Professor Paul Rodgers

Below is an excerpt of the interview with Professor Paul Rodgers conducted in January 2012.

Professor Paul Rodgers has had a distinguished and extensive career in design academia. Prior to joining Northumbria School of Design in November 2009, he was Reader in Design at Edinburgh Napier University between 1999 and 2009 and a post-doctoral Research Fellow at the University of Cambridge’s Engineering Design Centre between 1996 and 1999. Professor Rodgers has published more than 100 papers in book chapters, journals and conferences.  He sits on the Editorial Review Board of many international design conferences including the Design Research Society, Design Computing and Cognition, and Engineering and Product Design Education.  He is also a member of the Editorial Board of the International journal Design Studies. He has recently published a couple of books ‘Product Design’ with Alex Milton in 2011 and ‘Digital Blur: Creative Practice at the Boundaries of Architecture, Design and Art’ with Michael Smyth in 2010 both books showcasing contemporary creative practice within the domains of Design, Architecture and Art.   

Briefly, please summarize what you do in your role and why you do it what you do.
I am the Professor of Design Issues at Northumbria University School of Design and my current role involves mainly 2 areas: Teaching and Learning, and Research. Most of the time they intersect, but sometimes they don’t.  In terms of teaching, I am involved in 1st year Industrial Design and Transportation Design teaching and also with the final year dissertations but I would like to be more involved with studio-based projects. I also supervise 5 PhD students at the moment and will probably be taking on a couple more students soon. PhD supervision is an integral part of my practice; I really enjoy nurturing young and talented PhD students. My research at the moment consists mainly of writing with other people from different parts of the world. I would like to spend more time actually doing ‘real’ research, ie sitting in design offices like IDEO or somewhere else interesting and understanding what they are doing and asking them interesting questions. I really enjoy working and collaborating with people and at the moment, all my current research activities are collaborative. I much prefer working with people than working alone.

What gets you excited about design at the moment?
Working with people, which I mentioned in the question before. I seek out interesting collaborations in order to help me drive ideas forward. I am also critical about design, I think you need to be as an educator. However, there is a line to be drawn, you can’t be overly critical. You need to be critical of design but also celebrate, acknowledge, explore and push its potential. It’s like being a father and telling off one of your kids – you do it to make them better people. So sometimes you criticize design because you want to make it better.

A lot of what is said about design is spurious. There is too much celebration of design and suggestions that design can ‘solve’ the world’s problem. Designers, (design practices, industry) cannot achieve anything by themselves. However, design can play a central and pivotal role if they are part of the team that looks at some of these wider issues – whatever this might mean. No single thing excites me at the moment, there are many things going on. It’s alway easier to see issues and problems. Chris Alexander points out in his book ‘Notes on the Synthesis of Form’ that it’s much easier to see ‘misfit’ than it is to see ‘fit’. It’s always easy to see the problems and issues with design, but there are many, many things that fit well, for e.g. an IPhone. It fits my life, made my life a lot easier, but has made such an impact. Facetime has enabled me to talk to my kids and wife who lives 100 miles away. That’s amazing.  Those little things excite me and continually excite me.  Of course there are downsides to this as well such as obsession with wanting to own one, driving consumption etc. I would hope that these negatives aspects are outweighed by the positive intervention of design.

What are the current trends in design practices and what factors are driving these trends?
Designers are certainly struggling for work at the moment due to the economic situation. The subject of Design Art which is the topic of one of my PhD student’s work has certainly slowed and bottomed out. I think there will be a return to localism (or glocalism, as they call it), if it isn’t happening already. I see it as return to local production of goods. For example, Trevor Duncan (Head of ID at Northumbria) was telling me recently that there is a furniture designer/maker collective in New York that he visited that consists of an artist, a designer and a carpenter. The artist comes up with ideas of hand tools, the designer then takes those ideas and turns them into functional hand tools and the carpenter then uses and manipulates the hand tools to create bespoke furniture. So they have this wonderful system using hand tools to create beautiful furniture, working out of a shed in Brooklyn. The UK, on the other hand, I don’t think does enough for young designers or graduates to form collectives or businesses.  Look at the way the American fund scientific endeavors, or the way the Netherlands supported design in the last 10 years. There may well be a move towards localism and the re-establishment of craft being a key part of design.

Are these the same trends that will drive design education?
I think young people now have greater access to higher education. I certainly feel that way when I left school in the early 80s, but there has been a concerted move to making university education more accessible. I don’t disagree with this, but it brings up problems. For example, I have encountered students who when asked, stated that they had no real interest in design, but that they were simply encouraged by their parents to get a university degree.

Current factors driving design education – numbers and money! It has become a market economy and design education has been commoditized, it’s like buying fish fingers.  You can find the most beautiful fish fingers if you are willing to pay enough, similarly, you will find a better place to study if you are willing to pay or work hard enough. I am also finding design education becoming more homogenized. If you try to be too different, it might be difficult to attract students. As a result, design education in the UK is becoming to look like any UK high street in towns, with similar looking chain shops. It’s often hard to distinguish which town you are in.

What would future design practices look like and what factors will shape it?
We are yet to get to the end of the digital revolution, coining Bruce Sterling’s view of where design is going. His view is that we are only at the start and its going to explode. It’s so difficult to predict – I have sat in demonstrations where if you want to order a new sofa, you can design it and then it can be made in 3 hours. Terms like ‘prosumer’ have emerged in recent years to reflect the notion that the producer and the consumer can be the same person. It’s quite exciting on one hand, but will it need to be regulated? We have seen the beginning of this trend through the work done by the likes of Freedom of Creation, Lionel Dean and others and the numerous amateur makers and hackers community utilizing cheap and accessible rapid prototyping tools. Some of the outputs are interesting, some are atrocious. The Freedom of Creation stuff is more interesting to me, but its quite homogenous. They  can give you a phone cover, based on what they can produce. It comes down to who has the power to create and not everyone maybe should have that power to create? As design educators, we may have a view that not everyone should be allowed to create. There are huge implications, that people might be producing a lot of stuff that may not be very good. There are obvious parallels – for example, in music. The digitization of music has transformed the music and entertainment industry. Food is another example. Ten years ago, everybody wanted to be a DJ, now they want to be a chef. Maybe in the next decade it will be a designer.

I am interested in how people manipulate, exploit and shape digital technologies. The practices featured in my book Digital Blur are incredibly lean and very reactive. They can react to opportunities really quickly. They are set up in completely different ways from the larger consultancies like IDEO and Seymour Powell. Their reliance on networks makes or breaks their whole existence. One of the major benefits digitization has brought to these type of studios is that those networks are much easier to develop, to retain, to exploit and to break. That is the power of social media and the digital world. You can do a lot from your garden shed. You have the potential to be one of the most creative and interesting practices in the world, just by working from a shed as long as you have a large network of collaborators. Take for example Sense Worldwide, they have a worldwide network of ‘associates’ whom they can call on to help them gain local knowledge of a place. Those networks are crucial to design companies.

Designers’ practices are incredibly fluid at the moment, working for several organizations at the same time. It is difficult to keep track of the pace in practice but it is still important to give our students a good grounding in design – the core skills. A reappraisal of these core skills is necessary, but the important question is ‘have they changed?’ I would say, yes – designers need to get a handle on technology, they need to learn how to develop networks. The tools, media and machinery have changed but the core skills behind that like communication, empathy and cajoling remains key.

Where should we draw inspirations from to develop future design practices?
From young people, definitely. Sometimes from our own students. Other disciplines. Probably everywhere. Good designers are always seeing connections, repurposing for their particular context. We can draw from practices, such as Greyworld, Troika, HeHe in Paris and many others. They are inspirational due to the way they work. It’s different from the design consultancies model of the 80s. The values have changed; HeHe specifically said that they are not driven by money. Helen Evans from HeHe beautifully articulated that if you can separate what you do for money, then the freedom it gives you is amazing. There is a real integrity to the way they work. The network of people that they work with is incredible – laser engineers from Finland for a project that is based in an incinerator plant in Paris. This clearly illustrates the power of the network, facilitated by the Internet and social media. Universities will have difficulties keeping up but we should at least be mindful of what is happening.

Which organisations inspire you and why?
Anyone that gives up their time for a good purpose like Medicin Sans Frontier. The BBC – it’s an incredible service they provide and hopefully it will remain independent and funded by the public. Privatising the BBC would be a disaster. I would also say art galleries and museums, in particular the V&A, the Tate and Tate Modern, and smaller galleries like The Whitechapel all in London. I spent most of my time as a design student in art galleries. Art galleries, for me, are far more interesting than design museums. In terms of design practices, I would mention again people like Greyworld and HeHe, as well as the big players like IDEO, Apple and Seymour Powell amongst many others.




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