“Experientia interviews…”: a new interview series on user experience and innovation

Experientia, the international experience design consultancy (that is also responsible for this blog), launches today “Experientia interviews…”, a series of dialogues with leading professionals on the topic of user experience, user-centred design, design strategy and innovation.

The inaugural interview is with Richard Eisermann (pictured here), Director of Design and Innovation at the UK Design Council. He discusses how the Design Council is using a design approach to help business, public services and educational institutions develop new products, services and strategies or redevelop existing ones, and how Italy can use some of the same ideas in its own approach to innovation.

The interviews are part of Experientia’s strategy to help stimulate a culture of user-centred design, which is also the motivation behind Putting People First, Experientia’s successful experience design and innovation blog.

The interview series will cover people from all over the world, with an emphasis also on Italians who are internationally active and provide crucial professional contributions.

Feel free to link to these interviews also from your own site or blogs.


Richard Eisermann is Director of Design and Innovation at the UK Design Council. In this interview, he discusses how the Design Council is using a design approach to help business, public services and educational institutions develop new products, services and strategies or redevelop existing ones, and how Italy can use some of the same ideas in its own approach to innovation.

The interview was conducted by Mark Vanderbeeken and took place on 12 January 2006.

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You were working as director of design at Whirlpool here in Italy for many years before you went to the UK to help define and implement a new mission for the Design Council. What was driving this new mission?

I think the Design Council realised that they needed a much more direct and engaging approach. Over the last three years, the organisation has become very involved in working directly with businesses and public entities to help these organisations understand how design works and how it can help them solve their problems. The Design Council has moved from just being a promotional body to being an enabling body, a “do tank” in contrast to a “think tank”. While promotion is of course still very much part of what we do and we continue to work on inspiring organisations and managers around using design, we are also there to enable them, to use design in the most effective way possible, and to help connect design professionals to situations and organisations where they can help solve problems.

You told me that this change was driven by a new director?

Yes. The new chief executive, David Kester, came from the D&AD, the leading British body for design and advertising design. It is primarily focused on the advertising, print and communication design world and has a world renowned design awards scheme.

So he brought this more business driven design approach into the Design Council?

Before David arrived, the Design Council’s emphasis was on promotion. He wanted to actively bring “design” back into the organisation. He wanted to make sure that design was front and centre in everything the Design Council was doing. And I was the first person he hired to help him do that.

But you came from a white goods company, which was a rather different thing altogether?

I think David was interested in the totality of my experience, not just the Whirlpool experience. Previous to Whirlpool, I always worked as a consultant. I was at IDEO for a number of years, where I led the design team for the new high-speed train service for Amtrak, called Acela. Through IDEO, I had also been consulting quite a bit with the Italian electrodomestics manufacturer Merloni. And previous to that I was working with Sottsass, also in Italy.

You have quite a wide and international range of design experiences.

Yes, and David was looking for someone with that background. One of the fundamental mind shifts David brought to the Design Council is that it’s not just about promoting British design. It is also about gathering design knowledge, information and insights globally, bringing that back to Britain to help British designers and business understand the global context of what they are doing. There are also many British designers working abroad who are very well placed to be ambassadors for British design.

People tend to have many different ideas of what design is. The Design Council has a rather broad vision of design. What does design mean for you?

When I talk about design, I try not to mention the “d” word anymore. I try to talk about value. There are three types of value that design can help create. First, there is economic value for business, the impact on the bottom line. Then, there is social value, the creation of value for people. The products and services we design need to be responsive to user needs, and need to have social qualities that are positive and reinforcing.

But there are lots of disciplines that can provide this, not just design?

Yes, there are. So the third value is rather unique to what design can do, which is to provide aesthetic value, the visceral pleasure and satisfaction provided by a product or service. This aesthetic quality positions designers very uniquely in the creation or development of any kind of product or service.

Design is therefore a threefold process.

Precisely. To put it all together, design is the creative process by which economic, social and aesthetic value is first imagined, then shaped, and finally embodied in a meaningful and desirable outcome. First you have to forecast what this value could possibly be, imagine it in some way, generate an idea, draw it, and then you have to shape that idea. You shape an idea by iteration, by prototyping it quickly and by testing it out.

And then you have to deliver it.

Yes, you have to get it into people’s hands, because a good idea without some physical manifestation or outcome is nothing more than an idea. The goal of design is always a meaningful and desirable outcome.

That’s a wide view of design.

Yes, and it is debatable one, but it is important to have the broadest view possible about what design is and what it can do. Of course, design is a verb (he/she designs the chair) as well as a noun, (the design of the chair), but I prefer the idea that design is a process.

What do you actually do at the Design Council now? What is the scope of your work?

I am the Director of Design and Innovation, responsible for our design campaigns. When I arrived and joined the Director team, we started out by looking at how the Design Council would need to evolve over the long term. This had structural implications. Our focus was on making the Design Council more outcome oriented. That meant organising the personnel into project teams, rather than having them organised by discipline.

So you reorganised everybody’s job?

Quite a lot of changes were made. Of course there were some difficulties in the transition, but it is a natural progression for any organization. The world is constantly changing and organisations need to change with it.

Why project teams?

We wanted to connect the various activities at the Design Council much more. There had been a lot of activity, but it lacked a strategic framework. There were individual pockets of very good and very worthy activity, but there was no structure that tied it all together. We tried to implement a coherent structure to let work flow through the organisation. This also allowed us to “punch above our weight”, meaning we wanted to create a small organisation that gets a lot done, influences quite widely, and uses a highly developed network to implement the ideas that it develops.

And you succeeded in a certain way: the Design Council is very present for an organisation of only 75 employees.

I think we could even do more frankly. Look at the Danish Design Council. They are very small, but are very strong and do a lot of good work. But they also have a country and a culture predisposed towards the idea of design, which makes it a little bit easier. Design awareness is not as strong in the UK.

I was reading that 69% of UK companies do not even invest in design.

Luckily, that’s a relatively easy number to change. It is in a way a conversion process. All of a sudden a light goes on in these managing directors’ heads, and they say “Ah, now I get it. We have been doing this work for eighteen months now and I finally see where you are going.”

How do you work with them?

It started out very much as an experiment. We got a group of companies together and dropped some designers into these companies for a day to see what would happen. We convinced the companies to participate by telling them that it was only a day, it was not going to be a big deal, and that there was not a lot of investment in time and money. But if they liked what they saw, we could help them build on that. That’s how we started out. We called it a “design immersion” and it is now part of our larger “design for business” programme.

How does such a design immersion work then?

In a typical design immersion, we take three very experienced designers from different specialities as well as a design mentor, who we ask to work with small and medium size enterprises for a day. During that day, they work with the managing director and his executive team to understand what the design opportunities are within the company. In short they do a survey and a workshop and at the end of the day they come up with a list of recommendations. The design mentor then follows up on these opportunities, helping the managing director develop an action plan and then help with its implementation over the next 18 to 24 months.

What companies could join the programme?

There were some criteria that needed to be adhered to. First of all, the company had to be viable. Our work was of course not meant as a last gasp handout of free consultancy before the company folded. So the companies had to be willing to open their books to us. They also had to be committed over the long term to participate in regular, paced interventions over the course of the programme. That was very crucial for us. After all, you can’t just go in and make a bunch of recommendations and then leave and expect somebody to change. Change happens over time and you have to facilitate that journey. Thirdly, they had to commit managing director input. We needed top management involved. If those three criteria were accepted, the company was accepted into the programme.

What kind of companies did you work with?

We started out with twelve companies and concentrated on manufacturers of consumer goods. Some were very small, five employees, whereas others had up to three hundred employees. In the second round, we worked with some slightly larger companies as well, of a few thousand employees.

Did these companies accept the input from the designers?

Some companies were more receptive than others, as could be expected. We worked with designers who had experience, gravitas and a high profile, people like Paul Priestman and Dick Powell. They were designers with ideas, knowledge and an understanding of the commercial realm, who could be very sharp in their assessment, but also had a lot of respect for clients and were able to back up their comments and criticisms.

They were quite outspoken, I guess.

Some of the things they said were rather strong. There was a wood products company that Dick Powell went to visit as part of the immersion team. Their design studio was in their basement. Dick immediately argued that one cannot have a design studio without light, without air, and with leaky pipes and radiators all over the place. He was convinced that the company needed a design studio that could inspire designers, let them breathe, let them see things and also give them some profile within the organisation. And he succeeded. They moved the design studio that same day and it made a huge impact on the way the company viewed design. The design studio started to become the place where the managers would bring their clients to show them new product ideas. The design studio became a focus for how the organisation presented itself to its market.

And there were many examples of course of that sort, I presume.

And in many areas, such as branding, for instance. One company agreed to participate on one condition: we wouldn’t touch the brand. The immersion team always involved one brand specialist, and of course the single biggest recommendation form the immersion day was that they had to change the brand. In the end, the company did and with great results. They achieved much more clarity in the marketplace about how they were positioning and selling themselves and how their products and designs were perceived.

This was all done in one day?

The recommendations came out in one day, but it took another eighteen to twenty-four months to translate these recommendations into concrete outcomes. It took quite an amount of time before we could see actual results, bottom line impacts of the programmes that had been initiated.

And then you implemented these ideas on a wider scale?

The idea behind our “design campaigns” is to work with a small group of related organisations, be they companies, schools, primary care trusts or whatever, to understand the issues that underlie the situation they are facing in the marketplace, vis-a-vis their customers and their users, and then to develop an idea, a concept of what it is they need. We then turn that into a programme, which we test with a second group of companies. Since we didn’t have to do all the investigation, and already had some ideas, this of course goes much more quickly.

So you prototype the programme first, test it out, and then formalise it.

Yes, once we are happy with it, we use a delivery partner to help move the ideas and the work out of the Design Council. After all, our goal is to affect change on a wider scale, without growing ourselves. We work a lot with partners. We are very much network based.

Was this in London or all over England?

The manufacturing campaign has taken place all over the UK, with representation from all regions. Many companies were from the West Midlands, which is a heavily industrial area of longstanding traditions. Other companies were from the London area or even the North East. We consciously distributed the programme, because we didn’t want to be London-centric. The design industry is already perceived to be quite concentrated in London.

What are you working on now?

Now that the programme has been developed, tested and certified, we want to transfer the material and processes of the “design for business” programme to a wider arena. It’s essentially the development of a service.

The “design for business” programme is more than just these “design immersions”. What are the other programmes?

The immersion is really one of the deeper programmes that we offer. There are actually three levels of intervention in the “design for business” programme. The first aims to inspire companies about design through seminars about the importance of design. The second level gives organisations a deeper understanding of how design works through a lighter touch immersion of one day. And then there is the full blown immersion, which is a much lengthier, more transformational intervention.

What is Futureproofed?

Futureproofed is a concept we used in our annual review to explain that design can be an insurer of a secure future. If you design things well, you can anticipate the future and keep your company from failing. Our technology campaign is very much based on helping early stage ventures and start-ups secure their futures through design. In the manufacturing campaign, we focussed on established manufacturers. In the technology campaign, we worked with entrepreneurs and inventors, people who were developing new technologies but didn’t really have an understanding of how design could help get them to market faster and with better result for users. Many were boffins in garages, developing cool technologies without a clear understanding of the implications of what they were doing. We worked with them to help them understand the design process, mostly with an emphasis on end-users. We wanted them to understand that they have to make sure that users are front and centre in their development and in their thinking. And that to attract more investment, they needed to be very much better at telling their stories from the perspective of their users.

Have you been involved in the design of public services?

Certainly. The focus of our research and development group, RED, is the design of public services. One of our design campaigns is also in the area of public services, specifically, the design of learning environments. As with all of our work, users come first. They are the key to unlocking innovation.

Design for you always means user-centred design.

Indeed. In the learning environments work, we wanted to understand the implications of design for the development of new schools. It started off as a project focused on furniture. We wanted to understand how a basic element like furniture could affect the design of a classroom, and what happens in a learning environment when the furniture is more flexible and allows you to change the context in which that learning takes place. But the campaign quickly grew to encompass thinking about the learning environment as the place where an educational service is provided. That campaign has helped administrators and teachers to look at what they are doing much more as a provision of a service that should also involve its customers, i.e. students, in a very active way.

So a user-centred or student-centred education?

Very much so. That programme which applies the design process to schools has led to a number of interesting outcomes that do not just deal with the physical environment, but also with the way schools communicate with parents and teachers, with how to develop a sense of community, and with the systems and processes that support that community. For instance, how can the lunch experience in the canteen be improved? Is it just a question of the food? Or could a different approach to the schedule provide an alternative solution.

Are you working still on an experimental level with a few schools or are you already applying these insights within the wider education system?

We just finished our initial investigation and will be coming out with our recommendations in the next couple of months. There are of course a number of other entities working in this space as well, such as RIBA (Royal Institute of British Architects), CABE (the Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment), PfS (Partnership for Schools) and most importantly, BSF (Building Schools for the Future), which is a major, government programme to renew school buildings in the UK. We are very much trying to influence their agenda around design and that seems to be having effect. The BSF programme is very ambitious. The aim is to rebuild or refurbish every school in the UK over the next twenty years. It is a massive capital spent. Until now, the process hasn’t involved users as much as it should. Some consultation with teachers and local educational authorities takes place, but it is very brief, and doesn’t allow many issues to come out. What invariably happens is that shiny, new, architecturally pleasing schools are built, but they house old systems and ways of doing things.

Design for you is really about designing both.

Exactly. This is what we want to show. You can design the service and the provision of the service and reflect that desired service in the architecture.

Charles Handy, who is a social thinker, has recently been looking at entrepreneurs, people who create something out of nothing. He wrote a book about this, The New Alchemists, where he shows how important it is for these people that they are encouraged at a young age, that the educational system gives them space and lets them develop.

We are trying to get kids, students involved in the development of their futures. We want to go for a model of co-creation of the educational service, rather than the existing Fordist model. Students currently going through lessons and grades in an assembly line fashion, with tests at regular intervals, standardised evaluations, and yes or no gates to determine whether they pass on to the next level. This is a very rigid and formal educational service that is not really preparing people for how things are already working in the workplace. Massive change has taken place there, but the educational system hasn’t kept pace with these changes.

You mentioned four design campaigns. What is the last one?

Whereas the first three campaigns are all about creating demand for design, the fourth one is about the supply of design, and as such about design skills. We are working with educators, from the university on down, to help design students understand issues around business and engineering, and just as importantly, to help business and engineering students understand what design does. We are creating synergies at the university and upper school levels between design students, business students and engineering students, and aim to create more coherence and syntony between these groups.

This is done with the schools directly or also via the government?

Both. We are working with “Creative and Cultural Skills” which is a government panel that has been set up to address skills in the creative industries. There are twenty-eight sector skills panels, governing all professions. Their aim is to help the educational system understand what it means to operate and function as a professional in a particular sector. With “Creative and Cultural Skills” we are working on a workforce development plan for design. Our aim is to engage the design community and the higher education deliverers, and to arrive at a clear understanding of what one needs to properly function as a professional in the design world. This work on design skills is the essence of the fourth campaign.

The UK Government has just launched a strategy to put the user at the heart of public services. Are you involved with that as well?

That would be the responsibility of RED. They are specifically looking at public sector issues and the role that design can play in the development of public services. They have been working quite intensively on health, energy, citizenship, and more in general on how to design the relationship between an individual and the state, what the manifestation of that relationship can be, how that works (or not), and how design can influence and help nurture that relationship. RED is a very vibrant, active group that is doing short, sharp interventions and prototypes rather than longer-term projects. RED develops concepts which are then elaborated elsewhere into larger campaigns.

What is DOTT about?

DOTT stands for “Designs of the Time” and is the Design Council’s programme that will provide the chance for designers, businesses and public services to engage with citizens in improving their lives through design. DOTT will take place in different regions throughout the UK every two years. The One North East Regional Development Agency is DOTT’s first partner, for 2007. World renowned design thinker and writer John Thackara will be DOTT’s director and Robert O’Dowd, an experienced businessman, its producer.

Let’s talk about Italy. You know this country fairly well. You also speak the language quite well. You know many people here. You have worked here. In short, you know a lot about the difference in culture and approaches between the UK and Italy. What of the approaches that you have been applying in the UK over the last three years, would make sense for Italians or Italian decision makers to take a look at?

The Italian situation is a bit more politicised than the one in the UK and that makes it somewhat more difficult to operate. But on the positive side, there is a lot more understanding and sensitivity to design, although this sensitivity is still very much based on the idea of aesthetic value, rather than social or economic value. Italians, like many others, have a rather classic idea of design rather than a larger, more comprehensive idea of what design can do. What is very strong in Italy is that life goes on in spite of the political situation. People just get on with things and try to ignore the kind of machinations that are necessary to get things done. Case in point is the lack of a design museum in Milan. Now finally the Triennale has taken on that role but it has been years that it has been debated and thought about. Another thing that you don’t see much of in Italy anymore is large public works projects.

Now the railroads are doing interesting work.

Yes, now it is the railroads. Before that it was during the World Cup in 1990.

When you come to Turin, you will be surprised about the amount of public works that are now about to finish ahead of the Olympics.

I was on an Alitalia flight this weekend and the in-flight magazine was all about Turin. It is very exciting. There is a lot going on. Turin is in a very similar situation to what is happening for instance in the North East. Great Britain as you know has very much devolved power and the distribution of money to the regional authorities.

That process is also going on in Italy.

The North East has been blessed with a very visionary team. The regional development agency has got a very strong vision and a solid longer-term view of how the region needs to develop and what the future of the region is going to be. They see design as one of the drivers for their future, hence their backing of DOTT. Don’t forget that the North East was the cradle of the industrial revolution. That’s where it all started. They have gone through a number of different stages over the years, and had a massive collapse of industry in the eighties. Now they are looking at how to rebuild and how to determine the next iteration of their region. They want design to play a really strong role in the development of that region.

But let’s come back to Italy. What is it that Italians can learn from the approach that you have been testing with success in the UK? What is it that can be applied in the Italian context as well?

One is the idea of creating a destination, be it architectural, cultural or social, and setting up the conditions for investment to happen. In other words, creating a condition that draws people to visit, to see and to experience what you are about. This is not just a communications exercise, but also about creating the infrastructure to support all that. In the North East they developed the “Baltic“, a major centre that has become an anchor for all manner of cultural development in that region. There have also been a number of important, very visible architectural projects that people go visit because of their architectural quality. These projects have a huge impact in the way the region communicates. They help create and share a vision of what the region wants to do. In parallel, the North East also has on the ground activities like DOTT, where they are connecting to the general public to try to develop a sense of what design is, what it can do and how it can really affect public services, such as spaces, health, transport or the education system.

What about businesses? What can they do? What can they learn from this approach?

The North East is now setting up a design centre, a real hothouse where technologists, designers and business people will be housed together to develop the products and services of the future. The region gives them a place to work and to create, and supports that process with knowledge, help, connections and networks.

The UK and Italy seem to have a lot more similarities that one might think.

And this could be fostered of course. There are a lot of synergies between the two countries. There is a lot that Italian industry could teach British industry about working at a small but very networked level, because Italian business is extremely good at that. The Italians on the other hand could probably learn quite a bit from the UK about the development of services. Service design is becoming a real discipline in the UK. There is a growing awareness that design has a central role to play in the development of services.

You will be leading a short workshop here in Turin with political decision makers and visionary people from industry. What will you do with them?

I think is important that they go through an experience and actually produce something. A workshop is not really valuable unless there is some type of tangible outcome. For sure, it will be interesting for them to get information and see examples of what is happening in the UK and elsewhere, but it is fundamental that they become inspired by these examples, start to examine their own situation through some exercises, and come up with scenarios and concepts for where they see their region going. I want them to get a sense of possibility and opportunity for what they could be doing.

Turin will be the World Design Capital in 2008 and they are looking at ways to extend that beyond the year. They want to use 2008 as an opportunity to get people in the region to think more structurally about design as a tool for innovation.

I think that is the crucial challenge. The 2008 opportunity should not be fireworks, a lovely and beautiful explosion that everybody talks about for the evening, but then people wake up the next morning to the same old, same old. Turin’s main challenge will be to sustain the effect over the long term. I believe design will play a central role in helping Turin sustain the magic of its current initiatives.

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