Unquestionable Stable States

The following post was written to mark International Women’s Day, 8th March 2020

Donald Schön is an important figure in the world of design theory. His best known book, The Reflective Practitioner, used architectural designing as a model for the performance of all other types of professional activity, as processes of experimentation and learning through framing problems and moving towards solutions [1].

I recently came across the full list of Schön’s publications [2] and was astonished how productive he was over the course of his life (1930-1997). Looking through the list there are publications I recognise – his first book The Displacement of Concepts, for example, about the nature of creativity, and four papers in the journal I edit, Design Studies [3]but what I hadn’t realised was how well-known he was before publishing The Reflective Practitioner.

Donald Schön

Figure 1: Donald Schön at the BBC in 1970 to give his Reith Lectures. (source: Getty Images)

This is no better illustrated than by the Reith lectures Schön gave in 1970 (Figure 1). The Reith lectures, inaugurated in 1948 and still given today, are the BBC’s annual ‘flagship lecture series’ that feature ’significant international thinkers’ giving six, half-hour lectures.

Just to give you an idea of the company Schön was keeping, the years previous to 1970 had featured Bertrand Russell (1948), Robert Oppenheimer (1953), Nikolaus Pevsner (1955), and JK Galbraith (1966). The full list and archives of transcripts and recordings is available on the BBC website [4] and well worth exploring.

So being invited to give the Reith lectures at age 40, the youngest man to have then given the lectures, would have been a very big deal indeed. The BBC had a monopoly on broadcasting in Britain and several million listeners would have heard Schön speak, not just in the UK, but through the renowned BBC World Service.

The theme of Schön’s lectures was Change and Industrial Society. In his first lecture [5] he outlines what he calls ’the loss of the stable state’. The meaning of ’state’ here is deliberately vague. Schön embraces the state of the individual as much as that of the organisation or even nation. This is a way of thinking that he would carry forward in his future work, identifying concepts that could be applied broadly across people, groups, organisations, and society. A good example of this is the idea of ‘learning’, the process through which, in Schön’s work, change happens [6].

The lecture is a fascinating and worthwhile listen. Dear reader, I implore you to listen now if you haven’t already, then you can properly judge what I go on to say below.


Schön’s delivery is effortless: debonair, lucid, fluent, and persuasive. He paints a picture of a technological world changing at an ever increasing rate and warns of our inability to cope with this change. The change is so rapid, he argues, that the very idea of stability is illusory. We’d better get used to it, he suggests, and find some ways of coping.

The vision of this opening lecture is bold and provocative though you can imagine the live British audience looking sceptically at the upstart American, peddling transatlantic homilies.

Finishing his lecture after 25 minutes, it is then the turn of the audience to ask questions.

‘Are you telling us that the US is more advanced than Britain?’, the first bumbling questioner asks (I’m paraphrasing, of course). ’Not at all’, Schön retorts, without missing a beat.

On to the next question: ‘Is the American computer industry deeply conservative while claiming to be innovative?’ Schön agrees, his work with IBM being a case in point.

‘Is the changing concept of stability itself a cause of instability?’ the third questioner asks. ‘very interesting’, Schön answers, ‘but no’.

‘Maybe the interaction between different technologies increases the rate of change at an even greater speed?’ the fourth questioner asks, ‘if so, how will we cope?’. ‘We need to learn new things’ Schön replies, ‘particularly learning how to adapt’.

The fifth questioner asks the first hostile question: ‘aren’t you just being hysterical?’ he asks, ‘things aren’t changing much in the UK, and anyway we’re coping fine’. ‘Mark my words’ Schön responds, in his only faltering reply, ‘if America is changing, then Europe will need to change in response’. He adds rhetorically, and a little patronisingly, ‘perhaps this is a “round the corner” issue for you?’

Questioner 6 asks: ‘Is there a distinction between persons and organisations in respect to change’. ‘What do you think a social system is?’ Schön smoothly replies, though concedes that ‘to some extent stable institutions are necessary to maintain a sense of the self.’

The final questioner, somewhat sceptically and citing the military as an example, asks: ‘isn’t this just a conservative view that preserves stability without questioning the aims of that stability?’ Schön is taken aback. ’I’m not capable of such malign intent!’ he declares, ‘but stable organisations can exist in unstable contexts, though progressively less suited to those contexts’.

The lecture comes to an end with a round of applause.

To summarise, a man gives a lecture about the rapid pace of change to what sounds like a male audience, and is asked seven questions by seven men.

Where are the women in all this?

Listening to an historical lecture on change, and especially the clipped British male accents in the questions that follow, is a window into a certain kind of stability in the 1970s. If you throw in the internet, the ideas in Schön’s lecture could easily apply today, but the framing of the speakers and audience has changed considerably.

Looking at the entire list of Reith lecturers, the first woman to give the lectures was Margery Perham in 1961, who talked about colonialism [7]. The second woman was Marina Warner, a whopping 33 years later in 1994, who talked about Myths [8]. That’s two women in 46 years!

Margery Perham

Margery Perham (second right), the first woman to give the Reith Lectures in 1961. There wouldn’t be another woman for 33 years. (Source: BBC)

This particular stability, of men doing intellectual and technological stuff and women doing, well, the womanly stuff – often mythologised and reinforced by the technologies that Schön talks about – has taken a long, long time to change. The increasing speed of technological change doesn’t seem to have increased the speed of social change if, indeed, change has happened at all [9].

It was ironic, even in 1970, that the BBC, a bastion of stability, would present a lecture series on change but nearly 50 years later – the length of time Schön mentions it took the automobile to diffuse into the marketplace – in 2017, the top 12 best-paid television presenters for the BBC were all male [12]. Until then an unquestionable stable state that hitherto women had only been vaguely aware of.

The BBC represents stability to the British people, but in 2020 that stability is beginning to erode fast. The values of independence and considered development that stability brings doesn’t fit with the current Boris Johnson-led UK government. The BBC is under question not just in terms of equality, but also now in terms of technology. New models of streaming that organisations like Netflix have made profitable are challenging more conventional broadcasting models and forcing change. The BBC heard it from Donald Schön first.

Technological change happens fast but social change happens slow; in the light of history the two processes perform an uneasy dance. When we look at the mother of all change – climate change – perhaps we need to learn how to tango fast.


Notes and References

[1] Full disclosure: The Reflective Practitioner is one of my go-to books for thinking about design processes. It forms a large part of my teaching and its central themes of learning and inquiry through ‘design’ – in the form of constructed possibilities – continue to be relevant today. Schön is one of the few people who have put a compelling argument for designing as a fundamental form of acting in the world; something not particular to designers. Designing as changing existing states into preferred states, in his contemporary Herbert Simon’s terms.

[2] A comprehensive list of all Schön’s publications is available here: http://graphicdesign-research.com/Schon/Bibliography-DonaldSchon-1.pdf

[3] Schön published four papers and an editorial in Design Studies, one of which ‘Designing: Rules, Types, and Worlds’ earned the 1988 best paper award. https://www.sciencedirect.com/search/advanced?pub=Design%20Studies&cid=271099&authors=donald%20schon

[4] A full list of the BBC Reith Lectures (1948-2019) is available at: https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b00729d9/episodes/guide

[5] An audio recording of Schön’s first introductory lecture is available here, the other lectures are available as transcripts that went on to become a book: Beyond the Stable State.

[6] Schön’s ouvre is defined by two central questions I think. First, where do our ideas come from? Second, how do we change?

[7] Two of Margery Perham’s lectures on colonialism are available to listen to at: https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p00hbd2d

[8] Marina Warner’s lectures on Modern Myths are available to listen to at: https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p00gxpbh

[11] One of my first blog posts was on the representation of women in architecture and also involved the BBC: https://iprofessdesign.wordpress.com/2014/03/07/the-curious-case-of-the-disappearing-woman-in-the-story-of-architecture/

[12] BBC Pay: Men still dominate star salaries list: https://www.bbc.com/news/entertainment-arts-44779292

The Design University and the Current Order of Things

Tim Blackman, the Vice Chancellor of Middlesex University in the UK, has written a well-argued paper on how Universities could be much less selective in the students they take. The paper begins:

“Most secondary schools in the UK do not select their pupils on the basis of prior academic achievement. They are deliberately comprehensive, with this principle based on a positive education argument that it is best to educate young people of different abilities together. Almost all universities are based on the opposite principle: academic selection and stratification by ability into different types of institution. This contrast attracts little public or political debate.” (p.11)

The title of the paper is The Comprehensive University: An Alternative to Social Stratification by Academic Selection [1] and it convincingly uses statistics and scholarship to make the case that a greater diversity of student talent at the beginning of a degree course would make for better outcomes at the end. Those outcomes are not only for individuals but benefit society more generally through growth, innovation and (though it sounds a bit cheesy) better understanding of other people.

Whereas highly selective UK universities such as Oxford and Cambridge essentially recruit students who are very similar in class and achievement, the key idea in Blackman’s report is diversity. This is the diversity that occurs through opening up Universities to a greater range of abilities.

At present Universities operate as end-points, finishing schools for already able students. They could be starting points: an opportunity to level out the playing field by teaching differently.

Teaching differently involves taking advantage of diversity, and especially the understanding that occurs when different perspectives and experiences are used in learning [2]. This type of learning depends on a shift from a ‘cognitive’ approach – where knowledge and reason are prioritized in teaching and assessment, to a practice or ‘competence’ approach – where opportunities are created for students to develop and reflect on a range of skills and abilities [3].

Where diversity works best is when groups collaborate in constructing and defining problems, questioning the current order of things, exploring scenarios, and imagining solutions and consequences. All things that designers do well [4].

It is the environment of research intensive universities that reinforce the broken cognitive approach [5], Blackman suggests, when the type of environment that is needed is one that (to quote Blackman):

“encourages ‘design thinking’: practical, creative problem solving that explores alternative solutions for better future designs, whether products, services, policies or artworks. This iterative, experimental and user-led approach is behind much industrial and professional innovation and although it draws on academic research – which is still very important – it is in many respects a different practice and is embedded in practice contexts.” (p.56)

Perhaps Blackman is thinking along the lines of how Arizona State University have used Design Thinking approaches to redesign their educational programmes and indeed the operation of the University [6]. Perhaps, after a few false dawns, the time for design to play a greater role in higher education has come? Blackman’s paper is certainly a compelling read in this respect though the true difficulty for design remains in upsetting the design of the current order of things.


[1] Blackman, T. (2017) The Comprehensive University: An Alternative to Social Stratification by Academic Selection, Higher Education Policy Institute Occasional Paper 17, http://tinyurl.com/yajfjwze [accessed 16th November 2017]

[2] As the originator and chair of the online Open University course Design Thinking: Creativity for the 21st Century the idea of diversity is central to its operation and success. For further details about the ideas behind the course see: Lloyd, P. (2013) Embedded Creativity: Teaching Design Thinking via Distance Learning, International Journal of Technology and Design Education, 23, pp 749-765. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10798-012-9214-8

[3] This is not a new suggestion of course. Donald Schön in Educating the Reflective Practitioner (1987) makes similar arguments. It is also an approach that has been embraced (at the moment, and ironically, in theory) in the strategy of ‘Practical Wisdom’ at the University of Brighton, where I work: http://tinyurl.com/y8stmdt6

[4] See previous my previous blog post: Stop talking, start thinking: The architecture of reasonable doubt

[5] Previous blog posts have been about how Universities are teaching outdated theory and knowledge in a world that is changing rapidly:
What’s Real in the Real World? Or The Economics of Intangibility
Design Education in the Wired Weird World

[6] Arizona State University’s transformation and growth through using design methods is described in Crow, M. and Debars, W (2015) Designing the New American University, Johns Hopkins University Press. https://muse.jhu.edu/book/38428


How to Kill a Designer

In a past post I wrote about the mysterious design genius of Bitcoin creator Satoshi Nakamoto and on BBC television recently was a documentary about another internet shaper – Aaron Swartz, who played major parts in developing RSS feed technology, Creative Commons implementation, and the social news website Reddit. The documentary is called The Internet’s Own Boy and is available (courtesy of Creative Commons) through The Documentary Network.

I urge you to watch this to gain an account of how global politics is lumberingly, awkwardly, waking up to the democratic power of the web and how that, paradoxically, is threatening democracy, or at least what passes for democracy in the western world, post Wikileaks and Edward Snowden. It is a hopeful, then utterly heartbreaking, account of how someone with technical genius and political skill, someone devoted to democratic ideals of openness, and with the energy, creativity, and organisation to really achieve change, is slowly and deliberately brought down.

I hadn’t heard of Schwartz before I watched the film but it is clear how much hope was invested in him. What I was struck by was a T-Shirt he wears in a brief scene about half-way through the film (shown below):

Design can Save the World

Aaron Swartz’s T-Shirt: “Design will Save the World”

“Design will save the world”, it says, and it’s easy to see why he might have seen design as a key force in the projects he was involved with: creating forums for knowledge exchange, making ‘private’ research information public, and allowing creative outputs to be used by all. But designing at this level is becoming a dangerous and political business, which probably means it is absolutely vital that we try to protect and support those people who know how to do it.

How to Grip the World: The Artist and the Designer

Two quotes caught my eye recently, both about the nature of ideas in the creative process. One is from an international artist and the other is from an international designer, see if you can tell which is which:

Here is the first, from Person 1:

“Between an idea and doing something, there’s a bridge. First you make a sketch, it’s a small doodle but it’s amazing, at that moment you have changed the world! Then you might do another drawing, a cardboard model, add colour, put it into a computer, maybe a scientist assists. The assumption in our society is that creativity lies within these choices, between cardboard and wood, red and blue, floor or ceiling, but it doesn’t. It is in the quality of the way it grips the world.”

And here is the second, from Person 2:

“I don’t know anybody who has just had an idea and then will stand up in front of a group of people and try to explain this vague thought. So it tends to be exclusive and fragile. When you make the very first physical manifestation of what the idea [is], everything changes. It’s the most profound shift because it’s not exclusive any more, it’s not so open to interpretation, it’s there, and it includes a lot of people. The ideas aren’t the most difficult bit, it’s the actually making them real. Giving an idea body is very hard.”

So ideas, according to the two people above, are neither in the thought or the thing, but in ‘the quality of the way an idea grips the world’, in the case of the first quote, or ‘making [the idea] real’, in the case of the second quote. It’s in how the embodied idea forces its way into the world.

Two more clues:

Person 1 has a studio that employs ninety people: architects, engineers, technicians, and two cooks. Person 2 works for a global computer corporation. Getting warm yet?

The fact that it is difficult to tell who is who in the above quotes reveals a similarity between art and design that is often overlooked; roughly speaking, the emergent quality of things. Both are iterative processes of making, to find out what is or might be. And this is a delicate process, easy to disrupt by too much exposure, too soon. An artist or designer must be able to handle fragility and uncertainty, nourishing and nurturing an idea whenever the opportunity arises – in making, in testing, in conversation, in thought.

That’s why a supportive environment is so vital to creative processes; to help both the nourishing and nurturing and in determining the degree to which an idea grips the world. The studio is the traditional environment that supports the growth and exploration of ideas – in music recording, across the arts, and design – but ideas of what a studio can be are opening up and going online. In the words of Person 1: “The studio is not a closed unit, it’s an instrumental part of society; creativity is about interdependence”.

That says something about the way we should value creativity in society, I think, as something that both generates growth and connects expertise around a common discourse. That might be a design discourse or an artistic discourse, but the effects are the same: compelling ideas that show us how we should live, and help us to live better.

So I’ll leave the last word to Person 2:

“[The creative process] is the most extraordinary process. The way that it comes from nothing. When you step back and you think about it, it’s bizarre, that it’s Wednesday afternoon at 3 and there’s nothing. There is nothing at all. And then at 5, there’s an idea…”

And who are the people?

Well, Person 1 is Danish-Icelandic artist Olafur Eliasson, famous for the 2006 ‘Weather Project’ setting sun in the Turbine Hall at London’s Tate Modern, and Person 2 is the British head of Design at Apple Computers, Jonathan Ive.

Not so different, really.


Design Education is Tragic says Jonathan Ive, Dezeen, November 2014, http://tinyurl.com/mju3pkf

His Place in the Sun, Olafur Eliasson tells Jackie Wullschlager about the challenge of staging an immersive spectacle at the museum of France’s richest man, Financial Times Weekend, 6-7th September, 2014.

Design Education in the Wired Weird World

I was at an interesting talk last week at the Royal Society of Arts and Manufactures in London. The talk was on ‘Design and Democracy’ and was given by Alistair Parvin, co-founder of WikiHouse, an organization that promotes open-source construction (in opposition to the developer-led variety). It’s well worth watching, as he brings the threads of modern architecture and market economics together, and you can see it here.

Trained as an architect it was enlightening hearing his views on design education in the Q&A following the talk (also in the video above). In the UK, architectural education is regulated by the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) who set out the basic requirements for curriculum. Becoming a qualified architect takes six years. Part 1 involves 3 years of study at a University, there then follows a year of working in architectural practice, and finally Part 2 involves a further 2 years of study. At the end of all that you can just about call yourself an architect.

Parvin remarked that, for his peer group, coming back to study for Part 2, following working for a year, was a strange experience. The general view was that the world that they thought they were being prepared for in their Part 1 qualification didn’t really exist. The commercial business of architecture had completely overridden their fledgling theoretical and ideological concerns. Architecture, as they had been taught it, seemed like a figment of imagination; a flight of fancy.

What has changed? Like many creative professions there is a paradox at the heart of architecture. While espousing free-thinking, and indeed helping to create large scale changes in society, the institutions that educate and regulate creative professions are themselves deeply resistant to change. The institutions are institutionalised! Old and established traditions and methods are rehearsed and repeated year after year as wide-eyed graduates emerge, blinking, into a wired and weird world.

So the web has changed the world; in terms of information, communication, connectivity, global consciousness, social mores, you name it the web has changed it.

The real question is how has design education changed? The answer is, not much at all. The design-tutor-sitting-across-the-table-from-the-student-and-critiquing-their-work model is alive and mostly well, albeit played out in slightly different environments – at the computer rather than the drawing board, though, even now, often still at the drawing board.

There are signs of wear and tear. Expertise, it seems to me, is so distributed now, and insight so available, that tutors are fast becoming institutional ciphers; the necessary but increasingly ignorant gatekeepers to qualifications. If, for example, I wanted to teach you about democratic design, why would I not direct you to Parvin’s video and ask you to critically examine the concepts he talks about? We could talk about that thing about ethics at the end – who is responsible if an open-source structure falls down? Or his idea that democracy is problematic – does that hold water? and is democracy an unalloyed good thing anyway? Or I might ask you if the commercial business model he sketches at the beginning is reasonable and viable?

In short, Parvin has already done a lot of my teaching work, there on the web. My task as a modern teacher is more curatorial – to select, explain, criticise, and interpret – rather than to attempt to transfer knowledge (my out-of-date knowledge!) from my head to yours. Design education, rather than teaching technique, is finally free to think about larger issues of value, connectedness, system, responsibility, or maybe just how the wired world is such a weird place.  Perhaps design education is scared of the freedom?

Another thing that you can find on the web (right here) is a well-worked blueprint for a different kind of design education.

In 1957 Charles and Ray Eames were invited by the Indian Prime Minister Nehru to make recommendations about how the poor quality of consumer goods could be addressed through better education. They spent six months travelling around India trying to put their fingers on the problem and came up with one of the most elegant and spare solutions I know of: an institute and curriculum for design education.


Charles and Ray Eames 1958 India Report

Their 1958 report, at a mere 15 pages, outraged many in the Indian government who had expected a rather thicker tome. The long-but-short size, at 272 x 145mm, suggestive of legal documents, is about as far away from a golden section as you can get but adds a modern integrity to the contents. Its structure, though graphically not strictly consistent, is a model of economy and clarity. In its sparseness is its beauty and in its beauty is its longevity; each sentence – each phrase – carefully constructed to address the local context but to sound overtones of general, and still relevant, significance.

Part 1 outlines the problem:

“the change India is undergoing is a change in kind not a change of degree. The medium that is producing this change is communication; not some influence of the West and East. The phenomenon of communication is something that affects a world not a country.” (p.3)

Take away ‘India’ and place ‘the UK’ or ‘the US’ or ‘China’ in its place and you’ll see how up-to-date this analysis remains.

A well-chosen example of current practice illustrates the potential. The Indian Lota, a drinking vessel, is deconstructed to its constituent parts – size, materials, use, transport, manufacture, heat-transfer, cost, pleasure, aesthetics – parts, now consciously itemised, but never consciously designed. The potential is the transfer from unconscious to conscious.

Part 2 outlines the solution:

An Institute for Design – students, staff, projects, methods, estate, and impact – of which the Eames identify only architectural education as a precedent for the type of educational experience they have in mind, and then only a poor one:

“As a group, young architects are apt to be involvable in general social problems and in theatre, dance, music and other aspects of communications. They tend to have a higher than average potential for enthusiasm. This is important because if they are enthusiastic enough they might discover some of the values that exist in the commonplace things that surround them. There are some good clues in the everyday solutions to unspectacular problems, in vernacular expressions that are so often ignored” (p.7)

Mostly, however, they advocate a mix of disciplines for both students and staff. Possible students could be engineers, economists, mathematicians, philosophers and (yes) housewife, while staff should teach physics, physiology, music, graphics, logistics, statistics, and demography (to name a few). The Eames are clearly framing the institute as a place of further learning where existing disciplinary and professional knowledge is brought in to service through the lens of design. Proto Design Thinking in other words.

And then there are the projects: A, B, C, and D. Each a little off the beaten track, but all complexly connected.

Project A is aimed at understanding what is valuable in the world around us; what would you take from your house when it burns down, for example? What do you keep in your purse or wallet?

Project B is an open-ended study into a design theme, shelter or lighting for example, with the aim of producing prototypes, histories, models, future visions which can then be communicated through exhibitions, films, and literature.

Project C is to look at the design of a system, in terms of its values, identity, components, dress, technology, relationship to government. The post office is chosen as an example (note: I would include a discussion of Thomas Pynchon’s Crying of Lot 59 on this project!).

Project D is to design for an occasion: a parade, investiture, or sporting event, and illustrating the Eames’ analogy of the designer as a host. An occasion is a tricky problem, they write:

“it seems light but demands a knowledge of prime objectives [and] demands unity” (p.13)

And that is the report in a nutshell. You think it is light, but it states objectives clearly, provides an integrated solution, and has a unity and depth that belies its presentation.

There is a brief section outlining how the institute should engage industry and government, jointly working on contemporary problems, and that’s pretty much it.

What stuck me is that what the Eames advocate is pretty similar, across almost six decades, to what Parvin advocates: design is about understanding the world, and making good connections in that world. He said something that I thought was valuable and to which, I think, the Eames would have assented. So, as the wired weird world demands, I Tweeted it to the community.

A Tweet is not exactly a Lota, but it’s not far off, so maybe it’s a good place to start for tomorrow’s design education.

What’s Real in the Real World? or The Economics of Intangibility

Three articles in close succession caught my eye last week. The first article was on the discipline of Economics and how students are demanding that the subject be taught differently, following the financial crises of 2008. Their claim is that their subject, ignorant of the increasing disparities in wealth distribution, is out of touch with the realities of the modern, networked, conflicted, and frankly greedy world.

“The real world should be brought back into the classroom” they argue, “as well as debate and a pluralism of theories and methods. This will help renew the discipline and ultimately create a space in which solutions to society’s problems can be generated.”

The intellectual space that the new Economics creates, they argue, could prepare the ground for real change. The students want interaction and engagement between disciplines; they want up-to-date and relevant. No more Nash equilibriums and neo-liberalism for them then; beautiful minds or not.

That economics is out of date is ably illustrated in the second article about Gerd Gigerenzer, whose work on the limitations of human rationality followed that of Herbert Simon. Sorry, Nobel prize winning economist Herbert Simon. The problem of many of his peers, Gigerenzer notes, is that they:

“begin from the assumption that various ‘rational’ approaches to decision-making must be the most effective ones. Then, when they discover that is not how people operate, they define that as making a mistake: “When they find that we judge differently, they blame us, instead of their models!” ”

Oh dear, another black mark for models, this time in Psychology! No students revolting their yet though.

Gigerenzer illustrates this with reference to Goldman Sach’s executives blaming their firm’s 2008 collapse on a ‘25-sigma event’ – something as likely as winning the national lottery 21 times in a row; i.e. something very, very, very, very (keep adding ‘very’s ad infinitum) unlikely.

Certainly not the type of event that would happen, as the aforementioned executives subsequently claimed, five times in five days.

The outdated models of the economists, coupled with the outdated models of the psychologists, have produced a quicksand unfit to generate any type of solution on. A fine old intellectual mess, in other words.

Which brings me to the third article about how to value intangible assets. The article begins:

“The link between economic growth and building things – preferably big things – is irresistible to politicians, but it makes it easy to ignore the less camera-friendly assets, from brands to intellectual property that make a modern economy hum. Spending on intangible things such as intellectual property, brands, software and design now outstrips spending on buildings and machinery in Britain.”

Is it now politicians, with their GDP obsession, who have got their models of growth (possibly given to them by the economists) all in a muddle? Most likely (with a probability far from a 25-Sigma event).

The ‘problem’ that is now slowly being solved is how to accurately value intangible assets, like Intellectual Property.

It is an algorithm that comes to the rescue, not us infallible humans (aren’t alogorithms created by humans? – ed.). Software called Yongle searches worldwide patent databases to work out if an idea is a novel one. Once this novelty is determined the idea can be valued economically. That means that not only can a market in intangible assets start achieving steady growth, but also that a truer picture of what actually keeps the economy ticking along can be gained.

This all sounds suspiciously like another way of making money to me, and I think that is what the students were objecting to in the first place. There are things that are happening now that can’t be valued because they are about the value system itself, not a value in a system of value.

I shall leave Robert F. Kennedy to elegantly express the problem in his 1968 address to the University of Kansas (16:20 – 18:10):

“Too much and too long, we seem to have surrendered community excellence and community values in the mere accumulation of material things. Our gross national product … if we should judge America by that – counts air pollution and cigarette advertising, and ambulances to clear our highways of carnage. It counts special locks for our doors and the jails for those who break them. It counts the destruction of our redwoods and the loss of our natural wonder in chaotic sprawl. It counts napalm and the cost of a nuclear warhead, and armored cars for police who fight riots in our streets. It counts Whitman’s rifle and Speck’s knife, and the television programs which glorify violence in order to sell toys to our children.

“Yet the gross national product does not allow for the health of our children, the quality of their education, or the joy of their play. It does not include the beauty of our poetry or the strength of our marriages; the intelligence of our public debate or the integrity of our public officials. It measures neither our wit nor our courage; neither our wisdom nor our learning; neither our compassion nor our devotion to our country; it measures everything, in short, except that which makes life worthwhile. And it tells us everything about America except why we are proud that we are Americans.”

The first paragraph has a similar structure to the last paragraphs of James Joyce’s short story The Dead, but it is the second paragraph of the Kennedy speech which strikes the stirring chord.  To me it is about better education.  How can we appreciate the qualities of life that Kennedy refers to except through better education? The students seem to realise this, and perhaps they are right; it’s time for academics to catch up with the real world.

In 1968 a certain Nobel prize winning economist called Milton Friedman was also giving an address. This time a presidential address to the American Economics Association titled: ‘The Role of Monetary Policy’ in which he concluded:

“By setting itself a steady course and keeping to it, the monetary authority could make a major contribution to promoting economic stability. By making that course one of steady but moderate growth in the quantity of money, it would make a major contribution to avoidance of either inflation or deflation of prices. Other forces would still affect the economy, require change and adjustment, and disturb the even tenor of our ways. But steady monetary growth would provide a monetary climate favorable to the effective operation of those basic forces of enterprise, ingenuity, invention, hard work, and thrift that are the true springs of economic growth. That is the most that we can ask from monetary policy at our present stage of knowledge. But that much-and it is a great deal-is clearly within our reach.”

Hmmm, ‘steady but moderate growth’ – we’ve not seen that for a while have we?


Panini and the Design of Experience

As the 2014 World Cup creeps up on us, a favourite from my youth has returned once again – the Panini sticker album. Based in Modena, Italy (though long since bought and sold themselves and stuck into a multi-national portfolio) Panini have masterminded the pre-world cup lives of schoolboys worldwide since 1970. What a good, simple, and long-lasting idea this is: produce a blank album and sell the stickers to fill it up. Once you’ve started sticking it’s difficult not to get obsessed with filling every empty slot, particularly if you are predisposed to a collector mentality.

Panini England

Panini World Cup 2014: The partially complete England team.

The first world cup album to be produced featured 271 stickers and was for the 1970 Mexico world cup that England were fancied to win, but didn’t, losing an early 2-0 lead to the Germans in the quarter finals. The numbers for the 2014 world cup tend to work against you though. With 32 teams taking part that means a total of 639 stickers to collect and at 50 pence for a pack of five stickers that means £64 if every sticker was unique, but therein lies the problem. In reality you’re likely to spend well over £100 to get anything like a full album.

Fortunately, a whole e-cottage industry has grown up, helping you to get just the stickers you need far beyond the school playground. Swapping forums, eBay, and Amazon all come in handy and even Panini helps you out: “using the internet to order your missing stickers is quick and easy”, the back of the 2014 album states, although the maximum you can order is 50 stickers.

The sticker album idea relates to design and education quite well I think, after all, in a superficial way education is nothing more than collecting a series of grades from assignments that are set. You need the knowledge and experience of course – that is where the teaching comes in – but essentially you are sticking stickers into an album.

That makes the design of the album interesting. Panini strike a nice balance with their album design. Although it looks fine without the stickers, you realise that as you add stickers, the pages take on a nice weight, like a medieval document. Through adding stickers the album itself becomes more substantial, which makes the activity inherently motivating .

Panini: Italy

Panini World Cup 2014: The not-too-far-from complete Italy team.

The album/sticker combination is valuable in another way because, as the stickers are collected over a period of time, it naturally implies an extended time-based, experiential element. You learn about making deals, about markets, about scarcity, and about strange attachments.  Unlike other kinds of designed product, the final product is only officially complete if the users put the right things in the right places, the ‘things’ being tokens of a deeper level of experience.

Another collection experience this weekend illustrates this further: a cycling randonee, or series of checkpoints on a route around the Isle of Wight.

Isle of Wight Randonee 2014

Completed 2014 Isle of Wight Randonee Check Card

The image above shows a stamp for each checkpoint I visited along the route. The first checkpoint gives you the card (or album) and the each subsequent one gives you a stamp on your card – six stamps for a full-house! And between each checkpoint you have an experience; a riding-along-a-road experience that takes in landscape, odd processions of motorcyclists, brief conversations, cute dogs, nailed-on tudor houses, overgrown gardens, and leafy woods saturated in birdsong.  Behind the stamp is experience, and behind experience is wonder and learning.

The sticker album is a framework for learning, and that should always be a well-designed framework.