Rapid reflections on Product Design and Innovation 2016 conference

These are my quick reflections on PD+I 2016. Heavy caveat: All written on a tube from Tower Hill to Richmond off top of head, so please forgive me for typos, inaccuracies and rantiness. If I didn’t just blurt it out, it wouldn’t happen.

Pleasantly surprised by the event this year

I was a little worried that I might be disappointed by this year’s Product Design and Innovation conference, but I’m glad to say it was 2 days bursting with great work, interesting process

In previous years, it has always been of variable quality and of odd breadth. A breadth for me that would have very little relevance for my day-to-day work. But, this year there was either an evolution in the war that I was seeing, or a shift in my perspective. Maybe both.

Physical design experts, truly experiential focus

Several, more physical-based design consultancies, were demonstrating truly experiential aspects to their work. Notably Layer, Map and Keech. Some much better than the typical ‘experience designers’ that I am used to. But, they did this, not through theory and process — although there was some of that—but through examples of beauty in ideas, physical form and in commercial narratives.

Manufacturing moving on

There was still the expected dry manufacturing talk, although Josh from RPD International did a great job of flipping the dry into the engaging. But there were actually a lot of interesting perspectives on manufacturing. Stuff that myself, as a primarily digitally and service oriented designer could still get excited about.

I even had my memory jogged around Quality Functional Deployment, Kano, Six Sigma and Lean. Techniques that have been re-popularised for use in software.

A great time to be an industrial designer

Design hero, Jon Marshall, talking about redefining the design of SAM Labs

It was great to see more progressive conversations about the role of the designer, without going on about it explicitly.

It’s a great time to be an Industrial Designer — Jon Marshall, Map Project Office

This was captioned by Jon Marshall’s exquisite talk on his experiences from Map Project Office, ‘it’s a great time to be an industrial designer’.

If you embrace the shifts that are around us that is. The opportunities of producing beautiful forms as opposed to lifeless black rectangles, seem to be re-emerging in a post smartphone era.

But Industrial Designers need to find ways to work more closely with other design and software fields. See my various writing and presentations on this

Re-organising design

Keech Design’s network of partners for research, design and delivery

One of the most interesting aspects to me, was that of the business models and organisational structure of agencies. Alloy talked about their John Lewis-esque employee owned structure, and Keech Design talked through how they work with a network of partners to deliver projects across all aspects of ID (in their case covering Industrial Design, Interior Design, interface design and more), in a similar way to an advertising agency. They manage the creative and design direction, and work with specialists to work through specific aspects.

Long term relationships yielding long term mutual value

Something that any digital agency may long for, were the stories of long term client relationships. Especially amongst David Tonge from theDivision and Keech Design with their Japanese client base. Earn trust with the Japanese and you can develop a long term relationship that kicks the agency swap-out itch idea into touch.

Grappling with data and algorithms

What I was surprised, and most pleased about, was the amount of discussion around dealing with data, software and algorithms. It was reassuring, at least, that people still don’t have a conclusive and convincing answer. But great to see more people grappling with the problems. And that uncertainty is exciting, if a little unnerving.

Senior level access, but a challenge of scaling design in management consultancies

Kevin’s cheeky Agency-eating Pacman-agram

Kevin McCullagh helped organise a very interesting panel. As previous PD+I chair, super sharp strategist, and previous employer of myself, he obviously knows his stuff ;-). He was joined by smart (an assumption) design strategists (that wasn’t clear), all with Industrial Design backgrounds, who had joined Management Consultancies. There were discussions around working on site with client being a challenge but valuable; but it was the access to truly C-suite individuals of large corporates that seemed to be the biggest draw for them. To be able to better inform the brief that they would have otherwise had to deal with. I think we all want to better shape the briefs we receive. That’s been a thread for me since I had Simon Waterfall do a lecture at Brunel University back in 2000. I’m sure it’s been rhetoric since the dawn of design. But are we there yet?

We all want to better shape the briefs we receive

Though they responded to the scale challenge question from Deborah Dawton, of DBA, they completely sidestepped the elephant in the room. It’s a pretty big elephant.

I asked a question about the types of designer people that best suited the environment of a management consultancy and the impact of an increased salary on attracting and retaining staff.

Scale. People. Money. Environment. Spirit. They’re all related in my experience*

A little justification of my experience to ask this question and propose it as an elephant:

  • I was a design graduate from Brunel University joining an IT and Management consultancy in 2001. M0ney was a big draw at the time due to the debt I had. I was there for 3 years. I learned a lot. It was invaluable to my career. But it was tough, spirit quashing and competitive. Character building some might say.
  • I helped grow a design-driven software consultancy a few years back. It was bought for its design capabilities and offer by one of the worlds largest System Integrators in around 2014. We were the pearl necklace to the huge tech gorilla, as I remember describing it. It was tough. There were more of them then us. They didn’t understand us.
  • I am well networked in the design scene. I know many people who have been part of design agencies bought by management / IT consultancies and systems integrators recently including Fjord and Seren. We talk.
  • I have been watching the space reviewing roles and interviewing for designer/director/startegist roles within such orgs over the past two years

My experience tells me that the relationship between money and people is a huge elephant in the room. We should discuss this more openly. Here are some top level thoughts:

  • Money can attract designers
  • Designers are often passionate, subversive, irrational critters — management consultants less so
  • Money can handcuff designers, hold them ransom to a company or a certain type of role. I know. The inflation of UX has led me to a point that it is hard to get the salary I am used to, and do the things I want to do. Without going freelance or starting my own company. I have many peers in the same boat.
  • Money can destroy the soul of designers. I have hired and managed many designers. I have seen talented designers that I have previously worked with before care less about quality, fight less for what is right, and invest less of their passion just so they could secure more of their lucrative work. Not all. But many.
  • The management consultancy environment is foreign and uncomfortable for designers. They don’t like wearing suits. MCs do. Designers like having their own space with books, visual stimulus, working walls. MCs generally aren’t used to that. They work on site with clients, on planes, or on trains. Designers generally don’t.
My experience tells me that the relationship between money and people is a huge elephant in the room

Different definitions, but useful demonstrations of design

As the crowd thinned out, and the energy dissipated with talk of charterships and associations, the inevitable discussion of definitions emerged.

Despite our disagreements on whether or not everything service/interaction/ux/product is Industrial Design or not, I think we generally agreed that we had similar complementary approaches that would be useful for the world and the old skool needed to ‘modernise’.

The stories of great design did far more than any definition could

And though some of us agreed that we need to better define aspects of design so we can better map and align different people to different shapes, none of this really mattered because the stories of great design did far more than any definition could.

Some ways forwards for 2017

I’d like to thank PD+I, especially Lucy and Rhona, for having me back this year. They did a great job organising the event with a huge amount of (mostly) high quality speakers.

That said, as a designer I would like to see improvements. I always have reservations about attending. I want less. And I want more of my peer group here.

So for free, I thought i’d propose some suggestions publicly for consideration, critique and comment:

  • Less stuff. More time. Greater quality
    Most speakers ran over their overly short slots. Designers will always overrun given the chance (especially me, despite intention to hit 10 min ;-) but it compressed the limited discussion that was had. There was also too much stuff. As an organiser myself, I can sympathise. But, it was too much to take in.
  • Don’t have sponsor presentations blended into the programme 
    I believe that speakers should only take-up the audience’s time if they are going to offer some value for the audience. Repeatedly, some of the sponsor presentations at PD+I have lowered the quality bar and sapped energy from attendees. Support sponsors, by all means. Let them more directly sell their offerings by all means. But don’t subject ‘paying’ attendees to sales pitches dressed up as useful talks.
  • Encourage greater discussion 
    The Q&A, and panel sections of the conference often yield some useful points, but as always there were the same people asking questions (me, more than most and I am a naive fool most of the time), limited engagement and not enough time once we got going. It’s hard, I know. But some more planned questions at the start would help. More microphones would help. No microphones would help more (a challenge at scale, I know). Less formulaic asking every panelist the same question would help. Break off discussions might help. Doing a fish bowl approach may help (where audience members come and sit at the front with panelists to ask questions) Experimentation on this front will certainly help.
  • Encourage the case studies, but more humility
    Most of the audience are peers, not clients. There is little point showing off to your peers unless you want to hire, or just get some recognition. Although we can all respect great work, the polish shouldn’t fool us so easily. It still does though. To create a community, creating distance between speaker and attendee is the last thing you should do. It would be nicer to have more provocations being put out there — there were a few. It would be nice to explore more new ground together. It would be good to tackle more elephants in the room. Come together with unanswered questions. Feel better about knowing there are some unknown answers. And get more unknowns unknowns known at least in one of those parts. Damn that Rumsfeld thing. Let’s bin it or ban it.
  • Share talks for future prosperity
    With the high production values (ish) of the event, it should be possible to quickly get some quality videos out to the wider world. These could be promoted through social media to promote future events, encourage more speakers and encourage greater quality through the associated pressure.

I’d love to hear your reflections, and i’ll try to embellish some more with relevant links and imagery as much as time allows.

Like what you read? Give Jason Mesut a round of applause.

From a quick cheer to a standing ovation, clap to show how much you enjoyed this story.