Alice’s Critical Synopsis extract




All images from here.

Alice Ciccolini wrote up a conversation I had with her a month or so ago. I remember different things about/from that conversation. But in her enthusiastic prose it all sounds marvellous. Have a read:

The establishment of design process as a critical manifestation of design itself has high profile figureheads such as Hilary Cottam, a social entrepreneur whose work for the Design Council won her Design of the Year in 2005 and Davos Global Young Entrepreneur the following year, and her new organisation Participle, the central focus of which is exploring the power of creativity to enable the individual to overcome their own challenges. Design, and the skill of the designer to problem solve, is frequently an integral part of her practice. At the heart of Cottam’s approach is the principle of collaboration between professionals and the public in the re-visioning of public services; key to this is the notion that professionalism’s boundaries are not impermeable, that training confers upon us capacity but not necessarily sole capability to operate within a discipline.

Case Study: Soumitri Varadarajan, Professor of Industrial Design, RMIT, responds to the proposition behind Participle, founded by Hilary Cottam, Designer of the Year 2005.

Hilary Cottam writes of her practice: “I try to tackle some of the more intractable social issues of our day, designing services and solutions that start from the perspective of the individual and the community. … It’s an approach that is both bottom up and top down.

I see myself as a problem solver, inventor, and facilitator. … The project work I do is: collaborative – its about putting people first and working as part of an inter-disciplinary team; innovative – its about creative problem solving and new solutions; delightful – I hope the solutions are covetable and the process is fun; affordable – a promise to deliver something within existing budgets and often saving money; and most importantly practical –simple solutions that really work every day.” [14]

Cottam described RED, the Design Council project that won her the Designer of the Year, as a “’do-tank’: developing new thinking and practice on social and economic problems through design led innovation.” Participle, her latest project, is a small studio focused on engaging with ‘peripheral’ communities such as the elderly and disconnected youth. Cottam writes about Participle:

“At Participle, we do two things: Firstly, bring together the widespread community level ideas and creative activity, and mix it with world-leading experts in any given field; Secondly, drive forward thoughts and actions around developing a new social settlement which can deal with the big social issues of our time. …

A radical new vision for our public services is required. We call our vision Beveridge 4.0. … If we were to distil our approach to developing new types of public services down to two principles we would say firstly it is about motivating deep participation, and secondly about encouraging social connections and contributions. … The freedom to live a better life will be reflected in a person’s capabilities and this is the starting point of the five shifts we propose:

–    Moving from a system focused on needs to one more concerned with capabilities;
–    Moving from services that are targeted to ones that are open to all;
–    Moving away from a financially focused system to one focused on resources;
–    Avoiding centralised institutions in favour of more effective distributed networks;
–    Relaxing the absolute focus on the individual including more of a focus on social networks.”

Participation and contribution depend on a bigger narrative, one that all of us can relate to: a story about dreams, capabilities and aspirations, not problems and needs; a story that starts with our own lives and encompasses others.” [15]

Cottam is a controversial figure in the world of design. Arguably, confirming her as Designer of the Year marked the beginning of Alice Rawsthorn’s demise as Director of the Design Museum, proposing, as it does, a way of thinking about design that moves beyond the more formal understanding of the term as a act of creation within the realm of industry, thinking that proved unpalatable to a board of directors dominated by designers of the industrial kind (e.g. James Dyson). Rightly so, argues Soumitri Varadarajan. “I think the whole world has turned upside down; designers can’t practice professionally, only as artists. Or go the charity route and design for the other 90%, the glorious irony of urban centres designing for the periphery. And fortuitously, then you have Gordon Brown who says “is it true you can design services? Come and redesign our public services” – I can’t think that any other nation would do that.” Varadarajan continues,

“The UK has a strong mechanical background, a strong rationalist way which somehow never gets through to design. When a Hilary Cottam wins a Designer of the Year, it indicates that the funds for research are only available for service design rather than mechanical design. The non-object, the non-aesthetic is not design, it’s a curiously British construction that this constitutes design – because nobody else is picking up or talking about service in the same fashion.

The Japanese agencies are networking focused, not policy focused, which is why they are successful; the UK has taken the RSA and thrown away its historical background and asks it to do all this new policy stuff. Is this a post-professional world? … [Y]ou can see why [some people might argue that when you look at] Australia, because industry left Australia, it was destroyed it in the way that Thatcher did in the UK … [and now] Melbourne is a place where nothing is made, but with a large proportion of industrial designers – they’re like musicians, with only piecemeal gigs, no contracts, so they can’t talk the ‘60s talk about function, they can only do the Marcel Wanders, Dutch kind of thing of furniture as a provocation. Or re-design public services.”

Where do Cottam’s practice and Varadarajan’s response lead the idea of collaborative design? Varadarajan argues that design for industry is in principle always socially engaged since its output is focused on the transformation of the lives of many; he sees the genesis of this understanding of design in the second world war, of the idea of industrial design as a powerful tool for creating “things in the most efficient way, that put everyone at the same level, disturbed class distinctions and took out the idea of design for consumption.” Comfortable with the concept of the celebrity designer when that design is transformational (he cites Jonathan Ive at Apple), he suggests that even in iconic design collectives such as Pentagram, where naming designers was an anathema to their philosophy of “functional design that will make more money for clients who [they were] at service to,” a job always rested one designer. To deny that gave rise, in Varadarajan’s view, to the designer as flamboyant celebrity embodied by Neville Brody, and has taken us to where we are today.


One Reply to “Alice’s Critical Synopsis extract”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s