February 09, 2007

Wanted: designer of a dreamy den or a tantalising tent

The culmination of Dott07’s year in North East England (where Doors is programming the content) will be a festival in October to celebrate the achievements, challenges and experiences of all those who have taken part in projects. Our dream for the Festival location is that it will inspire people to enter, and empower them, once inside, to engage with the stories and with each other on equal terms. In other words, the look-and-feel should be the opposite of a raucous trade fair or a self-obsessed art event. Keywords: encounter; participation; interaction; empowering; active, welcoming. When you leave you should feel inspired, not exhausted. Who do you think could do this best? Tell them to check out the Dott Festival Creative Tender

Posted by John Thackara at 04:10 PM | Comments (0)

July 19, 2006

The coming shake-out in design education

The new Coroflot, launched by Allan Chochinov and his colleagues this week, boasts a staggering 33,000 design portfolios and more than 135,000 registered users. Gross visitor numbers to Coroflot (and its sister site, Core77 ) are many times higher than that. A major attraction is Coroflot's steady flow of job postings, updated by the minute.

I'm convinced that sites like Core77 are going to have a huge impact on design education, and soon. A fast-growing gulf is opening up between the reputations of many design schools and universities, on the one hand, and the reality of what they are able to deliver to current students on the other.

Many design schools have been compelled by governments to expand student numbers. But they have been given diminishing resources per student to do so. The results of this are now being felt. Jeff Banks, a leading British employer of designers, writes about "design education meltdown" in the August issue of Blueprint. "Employers are asking if the degrees of graduates from design schools are worth the paper they're printed on", he writes.

Prospective students that I have met of late also ask whether it is worth going to design school. They know they will leave tens of thousands of dollars or euros in debt - at a time when the prospect of a highly-paid job, to pay it off, is by no means guaranteed.

Some respected universities are offering places to one in every two applicants to design programmes this year. Five years ago, the ratio would have been 1:7. How long before they have empty places? How many already do?

Many big-name schools in the US and Europe are kept afloat financially by the fees of foreign students, particularly at postgraduate level. This cash cow will evaporate fast if the reputations of big-name schools start to deteriorate. International students will not shell out premium fees for a devalued certificate.

Among Core77's discussions among design students, for example, comments like this are typical: "I am now studying master industrial design at (School X) and I definitely DO NOT RECOMMEND this school. You can ask the other 19 students of industrial master and other 50 students from other masters and they most of them will answer you the same".

Sites like Core77 enable prospective students to communicate directly with current ones. They compare the reality of life in a school to its reputation, and to the promises made in its marketing. Under-performing colleges - and there are many, including some with inflated reputations - are going to run into trouble. Soon.

Posted by John Thackara at 09:33 AM | Comments (0)

June 15, 2006

Social Silicon Valleys

The Young Foundation has published a manifesto for social innovation Written by a team led by Geoff Mulgan, Social Silicon Valleys compares the vast investments made each year in scientific R&D (nearly 12 billion euros of public spending on R&D in the UK alone) with the piecemeal and marginal investment that is made in social innovation. The pamphlet warns that addressing the most important challenges of this century – including climate change, ageing and chronic disease, as well as the prospects for sustainable growth – will depend as much on social innovation as new technologies. The publication is supported by the British Council as part of the preparation for an international conference in China with ministers and city leaders from Europe and China to be held in Beijing in October.

Posted by John Thackara at 07:00 AM | Comments (0)

December 19, 2005

Shops as museums

A typically excellent piece by Karrie Jacobs in next month's Metropolis discusses "how hard it is to mount a really innovative contemporary industrial-design show these days. The problem--and it's not specific to MoMA--is that the products one can find on the shelves of almost any store are likely to be as varied, sophisticated, and inventive as the objects a museum can pull together".

Posted by John Thackara at 10:32 AM | Comments (0)

August 12, 2005

Only losers wear striped shirts

A gift from Brenda Laurel has cost me dear. The eminent design professor at Art Center, in California, sent me a copy of a new report called 'Tweens: Technology, Personal Agency, Engagement'. The result of a year-long research project sponsored by HP, the book is an intriguing portrait of Californian tweens (ages 11-14): How they think, feel. act, and relate to each other and the world. One of the researchers responds: 'the tweens research has made me ponder the nature of why kids are becoming more consumer conscious at an earlier age'. The book does not address the questions: Who owns information about these young adults' lives? Are we comfortable, as design researchers, making such intimate insights available to a big tech company? I would have pontificated further on these weighty issues had not a more imnportant one distracted me. A knowing 12-year-old is quoted saying that 'only losers wear striped shirts'. So I now have to find a loser to give about seven of mine to.

Posted by John Thackara at 11:33 AM | Comments (1)

May 04, 2005

Europe's institutional Spruce Goose

The European Commission President, Jose Manuel Barroso, wants to create a European Institute of Technology to compete with MIT. According to one report, there's a belief that “Europe needs an institution capable of  bringing together its currently too-dispersed scientific and teaching excellence". Instead of creating one new institution, the EIT would be a network institution founded on about six of the best universities in the EU. Five of these would be responsible for coordinating the main areas of EIT work (chemistry/materials science, life sciences/biotechnology, physics/communication sciences, etc); the sixth would be responsible for making the EIT network function. My own view? This top-heavy monster has the appearance of a network organisation, but the body and brain of a Barosaurus. EIT is not needed, and will never fly. The European Research Area contains hundreds of tech-based universities and research labs; their workers intertact and network with each other continuously, and a new 'center' is the last thing this thriving ecosystem needs. Barroso makes life needlessly hard on himself (and the rest of us) by defining economic success only in terms of tech-based economic growth. His people frantically measure things like biotech patents to persuade themselves that more needs to be done. What Europe really needs is a European Institute of Well-Being, directed by this author, whose task would be celebrate the many facets of life in Europe that work perfectly well without clunky, expensive technology.

Posted by John Thackara at 06:51 AM | Comments (0)

April 26, 2005

Service design project showcase

One of the thrills of my working year in 2004 was helping a UK team develop the concept and business plan for a new service design institute in Newcastle-upon-Tyne - my home town. One North East, a UK regional development authority, is nurturing a post-coal, post-iron, post-shipbuilding economy with great flair. The Design Innovation Research Centre (DIEC) will play a pivotal role in the next phase of ONE's plans. Part grad school, part project organization, DIEC will be an actor, not an observer, in the region's service economy. A seminar in May will focus on four DIEC service design pilot projects, based on real-world situations, that are paving the way for the institute itself: they include an 'Airport Of Tomorrow' a National Health Service hospital. May 19 2005 15.30h BALTIC, Level 1 Performance Space, Gateshead. For a ticket to ther seminar contact: katharine.nott@diec.co.uk, or katharine.nott@onenortheast.co.uk

Posted by John Thackara at 06:57 PM | Comments (0)

Europe's IST research priorities

A new survey of front-line researchers in 25 EU countries reveals surprising devations from tech policy orthodoxy. The so-called Fistera Delphi (it's a system for averaging the results of an opinon survey) asked experts, including this writer, to prioritise research priorities for 2010 and beyond. Strong endorsement was given to “Education and Learning” as an application area for IST that "contributes to the construction of a European knowledge society". (I voted against this, for reasons rehearsed elsewhere). But my vote seems to have counted on other issues: domains such as leisure and recreation, ageing, and security, scored much less well than the report's editors seem to have anticipated. This led them to comment, rather plaintively I thought, that "this result is rather surprising given the huge markets that exist around these areas". I was reassured that European IT experts don't buy the corporate push in these domains. Even more encouraging: "improving IPR protection" came last among the challenges proposed by the report's editors.

Posted by John Thackara at 12:51 PM | Comments (0)

February 11, 2005

Service design notation

What does a service design look like? How are we to represent and visualize such complex artefacts as a service, a scenario, or a strategy? Francois Jegou has been investigating this challenge together with Ezio Manzini in a project called 'Sustainable Everyday: Scenarios of Urban Life'. They looked for examples of what everyday life might be like in a sustainable society - how we work, move, and take care of each other - and then developed ways to represent how these services worked. Here is the story so far. One aim of the workshop at Doors 8 is to find what other communication techniques are out there.

Posted by John Thackara at 11:19 AM | Comments (0)

January 21, 2005

Watch out for that pesky eagle

When I googled "homeland security" and "design" today I got 1,350,000 hits - up from 600,000 back in August. An editorial site called Embedded Computing Design comes top. 'Many embedded devices are located in areas critical for homeland security' the text intones, 'from the power grid and the communications infrastructure to power utilities, railroads, and chemical and nuclear plants'. Yikes: and did we think about this risk before we deployed these devices? No, I don't think we did. Curiously, a beady-eyed eagle also features on the home page: it looks as it it's about to swoop off and eat a ton of these mission-critical devices for lunch. I also googled "design" and "freedom" and got....12,900,000 hits. That list is topped by a company that makes houses out of steel .

Posted by John Thackara at 09:44 AM | Comments (0)

January 18, 2005

Closure of Media Lab Europe

It's sad news indeed that Media Lab Europe (MLE), the European research partner of MIT Media Lab in the US, is to close.
Neither of the Lab's main stakeholders - MIT itself, and the Irish government - was prepared to fund the Lab once it became clear that it would not become self-financing through corporate funding for its research. MLE was on its third director in as many years when the decision to close was made, but these individuals were not the reason MLE failed. It was doomed by a businesss plan written during the tech boom which they had to implement during a tech bust. What will be hurting the 100 people at MLE the most, right now, is the knowledge that they were only just getting going. It takes years to build momentum in a research institute, and over the past year MLE had started to carve out its own agenda and develop an independent personality. It's a rotten business that it had to stop right now.

Posted by John Thackara at 06:38 PM | Comments (1)

January 11, 2005

Fearful of the fear factor

Googling design + 'homeland security' yields 1,290,000 hits on Google today - up from 600,000 last August. The fear factor is fast becoming a big business. But how significant and extensive are the actual threats? A timely seminar on 10 February at the Oxford Internet Institute examines one aspect of the fear boom: spam. To what extent are organized criminal syndicates and terrorists using and abusing the Internet? DK Matai discusses the myths and realities of security threats from his perspective as chairman of one of the leading authorities on electronic security for major financial institutions, government agencies and multi nationals in Europe, America and Asia. Places are limited for this event and must be reserved in advance from: events@oii.ox.ac.uk.

Posted by John Thackara at 12:55 PM | Comments (0)

November 01, 2004

New Dark Ages? Not At All

"Avoidance of difficulty or unpleasantness. Disavowal of extreme situations. Retreat into distraction. These appear to be the hallmarks of the fast-encroaching New Dark Ages". No, these words are not about the U.S. election results. They're a comment by Anne Marie Willis, editor of Design Philosophy Papers, on the state of design research. Having tried, via a mailing list, to engage 1,000 PhD design researchers in environmental issues, all that Willis encountered was "a small flicker of debate". Her conclusion: "Signs of climate change abound. Extreme weather events are on the increase all over the world. But there seems to be an inverse relation between extremity of conditions, and preparedness to contemplate them". Anne Marie, perhaps you're looking in the wrong place? Academics are condemned by their business model to be inward-looking, and self-referential - but, out in the world, a lot of exciting design creativity is bubbling up.We need to focus on that. www.desphilosophy.com

Posted by John Thackara at 08:17 AM | Comments (0)

October 31, 2004

"On Brand"

Am I the last person to hear the expression "on brand" used in the context of design? It was one of several expressions that I heard for the first time at the World Creative Forum in London a couple of weeks ago. Another novelty, for me, was the description of Creative Industries as a "portfolio investment" by a dapper young man from the Singapore government. CI will grow to six percent of that country's GDP by 2012, he said, with great precision.

Posted by John Thackara at 10:13 AM | Comments (0)

March 22, 2000

Objectionable objects: the failure of Workspheres

At the invitation of Paola Anotonelli, one of the world leading design curators and an eminence at at MoMA in New York, I spent a most enjoyable year talking with her, Aura Oslapas (from Stone Yamashita), Bruce Mau, and Larry Keeley, about the future of work and what that future portended for design. Paola’s show was an enormous smash hit. - but I was disappointed how little of our ‘beyond the object’ thinking made into ino the exhibition.

Are museums a menace? I have long thought most of them to be harmless, but boring; good places for tourists to escape from the rain, and for art persons to escape from the present. But, having recently attended the opening of Workspheres at MoMA in New York, I wonder now if I have been too complacent.

Paola Antonelli's show is a smash hit - "off the charts" in the words of Chee Pearlman, a very Solomon (or should it be Solomona?) of what's in, and hot, in the US-of-A. There were more people at the press opening than attend most public openings of big art shows; the private view proper, that evening, was simply packed; a heaving, black-clad throng containing everyone who is anyone in architecture and design. The next day Herbert Muschamp, the arch but hugely influential architecture critic of the New York Times, said Antonelli's show "falls just short of greatness; modernity is back at the Modern, and Ms Antonelli's got it."

If this is the new modernity, then I'm worried. I should explain that I was involved in the development of Workspheres as one of Paola's Antonelli's advisers. I admire her enormously as one of the great curators of our time, otherwise I would not have been seduced into taking part. So this piece is as much a self-criticism as anything. But I believe that this smash--hit show tells more or less the opposite story about the future design of work, to the one we developed during the planning phase for much of 2000. Paola, our host, was sympathetic to the storyline we collectively developed during that year - indeed, she led the way in looking for fresh and insightful angles. Between those discussions, and the show itself, the storyline was turned upside down by the museum, and by the way it works.


Workspheres is a glittering collection of products for the workplace of the future; but it is all about tools. It says next to nothing about the content of the work we will do, and how we will do it. The show pushes design firmly back into the ghetto of pointless and narcissistic object-making from which thoughtful designers have been trying desperately to escape.

The show is full of objects for isolated and inward-gazing individuals. Many of these objects are harmless, if banal: Hella Jongerius' fur-covered bed, which appealed to the man at the Times, springs to mind. Others exhibits are downright insulting: the ponderous, gas-guzzling, permafrost-destroying Maxi-Mog Global Expedition Vehicle, by Bran Ferren and Thomas Ritter, would be a brilliant parody about the reification of male sexual insecurity; if it were not for real. Needless to say, it's the hit of the show.

The Workspheres catalogue is a metaphor of the twisted values of the museum system. The front section contains a series of essays (one of them is by me) about the changing nature of work; its collaborative nature, its paradoxical relationship with time, its attempt to engage with the incredibly complex world we have made. Then come the 'plates'; 140 pages of desks and chairs and mobile phones and accessories and gadgets. Hardly any people. No groups. No mess. No conflict. No fear. No confusion. No love.

At the end of the book, six specially commissioned projects are presented. Some of these are pretty interesting: Marti Guixe's surreal but insightful 'Hi Bye' mood-altering food system; Ideo Japan's 'personal skies' installation; John Maeda's time-mapping machine; LOT/EK's Inspiro-Trainer. But, although these special commissions look beyond the object in workspace design, they are lost in the book; and in the show, where all you see is desks and chairs.


Museums like MoMA are big, rich machines that produce, not understanding, nor meaning, but exhibitions and catalogues. They have hordes of staff to keep busy: researchers, people who buy things, conservators, cataloguers, display designers, and catalogue editors constantly on the scrounge for beautiful pictures of; objects. Museums are like little galaxies; vast open spaces that their hordes of servants have to fill up with; things. And always, hordes of people queueing up outside waiting to escape from reality and be entertained.

What museums do not have, as institutions, is the remotest interest in changing the way we understand design. This is why I conclude that museums are a menace. Workspheres is the biggest and most prominent design exhibition for years; and it has a great theme. But it takes us backwards. It reinforces an object-centric understanding of design that is hopelsssly outdated.

I was prompted to write this self-criticism by two experiences on my return from New York. My first was the opportunity to check out KLM's new Operations Control Centre at Schiphol. I love this kind of thing: one hundred workstations face towards an enormous map of the world. For the people who work there, the map seems to function as a shared mental and physical space that enables them to co-ordinate an amazingly complex operation: KLM's aircraft cover nearly a million km a day, and just one long-haul 747 needs to be stocked up with 5,000 kg of catering equipment. While important, the design of the desks and the chairs and space in this room, while important, are a thousand times less interesting than the design of the communication flows among the people who sit in it; and between them and their computers and the planes and support vehicles buzzing about all over the world.


The second experience that hit me after Workspheres was a minor problem in our office. Eight of us work in two connected rooms; we have a great team that works really well together. What did not work well was a relationship with a writer working from home a few miles away. He is an excellent writer - a typical high-tech, powerbook-toting, mobile-always-on nomad of the kind celebrated in Workspheres. And we, of course, are excellent clients. But somehow, things between us did not 'click'. For all the phone calls and e-mails and briefing sessions, we did not build up any momentum of understanding during a six-month editorial project. And the reason? He was not there, with us, in the office. That's all. And the best desks and mobile devices in the world would not have made the slightest difference.

Kayoko Ota, in one of the best of the introductory essays to the Worksheres catalogue, gave our strangely intractable local difficulty a name: nemawashi. Originally a horticultural word that means 'to turn the roots' prior to replanting; or, by implication, 'laying the groundwork'; nemawashi has come to mean the process by which groups in Japan develop the shared understanding without which nothing much gets done. Workspheres; or, to be precise MoMA, the institution which created it; suffers from a nemawashi-deficit. They are fixated on things, and disconnected from the flows of people and ideas in the world from which we can really learn. Museums are probably unreformable, too. They are bad news for design.

Posted by John Thackara at 05:37 PM | Comments (0)