More thoughts on digital design education

I was invited to share my thoughts on digital design education over on Medium as a contribution to the Interaction Design Education conference being held at the end of the month in Helsinki.

It’s a more considered response to the original article that sparked all this off – this time with some rather interesting facts and figures that demolish the argument that digital design education is ‘broken’.

For example:

According to the Design Council, digital design contributed £30 billion to the UK economy and £12 billion in exports in 2013. This grew 39.3% domestically and 58.3% globally from 2009–13. It the fastest growing design sector in the UK representing one in four design companies operating in the UK and employing 608,000 people (nearly 40% higher than in 2009). 68% of those working in digital design have a degree or higher — the largest proportion of all design disciplines.

Head on over to Medium to read the article, and please add your voice – whether you agree or not:

No, digital design education is not broken

No, digital design education isn’t ‘broken’

Kai's Power Tools - the cutting edge back in the day but like flares, not something we want to see come back again.
Kai’s Power Tools – the cutting edge back in the day but like flares, not something we want to see come back again.

When I was growing up, I was the only kid in my class from what was called ‘a broken home’. As such I was labelled and that label stuck. One thing I’ve taken in to my adult life is that it’s wrong to apply labels either to institutions – homes, schools, universities – and doubly wrong to let that label affect the way you see the products of those institutions.

So when I saw this on Twitter yesterday my reaction was not positive:

Take a moment and read his article – it’s certainly very interesting and intended to provoke a reaction, as evidenced in his tweet.

I have a lot of time for Andy Budd – I’ve followed his blog for years and learnt a lot from him. I gave a copy of his book to a student once and have recommended it to many more. I haven’t always agreed with his opinions on everything but he’s usually well-reasoned and his opinions demand respect. I say ‘usually’ because as I continued to read I began to recognise arguments that I’ve heard a lot over the last fifteen years, but which don’t stack up to the evidence. Now I should be more careful than I have been in what follows – I’ve taken the challenge and replied to hyperbole with hyperbole. And I realise I should be the last person to criticise another for sweeping statements. Be sure to read this as a criticism of the arguments, not the person, because I know that Andy and his colleagues give a lot to the design community, and to those new to the industry. Having said that, let’s rip… Continue reading No, digital design education isn’t ‘broken’

Fearless polymaths: irrelevance and creativity


In an interview with the Guardian, Anna Wintour, editor-in-chief of American Vogue, talked about a few things – Hillary Clinton in particular. But she also said something that piqued my interest:

“The young people we hire today at Condé Nast are fearless polymaths”

That’s about the fifth time I’ve heard that word in the past week. Admittedly the other four were because I used it. But I’ve had a few conversations recently, with both students and colleagues about the need, as one of my graduates advised current students before Christmas, to ‘be interesting’.

A colleague told me recently that more than one professional illustrator had advised students not to specialise, and to remain flexible, taking an interest in as much as possible and to express themselves creatively in as many ways as possible.

Wintour said the same thing in her Guardian interview:

Wintour used the opportunity to appeal to the younger generation to “not become too specialised” and instead “be intellectually free”


“I urge you instead to seek to be relevant, to be agile and educated.”

Continue reading Fearless polymaths: irrelevance and creativity

‘Motivated, creative and passionate’ – the words that kill your CV


How can we break out of the business “buzzword bingo” trap? When in doubt, some of George Orwell’s rules on clarity and simplicity in writing are worth remembering: never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech that you are used to seeing in print; never use a long word where a short one will do; if it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out. But more importantly, it ought to be possible to apply for a job without pretending to be something we are not. It shouldn’t be necessary to repeat a list of hackneyed workplace virtues. We should tell a potential employer who we are, in plain terms. If they are looking for someone like us, good. If not we will have avoided the unpleasant experience of getting stuck in a job that didn’t really suit us.

Read the full story here

Creative industries contributed £84bn to UK economy in 2014

Doctor who christmas 2010

A report from the Department for Culture, Media and Sport published yesterday says the Creative Industries grew twice as fast as the rest of the British economy. The Guardian reports:

One of the areas of strongest growth was in film, TV, video, radio and photography, which rose almost 14%, second only to architecture and graphic products and fashion design. Advertising and marketing increased by almost 11% between 2013 and 2014 but publishing went up just 2.8%. The number of jobs in the creative industries – which includes both creative and support roles – increased by 5.5% in the same time period, to 1.8 million. The creative industries economic estimates are official government statistics used to measure the direct economic contribution of those industries to the UK economy.

That’s based on figures from 2014. So let me contrast that with a statement made in November 2015 by Education Secretary Nicky Morgan. telling students to study ‘proper’ subjects that matter to the economy:

If you didn’t know what you wanted to do… then the arts and the humanities were what you chose because they were useful, we were told, for all kinds of jobs.

We now know that this couldn’t be further from the truth. That the subjects to keep young people’s options open are STEM subjects – science, technology, engineering and maths.

I wonder if the Department for Culture, Media and Sport have sent their report to the Department for Education?

The Design curriculum in English schools includes… cooking

Children cooking at school
This is what design is, according to the English National Curriculum


Worrying news about the state of teacher recruitment in the UK.

The number of new teachers for design and technology is also more than a third below what it needs to be and there is a 10% shortfall in the number of IT teachers required.

This is a pattern across most subjects (though there are too many art teachers, apparently).

Design courses at university still recruit students who’ve done art at school, rather than other subjects – even though those subjects may be more appropriate (psychology, sociology). That’s a relic of a past age, long overdue being taken outside and shot. But given that there’s a perfectly good design curriculum in schools, why are so many children doing art instead? Is design seen as engineering?

Here’s the Key Stage 3 Design Curriculum for England:

Through a variety of creative and practical activities, pupils should be taught the knowledge, understanding and skills needed to engage in an iterative process of designing and making. They should work in a range of domestic and local contexts [for example, the home, health, leisure and culture], and industrial contexts [for example, engineering, manufacturing, construction, food, energy, agriculture (including horticulture) and fashion].

When designing and making, pupils should be taught to:


  • use research and exploration, such as the study of different cultures, to identify and understand user needs
  • identify and solve their own design problems and understand how to reformulate problems given to them
  • develop specifications to inform the design of innovative, functional, appealing products that respond to needs in a variety of situations
  • use a variety of approaches [for example, biomimicry and user-centred design], to generate creative ideas and avoid stereotypical responses
  • develop and communicate design ideas using annotated sketches, detailed plans, 3-D and mathematical modelling, oral and digital presentations and computer-based tools


  • select from and use specialist tools, techniques, processes, equipment and machinery precisely, including computer-aided manufacture
  • select from and use a wider, more complex range of materials, components and ingredients, taking into account their propertie


  • analyse the work of past and present professionals and others to develop and broaden their understanding
  • investigate new and emerging technologies
  • test, evaluate and refine their ideas and products against a specification, taking into account the views of intended users and other interested groups
  • understand developments in design and technology, its impact on individuals, society and the environment, and the responsibilities of designers, engineers and technologists

Technical knowledge

  • understand and use the properties of materials and the performance of structural elements to achieve functioning solutions
  • understand how more advanced mechanical systems used in their products enable changes in movement and force
  • understand how more advanced electrical and electronic systems can be powered and used in their products [for example, circuits with heat, light, sound and movement as inputs and outputs]
  • apply computing and use electronics to embed intelligence in products that respond to inputs [for example, sensors], and control outputs [for example, actuators], using programmable components [for example, microcontrollers].

For me there’s too much emphasis on CAD and engineering rather than research and ideation. I feel the influence of James Dyson here but that stuff could be left until later in students’ education, particularly as universities have far better facilities than schools. We get too many students who think design is about working on a computer and not enough who think it has anything to do with talking to actual people.

Bizarrely, however, the Design Curriculum also includes a section on… cooking. I kid you not:

pupils should be taught how to cook and apply the principles of nutrition and healthy eating. Instilling a love of cooking in pupils will also open a door to one of the great expressions of human creativity. Learning how to cook is a crucial life skill that enables pupils to feed themselves and others affordably and well, now and in later life.

If you look at the comments Dyson made during the consultation phase it sounds like there was even more cooking – and gardening – in there. The gardening’s gone (although I daren’t look at Key Stages 1 and 2), but the cooking remains. I’m all for cooking. I agree it’s a crucial skill and an expression of human creativity. But it belongs in a design curriculum as much as physics belongs in Religious Education.

Anyway. Back to the problem with recruiting teachers.

Until teachers are valued (financially – words are cheap) you’ll never recruit as many as you need. And that’s true no matter which educational sector you look at. Why is a city financier paid more than the people who taught her? There’s a school (no pun intended) of thought that says that teaching is a calling, a sacrifice, and that you shouldn’t do it for the money. Okay. I can buy in to the idea that someone shouldn’t seek to teach simply for the money. But turning that around into a justification for crap wages is the sort of bullshit that can only come from someone who managed to get through school and university without anything approaching common sense.

Incidentally, the Government rejects the headline, saying we’re recruiting far more teachers than ever before. But that’s not the same as saying ‘we’ve got enough teachers’. It’s not keeping pace. Numeracy isn’t just the ability to add numbers up; it’s the ability to understand what they mean.

In kids cartoons, 0% of princesses are engineers, 2.9% of characters are black, and Batman doesn’t recycle

Detective Dot book and apps

News via The Guardian of a new Kickstarter campaign to tackle poor representation of girls/women in STEM subjects (or rather STEAM – they quite rightly include the arts where they belong, alongside the other disciplines).

“In kids cartoons, 0% of princesses are engineers, 2.9% of characters are black, and Batman doesn’t recycle. And kids spend up to 9 hours in front of screens seeing this stuff everyday,” explains Detective Dot’s Kickstarter pitch. “We’re obsessed with buying stuff but we don’t know how it’s made or who made it. Kids media is heavily stereotyped. Children, particularly girls and minorities, need positive role models in engineering, science, technology, arts and maths.”

Read the Guardian article here and contribute to the Kickstarter campaign here

Japanese bookshop stocks only one book at a time

Japanese Bookstore

A story from The Guardian on a bookstore in Japan that’s hit upon a novel approach to helping people choose what to read next.

“This bookstore that sells only one book could also be described as ‘a bookstore that organises an exhibition derived from a single book’. For instance, when selling a book on flowers, in the store could be exhibited a flower that actually appears in the book. Also, I ask the authors and editors to be at the bookstore for as much time as possible. This is an attempt to make the two-dimensional book into three-dimensional ambience and experience. I believe that the customers, or readers, should feel as though they are entering ‘inside a book’.”

This reminded me of ‘the one book booklist’ I introduced when I taught at the University of Brighton. Noting that students weren’t engaging with the provided booklist, and didn’t really seem to be reading at all, I discarded it and asked them all to read just one book: The Tipping Point.

After Christmas most came back not only having read it, but having lost their copy to their parents because they’d spent the holidays talking about it, and could I recommend something else for them to read, please?

By the end of the course, they’d read most of the stuff on the original list without even being given it.

Sometimes you have to tackle a problem from a slightly different angle.

Saving Design Thinking from itself

Sevra Davis writing for the RSA on a danger facing ‘design thinking’ 

And yet, as more and more businesses, governments and institutions describe themselves as ‘design-led’ ‘design thinking’ is in danger of being devalued. Too much of what is practiced under the name of design thinking seems to comprise little more than running structured workshops. The process can now sound technocratic and can feel meaningless. We are now faced with real questions about design’s preparedness to tackle complex issues and the capacity of design methods to deliver scalable solutions. This is a shame as design thinking was borne from a desire to share the creative process more widely.

Something that’s coming up in my reading on this topic, and in my own experience, is the issue that design thinking stops being an ideology and starts being a methodology instead. What I mean by that is it stops being a way of thinking and starts simply being a collection of tools. Most of those tools already existed – for example, brainstorming or kaizen. As Tom Kelley says in The Art of Innovation, a lot of people do brainstorming already, but they do it occasionally, to tick a box. Instead it should be practiced regularly as part of your day-to-day approach to looking at what you do.

Just carrying on with the old way of doing things, but calling it ‘design thinking’ to be trendy, is a sure-fire way of devaluing the concept. Worse, saying ‘we do design thinking’ without buying into what that means isn’t actually design thinking.

Too often, even with the best intentions, design thinking has been adopted too quickly and without a real appetite for the messiness, circularity and long (and sometimes drawn out) timeline that successful design process really requires.

This links to a personal frustration to me working in higher education – we’re asked to be innovative but being innovative means taking risks, experimenting, trialling, iterating. But we’re told we have to be right first time, and we’re not allowed to change what we do without going through all the administrative hoops. (See my post on quality assurance versus quality enhancement).

We can’t have it both ways. Innovation is messy. Telling people to be innovative without taking risks is like asking children to ‘play quietly’. It’s an oxymoron.

But while creativity is often portrayed as being random (which is why it’s also seen as something only ‘gifted’ people can do) the creative process is in fact remarkably structured.

Davis mentions the UK Design Council’s Double Diamond model of the design thinking process which emphasises the divergent/convergent pattern.

Double diamond design 600

In the first stage design thinking refers to a process where a problem is identified and explored and then insights are discovered to arrive at a more specific problem definition, which then results in a design brief. In the second stage a range of solutions are developed and prototyped before a final solution is delivered.

It’s important that we avoid adopting important ideas in name only and ensure that the benefit of powerful concepts like design thinking are not lost simply because they become trendy, or because someone goes to a seminar on it and brings back the gist of it, but not the meat.

Using kaizen to improve higher education courses

Using kaizen to improve higher education courses

(Note: entries like this are my ‘thinking out loud’ as I explore my PhD research topic of innovation in teaching and learning, so are aimed at a very specific audience – me! Feel free to share, quote, comment, argue, contradict etc)

This is a summary of a paper by ML ‘Bob’ Emiliani, Using kaizen to improve graduate business school programmes. Bob has a website devoted to his work as the Lean Professor.

At this stage I’m looking at various models for innovation and change from different fields. Of most personal interest are those related to Design Thinking and Service Design but I’ve also begun looking in more detail at topics like Lean, Agile, Six Sigma and so on, many interrelated (Lean seems to be the ‘granddaddy’ of most of them, and the others are branches from it that are sometimes complementary, sometimes starkly opposing in their philosophy.

What is kaizen?

I’ll rely on Wikipedia for this.

Kaizen (改善?), Japanese for “improvement”. When used in the business sense and applied to the workplace, kaizen refers to activities that continuously improve all functions and involve all employees from the CEO to the assembly line workers. It also applies to processes, such as purchasing and logistics, that cross organizational boundaries into the supply chain.[1] It has been applied in healthcare,[2] psychotherapy,[3] life-coaching, government, banking, and other industries.

Wikipedia 22 December 2015

The problem with usual approaches to change in higher education

Emiliani begins by stating that although there is a need for continuous improvement to improve services or products in ‘competitive market places’ (p.37), approaches taken ‘tend to be ad hoc or complex’ and they are not responsive, i.e. flexible or quick.

‘While the traditional committee-based approach commonly used to review and approve changes in graduate program structure, curriculum, etc., may have served stakeholders well in the past, there is a growing need to replace this with processes that produce better results faster – consistent with the school’s mission, … accreditation standards, balancing the interests of key stakeholders, etc.’ (p.48)

Emiliani writes from a familiar context of changing perceptions of the quality and value of programmes, but also notes that a key accreditor of business programmes in the USA focus on “continuous improvement” while not defining what they mean by the term. The National Consortium for Continuous Improvement similarly does not provide a definition. This leaves it open to interpretation at institutional and individual level. Emiliani notes that ‘it is likely that some things that appear to be improvements may not actually be improvements – especially as viewed by customers’ (p.38)

Emiliani takes a process-oriented view: ‘The question is: Are there processes than can be used to achieve this on a consistent basis, day-to-day?’

The concept of waste

In the business world, continuous improvement is often based on the Lean management model of elimination of waste, unevenness and unreasonableness (muda, aura and muri in Japanese). Waste is something that adds cost but does not add value from the perspective of customers.

This concept of waste, says Emiliani, is something that university management does not understand, or recognise. The result is that financial issues are dealt with in familiar ways: ‘increase tuition and fees, or cut programs, reduce academic or support resources, and sometimes lay people off … actions that few would characterize as improvements’ (p.39). Managers, says Emiliani, look at numbers, but rarely look at processes. He discusses the application of kaizen ‘a Japanese word that means: “change for the better,” and is typically interpreted as “continuous improvement.”’

Positive change 

Importantly, kaizen’s emphasis on ‘change for the better’ means that changes should be positive: ‘innovation, ease of use, on-time delivery, durability, low cost etc’ while ‘Negative actions such as increasing tuition and fees, cutting programs, reducing academic or support resources, or layoff are inconsistent with kaizen’s meaning’.

Kaizen involves making the problem visible and then identifying the cause before correcting the problem. ‘The result is rapid improvement: lower costs, higher quality, and better product or service’.

Kaizen in practice

Emiliani presents a case study of kaizen applied to the improvement of a business programme offered to part-time students at a college in the USA. Kaizen was chosen over other processes, such as Total Quality Management because the goal was rapid improvement of a specific programme of study rather than of the entire organisation. Kaizen ‘was a bottom-up opportunity … the plan was to start small, achieve some successes, and expand to other improvement opportunities if senior management’s approval could be obtained.’

The kaizen process normally takes place over a short period, typically four to five days, ‘though it can be as short as a few hours’. During this time, a cross-functional team of eight to 12 people, with the aid of a skilled kaizen facilitator, identify, measure, and correct the problems associated with a process.’ (p.41) Kaizens avoid the problems associated with traditional business meetings ‘which rarely focus on eliminating waste’. Instead they rely on ‘Observation, data gathering, analysis, and critical thinking’ and participants (who include people at all levels of the organisation) are challenged to identify low cost solutions that ‘eliminate waste, unevenness and unreasonableness’.

The areas to be tackled were identified via student feedback and focused on four aspects: purpose and learning objectives, content, course organisation and sequence, and classroom experience. As far as possible, improvements were made during the kaizen but those that could not were completed within 30 days with specific follow-up actions given to facilitators.

Emiliani notes that some participants felt threatened by the process, particularly if it was their course being examined and if managers were present, but this is not the intent and a skilled facilitator should be able to tackle this. ‘Done correctly, improvement using the kaizen process is a lot of fun, and people feel like they are making valuable contributions to the school and the services it delivers’ (p.46)

Acceptance of methods such as kaizen depends on a number of factors, and Emiliani discusses reasons why participation in process improvement activities can be low or reluctant, including focusing on positives such as enrolment figures to discount the need to improve in other areas. The success of the case study was down to a number of factors (p.47) but of note is the suggestion that the programme team were ‘a collegial group (perhaps somewhat unusual in academics)’, had industry experience so no ideological problems with the method, and the suggestion came from a colleague rather than management. Most importantly, perhaps, they ‘uniformly saw the need for improvement’. The team ‘were willing to give it a try – and with a positive attitude’.

Kaizen is not a one-off activity but needs to be a regular occurrence. ‘Because students’ perception of value changes over time, the job of continuous improvement is never done. Kaizen must be repeated at regular intervals, using data from relevant sources to guide improvement activities.’ (p.48)


The kaizen method is similar to those used in service design activities: structured enquiry, rapid, focused on a few problems rather than attempting to achieve large scale change, iterative, responsive and participative. Whether this is deliberate or coincidental I might investigate. Kaizen predates modern concepts of service design.

The issue of the lack of definition of ‘continuous improvement’ is interesting – I’ve noticed terms like this used a lot without anyone actually saying what they mean (see ‘quality enhancement’ for example).

The importance of buy-in is clear – resistance can occur if the need to change is not recognised, or if activities such as kaizen are seen to be distracting from ‘real work’ where rewards are obvious.

Including people at all levels is important but needs to be managed well so that key stakeholders do not feel threatened, and so that senior staff do not dominate or impose their views.The process of understanding the problem before correcting it is similar to Design Thinking although it does not seem to focus on understanding it from the user’s perspective in quite the same way (though importantly the ‘customer’ is central to the discussion) and this may contribute to the issues of subjectivity that Emiliani notes.

Although kaizen has its roots in Lean methodology it contrasts with approaches such as Six Sigma in that it appears open to variation where it offers value, and is situated in the concept of continuous improvement, while Six Sigma comes across (at first glance) as keen on conformity and getting things ‘right first time’.

I’d place kaizen at the more liberal wing of the Lean methodology.