what I would link to innovation practices, but design-led innovation practices rather than business-led innovation practices. It’s about offering better qualities of services and creating more memorable experiences, and design has a massive part in delivering this. The challenge for design at the moment is articulating its value in this evolving space.

Where should we draw inspirations from to develop future design practices?
We can draw inspiration from within and without design. From within, we have to clearly recognize our skills and knowledge such as the abilities to zoom in and out with fluidity, the ability to represent project opportunities at various levels of detail, the capacity to understand and represent patterns and opportunities and problems. Designers have no fear in trying things out unlike some other professions. Other professions have a declarative stance, ‘I am the expert’, and this is how it is done. Design’s ability is to ask naïve but insightful questions and to have the confidence to get things done. Designers do need to have more confidence in their approach of working directly to solve real problems with real people by being able to prototype  outputs to realize the best outcomes.

From without, designers have this capacity to look at other sources of knowledge and practice and identify creative opportunities and begin to structure them into new approaches. Designers need to take more confidence in the eclectic approaches we use. Our pragmatic capacity to work both ends towards the middle for problem framing and solving is a massive skill.

Areas of breakthrough in radical science, for example in nano and bio-sciences, represent massive opportunities for designers. Whilst some might say that this is not a territory for design to operate in, it is actually the original role of design in society reborn. Designers possess the imagination to see how science might become applicable and desirable to people by combining new functionality within exciting social, economic and cultural contexts. This is not about hiding science but questioning its nature and purpose in service of society. The exploitation of science and technology must ultimately relate to people. It does not matter at what level it is applied, there will still be the need to design its fundamental human interaction, empathy and visceral engagement.

Which organisations inspire you and why?
More recently I have been inspired by the work done that the Royal Society of Arts (RSA) is doing because it is leading the debate about the relationship between knowledge and people, and how different disciplines come together on these matters. It’s dealing with the fundamental nature of new knowledge within disciplines and the mechanism for translating that into society through different types of organizations and through professions. Without organizations like that, we would be really impoverished.

I subscribed to several charities because I admire the work that they do…and probably recognize that I personally would have the courage to do it myself.  Charities like Oxfam and Red Cross – they realize that there are problems in the world and they go to the source of the problem to help solve them. They make an immediate connection with the wrongness of the problem and the rightness of the solution in a personal way. There is a strong sense of acting out of principle in this, which we need to see more of in all walks of life and this form of acting is something I think that design also has at its core. There are also organizations like Open IDEO who are making connections with big business and local communities. To me, these are all very brave and ambitious organizations.

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