Design. But not as we know it.

It’s a mantra to most of us, but it needs to be stated and restated; design is as much about how something performs as how it looks. And despite the efforts of design advocates across the country, still the myth prevails that design is a matter of taste, superficial, subjective. It’s about the ‘thing’. The object. Not the creative process of invention and research, prototype, failure, prototype success (the Dyson vacuum famously involved over 5,000 prototypes). And when it’s my word against yours, how can one opinion trump the other? It’s for this reason that the design debate in Australia is often shallow, opinion based and ‘binary’ (I like it. I don’t).

Where this old view is being debunked most, is in the sector broadly defined as ‘manufacturing’. For decades, business owners have understood that the design process aids production. Without it, we’re doing the equivalent of whittling twigs.

And in a world searching for the most effective pathways to innovation, competitiveness and growth – how we produce and what we produce are connected. So it’s only logical that the means of production are as important as the product itself. This is where design as a way of thinking comes in.

It’s no secret that local manufacturing and local suppliers are battling to compete in a volatile global economy. South Australian businesses need to transform their performance, develop new products and expand their markets. A higher Australian dollar demands that old assumptions of low cost, high volume local production are rethought. In some cases it means returning the manufacturing closer to home where the design or product engineering R&D is based. A seminal work on this is Dan Hill’s 2009 blog on Australian audio RODE.

The big question is whether Australian manufacturers can transition to this high cost environment. To move from competing on (low) cost, to high value products and services. To be the R&D powerhouse, not the production line only.

This is where design-led thinking is making its mark. Perhaps counter-intuitively, the place for design is growing in difficult economic times. Not because design products are a symbol of status (as, arguably, they are more in boom times), but because the way designers think & behave is being ‘decoded’. Harvard, Stanford, Bloomberg all run regular features on ‘design thinking for business innovation’. One of the standard bearers for ‘design thinking’, IDEO’s Tim Brown, is a regular at the World Economic Forum. Brown says that, “thinking like a designer can transform the way you develop products, services, processes – even strategy”. This is ‘design’ beyond the object.

There’s a lot out there on ‘design thinking’. And amid the google lists, papers, books and webinars, is an understandable fear that corporates could co-opt a nuanced process (iterative, contrarian sometimes) and ‘formularise’ it – losing it’s effect and wreaking yet more havoc on a much misunderstood practice.

Finland’s Innovation Fund, SITRA powers an elite team within it’s Helsinki Design Lab (HDL) that shows this method at it’s best. HDL is wrestling with some of the hairiest issues across the Finnish economy. Ageing, re-engineering existing construction supply chains to service a low carbon future, anti-social behaviour like drunkeness. A sort of hybrid between The Australian Centre for Social innovation and the Integrated Design Commission SA. Check out their wonderful ‘Recipes for Systemic Change‘. Our friends at the UK Design Council – itself a creation of post war desire for better production – have also been applying design to fraught policy areas like Crime and hospital rage, with measurable success.

Through a partnership with the Creative Industries Innovation Centre, the Integrated Design Commission SA, and the Design Institute of Australia (DIA), three South Australian businesses have launched themselves in to a first for South Australia. The ‘design integration program’ aims to demonstrate – and measure – the benefit to business that a ‘design lens’ can bring to their enterprise. The program partners a business with designers and strategic thinkers to understand their means of production, their history, vision, values and purpose in order to develop new processes, services and products to make them more globally competitive. To continue to make money – even in a high cost environment. When he announced the program, Premier Weatherill put it firmly in the context of building resilience in business to shocks like the global financial crisis, through design as a differentiator. It’s great to hear a Premier say “we also know that the thing that sets one product apart from another is design”.

Rossi Boots, Street and Park Furniture and B-d Farms are leading the revolution in South Australia, and deserve recognition for their commitment to piloting this global approach locally. Similar programs run in the UK, New Zealand and in other states like Queensland, NSW and Victoria with impressive results.

And if this all sounds like advice to private sector business only, consider the announcement last week of a new Centre for Excellence for Public Sector Design – a Federal Government initiative to explore the place for design thinking in delivering better public services, and to demonstrate the benefits of design thinking and innovation within the public sector.

Change is coming.

**expanded from the original text published in the February edition of Adelaide Review

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