|Professor John Heskett|
Design can create markets
and drive economic growth
Sunday, 21 November 2010
John Heskett, Professor of Design, urges business to Use Design to Create Market Demand
“Markets are created, they do not just exist,” said Professor John Heskett to me last weekend when I visited him at his new home in Brighton. “The best way to achieve this is by embedding design into all aspects of managing corporate activities.”
He added, “Understanding by a company’s senior management of the full complexity of design, how it can best be matched to company needs and most effectively integrated into development processes at all levels is imperative.”
John Heskett has just returned to the UK from most of the past decade in Hong Kong. There he was Chair Professor of Design at the School of Design, Hong Kong Polytechnic University. Before that he spent fifteen years in the USA as Professor at the Institute of Design, Illinois Institute of Technology in Chicago.
Entering his beautiful home is a bit like entering a design museum. He and his wife Pamela have filled it with objects providing ‘balm for the soul’...from Han Dynasty artefacts in the hallway to lighting designed by Louis Poulsen, furniture by Gilbert Rohde, Børge Mogensen, Arne Jacobsen, Niels Diffrient and others too numerous to list. Of particular interest to me were the Marcel Breuer chairs designed for renowned former West Midlands’ manufacturer, PEL.
In recent years Professor Heskett’s research has focused on how design creates - and not just adds - economic value and the role of this in design policy in government and business.
His design credentials stretch back, I hope he won’t mind me saying, for some time. His first book ‘Industrial Design’ (Thames & Hudson) was published in 1980.
As a young lecturer, then at Coventry University, he felt his students did not have a text helping them to gain a structured understanding of how design can impact on our quality of life. Whilst they learnt about the history of art, they did not learn about the history of design.
“It became very obvious to me that you couldn’t neglect design history as this was an important part of the whole. It would be a bit like expecting individuals to exist without knowing who their family was.
“Students were being expected to re-invent the wheel. However, in other disciplines there is a body of knowledge to learn from and refer to, so you can ‘stand on the shoulders of giants’ rather than examining your own navel.”
Since then John has made his reputation internationally for the quality of his writing and thinking into how design can enhance our lives – and our businesses. As he points out, “almost nothing in our environment is completely natural. The wider social and economic world we inhabit is pretty much all designed, all man made - our homes, workplaces, schools, churches, malls, transport systems and places of entertainment.”
His last book, “A Very Short Introduction to Design”, published 2002, (Oxford University Press) ends with the chapter, “Future” posing the question, “Will the future pattern of what is produced and why, continue to be primarily determined by commercial companies, with designers identifying with their values; or by users, with designers and corporations serving their needs?”
How does John define that much-misunderstood term, ‘design’?
“Design,” he says, “is a basic human capability. Like language and music it defines us as human beings, derived from but also different from the rest of nature. This capability enables us to shape our physical environment, giving it meaning, with its outcomes clustered into objects, communications, spaces, services and the combination of some or all of these into systems.”
To this end it is vital that design teaching is oriented not only to the generation of ideas but to solutions to meet user needs enhancing quality of life.
“Generating creative ideas is relatively easy. The ideas in principle can be generated in large numbers at low cost. The biggest problem is bringing those ideas into reality within the productive processes and to the market in question. How to ensure ideas are appropriate to technologies, marketing, producer capacity and meeting the needs of users for the right price is crucial.”
His concerns are rooted in some of the current thinking behind design teaching. As he puts it, “Much of the confusion stems from perceptions of design as a branch of fine art, which limits understanding of design to the subjective manipulation by individuals of physical elements, such as forms, colours, materials, textures and so on, with ‘creativity’ being viewed as the polar opposite to processes of analysis, thought and methodology.”
Prof Heskett quotes Herbert Simon, 1978 Nobel Prize Laureate in Economics, who emphasised design as a process of decision-making directed towards change that could encompass both objective and subjective approaches and is a fundamental component of any professional activity.
As Simon put it, “Everyone designs who devises courses of action aimed at changing existing situations into preferred ones. ...Design so construed is the core of all professional training; it is the principal mark that distinguishes the professions from the sciences.”
A consequence of Simon’s definition is that a designer’s work is concerned with application and implementation, not just observation or reflection. Which means it cannot be justified solely in terms of self-definition, as in fine art where the integrity of any work stems from it being the essence of an individual’s vision.
“We are going nowhere in future if we have design students who do not understand technologies, manufacturing processes, distribution, social and cultural elements of how design structures our work and life and how design is woven into a social, cultural, ethical and political context.
“If we could get this right for our students this would be a very powerful learning experience for life and would get the very best students into design – competing with the other professions such as medicine, economics, management and law and laying the foundations for a career that could move right up through companies to the boardroom. How many British FTSE companies today have a designer on the board, or running the business?
“Whilst for designers individuality and creativity are crucial characteristics, designers also frequently work in teams and have to satisfy specific criteria on multiple levels such as - the requirements of employers or clients; compatibility with available technology, marketing and distribution systems, legal and environmental standards, economic criteria.
“This implies,” says John, “that design must ultimately be judged by its contribution to business success, in terms of profitability.”
If there are two key themes to Professor Heskett’s thinking about the power and relevance of design to our lives in future it is in thinking about systemic design and interactive design approaches.
As companies become more complex in response to the growing sophistication of users and their requirements, business needs to increasingly create new markets through innovative products and services. “It will do this using communications, environments and services combined into systems intended to demonstrate that the whole exceeds the sum of its parts.”
Examples include Samsung and 3M. 3M has invested substantial resources not just in encouraging experiment but in providing an environment in which the search for innovation is continuous, describing it as a ‘way of life’. “The company was founded in 1902,” says John Heskett “and since then they say they’ve introduced over 50,000 innovative products.”
“Samsung similarly encourages innovative design at all levels. When Samsung arranges meetings to negotiate loans for future development, the Chairman doesn’t only take along his financial advisors, but also a team of designers to talk about scenarios of the future. The company is now one of the best managed in the world in terms of its integration of design.”
Explaining the need for a greater emphasis on interactivity John says, “above all, designers must satisfy users or customers in a wide range of cultural conditions and contexts who determine whether any project is successful. The integrity of design here springs from the degree to which it satisfies actual and latent human needs.
“Only if what is designed is affordable, useful, accessible and pleasurable will it sell and give continuing satisfaction. In other words, I’m suggesting that users ultimately determine what constitutes value and innovation, and a focus on their needs and an emphasis on providing greater and deeper satisfaction to them is the key to sustainable profitability.”
Professor Heskett emphasizes: “Size is not a necessary factor in these approaches. ERCO, a German company specializing in architectural lighting, focuses on producing lighting fittings known for overall quality as well as quality of light produced. They employ about 600 people. Their former MD decided they were not going to produce any products made by other architectural lighting businesses—and it was this strategy and the systems needed to achieve this that ensured they’ve become Number 1 in the world in their sector.”
John Heskett concludes: “Where high levels of economic performance exist around the world, you will also find high levels of design performance integrated into organizations. Competition, moreover, is going to get fiercer. Brazil is strengthening its design education and practice. China is moving from the approach of Made in China using outside designs, to Designed in China and developing its own brands. We are facing a fundamental transformation and we cannot expect in the UK to achieve different results by doing the same kinds of things as in the past. If we want to be competitive in new technologies, it requires a rethinking of the roles design can play and how these can be managed, as a matter of urgency.”