Eating our own dog food

Twenty years ago designers started to understand that they have a role far beyond just the outputs of their craft. The very nature of how they approach solving problems was starting to have applications in larger and more commercial areas.

‘Masters is about specialisation — how do you get a T-shaped education? What’s the design equivalent to the College of Law?’
– Alexa, Masters student

This saw them start helping organisations understand strategic directions, from engaging more users in the design of products and services all the way through to building design thinking capability within the organisations they work with.

This new era in the role, scope and impact of the design industry has seen a significant rise in the number of designers working across UX, Human Centred Design, Service Design and Strategic Design. We are seeing representation at the executive table with the role of a Chief Design Officer appearing in organisations as diverse as banks and global charities. But this also shows that there has been a big shift in the skills needed by designers, both those they need to learn and those they will gain throughout their careers.

It was against this background of market demand that we began our collaboration with the UTS Masters of Design School to help them engage with a new understanding of where the design industry is heading. While organisations were riding a huge wave around the need for experienced designers, demand was starting to outstrip supply. New education models were launching that provided shorter more intense learning experiences to help people quickly gain basic skills and amid all of this, post-graduate education in design was wondering how to support the needs of designers better.

As an education provider UTS was ideally positioned to help develop these future designers and future leaders of design so in late 2016 we undertook the largest review of designers, educators and design leaders the university has conducted. We spoke to 38 people in all, covering nine design disciplines, as well as students, prospective students and UTS staff. Our reason? To understand as much as we could about how the world of design and design education was changing, about how we needed to prepare designers for the roles they could potentially inhabit and to provide the insights we would need to help us define the curriculum for a bigger, refocused Masters of Design school at UTS.

Our work led us to talking about three new spheres of influence that would define the future of design education and develop the talent necessary for this shift in the role of design.

‘We used to have to pitch for work and now 50% of our cold calls come from government.’
– Design studio founder

I. New spaces
The last twenty years has seen a massive shift in the role business and government are looking to design to fulfil. A recent example is the creation of the Digital Transformation Agency and its design-led agenda; we are seeing the need for skilled designers to operate within the very core of government service and delivery here in Australia. Broader than that, we are seeing the need for designers across a huge range of disciplines, including transportation, energy, financial services, retail, hospitality, fast moving consumer goods (FMCG) and healthcare.

These organisations are looking for talent to help them innovate new products, services or experiences that will increase accessibility or drive greater desirability from their customers. As with other developed economies like Europe and North America, the need for design talent is now economy-wide which presents a huge wealth of opportunity for designers to gain experience and specialise in disciplines or industries.

We have also seen a huge growth of the in-house design and innovation team, to a point where some large companies are employing more than 100 designers to work across product, service and digital portfolios. This approach brings with it the need for designers to learn interdisciplinary collaboration, strategy, corporate leadership and a deeper understanding of the mechanics of how companies operate, all of which is a different career path to the once typical design agency-led model.

II. New practices
The growing demand for design services is also having an effect on the design practices being sought, leading to a change in traditional design practices. Once we would have seen a clear demarcation across visual, interaction, fashion and product design; now we are seeing these boundaries start to erode and evolve as designers flex their skill sets, collaborating and finding new ways to better respond to the demand for solutions in spaces they typically wouldn’t have been working in.

The research showed us the following:

  1. Traditional design practices are incorporating social sciences and the methodologies and tools to consider the user’s experience.
  2. Traditional fields are coming together with design, e.g. data visualisation brings together journalism, data analysis and programming with design.
  3. Brand new practices are being driven by technology, e.g. conversational UI.

While this may not be news to some, the once growth areas of UX, service and human centred design are themselves starting to see an evolution into designing broader experiences and products. Many employers are not finding candidates through university education but among designers who are developing their own practice. We only have to look at the explosion of short courses available for practitioners to quickly gain the basics and retrain in a field of design as an indication of the scale and rate of change the industry is being forced to go through. Clearly driven by technology and its applications for organisations and their customers, it begs the question of when will there be courses dedicated to once conceptual notions such as senses or the experience of voice?

‘It’s easier to teach design to a strategy person, than teach strategy to a designer.’
– Consulting stakeholder interview

III. New skills
The change in how industry now perceives design was never better articulated than by the above quote from an industry leader. Building their current team across a more strategically focused customer experience consulting model over the last few years taught them that:

  1. A design-led approach of empathy for users, collaboratively working around a problem area and testing with the intended users added significant build to their consulting team’s capability; and
  2. It was extremely hard to find designers who have the macro-perspective necessary for the strategic questions they were being asked to solve.

It also revealed a lack of capability in the designers they were trying to hire. As many people put it, they weren’t ‘industry ready’. With design having more of a chance of a seat at the table, the need to develop future chief design officers was a growing issue.

We also heard from designers who wanted more access to industry, to work within it to understand better how to prepare and respond to the type of work this new world of design was offering. It also showed us that not everyone who would look to study a Masters was a designer by education or background. A growing number of people had grown their design capabilities through association or, as in the example of the consultancy, as additional skills to support the demands of their changing role and capability.

What of the students?
Central to all of this was understanding what mattered to the students and why a Masters in Design was still an attractive undertaking. With so many options available to them to learn, up-skill or cross-skill, what we found was surprising.

Students were coming to a Masters at a significant moment in their career. A limitation, new opportunity, life change or career long desire had driven them to take the time and make the investment necessary to focus on their capability. Such a huge commitment warranted a deep engagement with an education provider who gave them the space to think, define their practice, expand and specialise, and bring together a career’s worth of perspective to take the next step.

It showed us that there was still very much a need for a place where designers could go to empower themselves for the next phase of their career and to find a space to grow and prepare for that next step. We saw this as being a place that could create and harbour the ingredients necessary to foster the new designers and design leaders that industry are seeking, without their requiring a long apprenticeship in industry or being lucky enough to be somewhere that fostered critical thinking and perspective.

But we also heard challenges to the well-known masters model of a year or more out of industry, and of an appreciation for better access, more flexibility around time and to learn in a way that suited the students. While no-one saw the shorter courses offered by a range of new entrants as similar in weight to a masters, they certainly saw the flexibility and accessibility of these new players as a model to emulate.

Where to next?
We seem to be at a crossroads in how we perceive design and even the definition of who is a designer. We have come to learn that anyone can design and be involved in the design of anything through simple capability building and collaboration. Aligned to this, industry practices have evolved over the decades to actively involve other departments in organisations, users and communities. This is empowering more and more people to be involved in and to determine an outcome that better suits them through a design-led approach.

Yet we also seem to be at a point where we’re questioning the need for detailed, focused education, where the emphasis on developing deep critical thinking and craft-based expertise over years of practice and study is now up for debate, a world where quick short courses that help people change tack are starting to take root in how we train and retrain as an industry.

At Craig Walker, we still believe that to be great at design you have to be able to do design and for us that requires an education or a career that is deeply rooted in the discipline. There are no shortcuts to experience and to create the future of our industry we need to support and teach the talent and the designers who will create it. We need to help them gain access to current industry leaders for perspective, critique, inspiration, information, direction and support whilst providing thought-provoking opportunities and connections to practice what they are being taught. We also need to do this in a way that reduces the barriers to this level of study and enables many more to develop without having to make the massive decision to exit their career to do so.

When we created our studio, one of our core tenets was to be part of the design education sphere. We recognised that to build a sustainable studio and keep design at the heart of new products, services, brands and experiences, we would need to ensure that the people we would look to hire would understand what we’re asking of them and be capable of bringing the skills we would need to the table. In 2017, we took over the role of tutoring the Masters of Service Design at UTS as a prototype for the new Masters of Design curriculum. We needed to prototype the new approach and, with the support of the faculty, we have introduced a new structure, brought in our industry peers, fostered new industry connections and started to re-shape a curriculum for the future leaders of design.

Reference: “Eating your own dog food”