Professor Mike Press

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Below is an excerpt of the interview with Professor Mike Press conducted in April 2012.

Mike Press is a Professor of Design Policy at Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art & Design, the University of Dundee. Mike has written and researched widely on design, innovation, contemporary craft and the management of creativity, speaking at conferences worldwide. An extensive publishing record includes authorship of three books, including “The Design Agenda: a guide to successful design management” and “The Design Experience“. He is also a contributor to BBC television and radio programmes on design. His research and writing spans three areas: design and crime, the future of craft, and co-design. He is also an experienced supervisor and examiner of PhDs in design, and has been an advocate of practice-based approaches to design research.

Briefly, please summarize what you do in your role and why you do it what you do.
I am Professor of Design Policy which means that I oversee research in areas where design plays a strategic role and is concern with policy in a broader sense. Originally it was based around government policy and Design Against Crime project, which involved policy implications and now I am interested in its broader, strategic dimensions. I’m interested in how design gets into new territories of practice and new forms of practice. I am also responsible for running a subject area in Dundee University, which is Design and Craft area, which includes undergraduate and postgraduate studies. Again it’s about looking at how those courses can be modernized and address new challenges, so our students can be equipped for a very different and interesting world where they are getting new opportunities to make use of their skills. When we look at design education overall, I don’t think we serve design students as well as we could; traditionally we have had this very narrow, restricted vocational model which does not fit with these new territories of practice, requiring different things from our students and demanding different skills and different awareness of the world around us. Things are changing, and some Design Schools have made exciting and timely changes to their curricula and approaches. But we still have a way to go in some cases.

What gets you excited about design at the moment?
Everything really! Whenever you put out a question or challenge or start a discussion, so many people want to engage with it. That will happen in classrooms, in workshops, in conferences, on Twitter and even on Facebook. Let me give you an example. Last August, I watched the London riots in London with horror, partly because they were taking place in areas where I used to live. So when I saw the Co-op in Tottenham burnt to the ground I was sickened by it, not because of the actions of the people themselves but in thinking of what drove them to it. If people are that desperate that they will torch the place that they live, something is fundamentally wrong. If you take away their Youth Clubs, if you close down the few opportunities they have for training and all the employment have been taken away, how else are you expecting people to express themselves? They expressed themselves through violence and destruction. So after a few days of watching this on TV, I thought, we live in an age now that people get a huge amount of satisfaction, enjoyment and self-esteem from creativity, for example the rise of DIY culture and the rise of knitting culture is an illustration of this idea. There is a behavioural economist at Harvard University who calls this the ‘Ikea effect’ which explains that people value what they make themselves. I can make a book case with an allen key in an hour, now I don’t claim to make it very well, but I derive a huge level of reward from doing that. That Ikea effect can be seen taking place in communities as well and there are a number of instances where there are people engaged in social craft or design practices that have significantly changed the self-esteem of people, old and young in deprive areas. So I set up a Facebook group one Thursday night and asked if anyone is interested in looking at how craft and design help to contribute to progressive social change, particularly given what we had seen in the riots. That was Thursday night. By Friday evening, I had 80 people signed up to this Facebook group.

We now have 300 people and we have had a really productive discussion going on, firstly to develop a book, we’ve had a number of meetings in London and Dundee. We are calling it the Change Makers group and it consists of a former student in London, a colleague in New York and myself. We are just trying to get things going by pulling together great exemplars that will inspire people to understand what social design and craft is. That excites and inspires me. The fact that on a Thursday night, I put out a question to ask if anyone else is interested and 24 hours later, 80 people responded – ‘That’s an important issue and I am interested in it. I want to join your group and share ideas!’ When I look at what is happening in areas such as service design, social design, public service, start-up culture in design, I can see all these new territories emerging for design. There is real interest, activism and commitment to explore these new possibilities. We have moved on hugely in the last decade. If we looked back, say in the 90s, design was about self-employed practice, making stuff and designing in the corporate context. Now, we have all the other stuff going on, it’s energizing seeing that happening in the world.

Why do you think this is happening now?
I think because there is a new generation of designers emerging that I personally am energized by. They are naturally entrepreneurial. They don’t necessary like design in its traditional sense and the way that we were presenting it to them. They respond by making their own model of design practice. Snook is a great example of this. Sarah Drummond and Lauren Currie decided that they wanted to change the world and to make the world a better place as designers through service design. I witnessed for myself how Lauren started out as a product designer and then when she did her Masters degree, she was determined to come out of it as a different type of designer – a ‘service designer’ – and she used that 12 month period as a process of self exploration and professional redefinition. She went on that journey, and decided with Sarah that Snook was the type of organization that she wanted to set up. And now they have a staff of 6 in their Glasgow office.

There are lots of other people around the world doing the same thing, what I would described as entrepreneurism linked to a social vision and that’s partly because people have been disengaged from political activism for very good reasons. I was politically active when I was younger and then I became very cynical about it. Young people do not want to get involved in political parties because they do not see how our system is actually enacting any change. They have a vision to make the world a better place; they have a vision and they would rather do it through their own means and using their skills as a designer. Politics have moved on and interwoven into design in a fascinating way. I am looking at organizations like FutureGov, Engine, Live|Work and thinking that they are acting like political activists but they are doing it in a concrete way. Its not about manifestos, its about sharing great practices and coming up with concrete ideas. So I’ve learnt a lot from this new generation of people. What I bring to it is a lot of experience and knowledge of things from the past that worked and some that didn’t work. That’s why I work with Snook and I find the whole experience invigorating. The most successful high tech business startups in the world are ones that bring together the old baby boomers generation with people in their 20s. This is why I am a mentor for Snook and other start-ups based on that notion of combining the experience of the older generation and the enthusiasm and energy of the younger generation.

What are the current trends in design practices and what factors are driving these trends?
The practice of designing public services is currently very interesting. This area has a political dimension because the challenge is to understand and envision ways in which services should serve less fortunate communities because that’s what most public services are set up to do. It is about understanding how these communities grow, develop and transform the position that they are in. At Dundee University, we are doing increasing amount of work with NHS Scotland. They know that they have to transform what they are doing, they know that they have to redesign, re-engineer their service provision for Scotland and that has opened up a lot of opportunities. My colleagues have been working with NHS Tayside, hospices in Scotland and others.

Our students have recently started through our Masters of Design for Services course working on a project with Dundee City Council set up to redesign support and services for young people who have no qualifications and employment. This group can be very difficult and challenging to work with. Working with Taylor Haig (a non-design leadership and consulting company) our students’ first job was to figure out how to get the young people to tell their stories. These are young people who are quite challenged in terms of telling their story. So how do you empower them to articulate their story? Once people understand their stories, a meaningful co-design process can take place, otherwise it can only be well-meaning social service providers trying to anticipate what their needs are.

The Social Design space with the Change Makers group (which I spoke about earlier) is another area in which I am interested.

The third area that I find quite exciting as a whole is the area of entrepreneurialism because there is a link to some of those other areas but also I am seeing more evidence of this in students when they get to their degree shows. In the past, they would use the degree show to try to get a job but actually now there aren’t that many jobs out there.  So now, they think ‘let me try to get my idea to market!’ A great example of that is Joanna Montgomery, who has a product called ‘Pillow Talk’. She has won £80-90,000 of funding from different sources to fund her product that does not actually exist as yet. But, she has used social media in a really exciting way to create a fan base for her idea. As a result she is right at the verge of making the idea real. She is just one example, but a lot of our students are now very good at exploiting social media to build a market and use that to build a business. They can take designs where in the past they would have had to get support from retailers first before even committing to manufacturing. We now have technologies that enable designers to make the products themselves. So Joanna is negotiating with a company in China to manufacture her product and she is only in her early 20s! This would have been impossible when I was that age. But now, people can see that it is possible and believe that they can achieve this. So this has really been key to encouraging the entrepreneurial spirit coming from our graduates. Crowdfunding sites like Kickstarter and other UK equivalents are also helping our students realize that it’s not impossible to realise their dreams; even finance is not the massive obstacle it once was, just very challenging – but in a fair way. You don’t have to be one of the rich kids to make it happen – just excellent at pitching and presenting your ideas.

We have a long way to go, but we are edging towards an entrepreneurial meritocracy. We now have a plethora of ways of getting funding and I think that has changed our psyche. The Brits are generally known to be incredibly negative compared to Americans. It used to be that I had to go to New York to experience the more ‘positive’ attitude about ideas. Now, I get the same buzz from talking with our recent graduates because their natural response to any questions is ‘yes, I can do that’. So it’s not a question of ‘am I going to do it, but how am I going to do it’.  There is an attitude shift that is taking place.

Is design education able to keep up with all these changes and challenges?
No, we are not keeping up, we are often playing a game of catchup. I think it’s uneven, I am not trying to criticise my colleagues in design education or myself. I think a lot of us woke up one morning and realised that the world has changed a lot recently and questioned how as educators, we are responding to those changes. I can’t speak for the whole of the design education community, I can only speak for myself. I am trying to keep what I teach relevant and I keep looking at people like Lauren and Joanna and asking myself if it would have been useful to them? Then you keep reinventing what you are doing, just like my colleague Tom Inns. There is no point in teaching students knowledge because knowledge ages like fish. It’s useless. So it’s about tools to gain knowledge and adapt knowledge. It’s also an attitude of positive thinking and enthusiasm and believing that anything is possible. Design is the art of the possible. That’s our job as design educators to teach people to understand the art of the possible. I think we have to constantly reevaluate what we are doing and what is the content of our teaching. I keep coming back to the notion, the very rationale of academia – we are paid by the taxpayers to teach people. That is why Universities and Art Schools were set up. In order to teach them properly we have to do research, but the teaching has to come first, that is why we are here. If we don’t research, we can’t teach properly because we don’t have skills, knowledge and sense of relevance. Therefore part of what we have to research is to understand what is worth teaching and how you teach it.

What would future design practices look like and what factors will shape it?
As Sir Ken Robinson say, none of us has any idea what the world will look like in five years’ time, let alone twenty – but our job is to educate people for that world that doesn’t yet exist and that we cannot predict. But our future is made by us, not by technology. As Marx said, people make their own history – but not in ways they can freely determine. The future, then, is fluid and interesting, but impossible to predict.

So how do we know what to teach then?
It’s about thinking tools and not knowledge, knowledge is less useful. We want our students to be people who know how to learn and adapt, and have a passion for design. People get empowered by education when 3 things come together: self-confidence, passion and skills. They develop a skill and they have the confidence to apply that skill. They also have passion on how they can use it in their lives. So that’s the ideal situation: passion, self-confidence and skill. As long as those three things come together, their life becomes meaningful. And that is our job as educators, to help people have meaningful lives. So what do we teach? Actually we can’t teach skills: you learn a skill, you can’t teach a skill. So the only two other things that we can teach are self-confidence and passion. We have to help students build their self-confidence and we have to transmit our passion of the subject and encourage it in them. That’s why I think communication is really important. I don’t think we are very good at communicating our ‘passion’ of the subject through our research, certainly not through research papers. I’m not saying that our papers are no good, I’m not being dismissive, but the truth is research papers are not good at communicating passion – that’s not really their job. That’s why I use examples such as Jayne Wallace. She is a perfect example, she is a jeweler who can use her knowledge in different ways, she is someone who is passionate about making, about her craft, passionate about people, passionate about the world that she lives in and intensely skilled in what she does, and has the self-confidence to match that skill with her passion. That’s our job as educators, to communicate stories about how passion, self-confidence and skills come together to encourage students to use design to change the world.

Where should we draw inspirations from to develop future design practices?
Everywhere. Inspirations come from everywhere and there is not one source for it. The people that we work with, we might work with them as colleagues, we might work with our students. We should be inspired by good and positive practices. We need to find inspiration in sociable experts. Sociable expertise is a really important concept because it changes design, changes education, it makes a difference. This is the idea of Richard Sennett in his book The Craftsman. Anti-social expertise gets a lot of attention but doesn’t actually change very much. Steve Jobs is a good example – how long will Apple survive without him at the helm? How good was he at mentoring people around him, infusing his passion and his vision in the whole organization? Sociable expertise lies at the heart of the craft of what we do – whether in design, or education, or business. Too often our culture champions the antisocial, egotistical expert. To be honest, so does the research culture now encouraged in academia. But you know, I find no inspiration there.

I’m inspired by storytellers by all sorts really, whether it’s a novel I’m reading, or a lecture that I’m listening to. You can be gripped by a story. It will change the way that you think, it will change the way that you work and things that you think are important in the world around you. I always encourage students to have a passion for stories, to get under the bonnet of stories. How did that story work, why did it work? Stories are the engine of change – of positive, socially engaged change.

Which Organizations inspire you and why?
I have mentioned Snook earlier and I find their work very inspirational. I’ll give one other example and it’s a person that completely changed the way I thought about design. There is a woman in New York call Wendy Brawer who developed the Green Map system. Greenmap.org is one of the best inventions. It’s very simple, its about how you map cities in terms of their environmental qualities, noting down details like where is your local recycling bins, where do you buy recycled paper to highlighting issues like a nuclear dump in your neighbourhood. So it maps both positives and negatives. There are now around 140 Green Maps throughout the world done by different community groups. Some of them have been undertaken in very small neighbourhoods and some have been done by schools. For example, some maps have been done by communities in Kampala, in Havana, in Copenhagen, Stockholm, Glasgow, Liverpool and London. They are fantastic teaching tools. Students learn how to map in terms of geography but then to think through the environmental issues. The most moving Green Map that I saw was done by children in a primary school that doesn’t exist anymore in lower Manhattan situated just by the World Trade Center. The kids in the kindergarten went out and mapped their local neigbourhood. Actually, historically maps changed the way we think and how we use places. Suddenly you have a place in the Bronx that sold recycled furniture and a place in lower Manhattan that wanted to trade with them because they did something else. So now you have these economic linkages that never existed before. I think that is one of the most brilliant results of design artefacts because it is a process and method that engages people. It is in its own right something that changes individual social behaviour for the good. It is intensely educational and has advanced the visualisation of a city.

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