Here at The Design Lab, we work with clients on a daily basis and believe our role as designers is shifting upstream. Less about solutions and more about methodology: from delivering the end product of a brief - to actually supporting clients in writing the brief to craft integrated stories and systems.
This week we profile Joana Casaca Lemos, communication designer and PhD here at CSM. Her work empowers smalls businesses to become their own communication designers, whilst also enhancing their sustainable practices.
What are the wider implications of this, in a future landscape increasingly made of countless small businesses, complex social challenges and liquid prosumers?
Read her words to get inspired!
MY JOURNEY: 'design activism' in 2017
I am a communication designer working in the area of sustainability. My journey has been very independent and malleable. There was always an 'activism angle' to it. Although 'activism' today is like 'innovation' - it has become a little bit like an old concept. But at that time 'social design' was a thing - this idea that we wanted to empower passion-driven and purpose-driven businesses. Back then I could have gone and worked for a massive agency, but that was not where my passion fit. Graduating from my Masters in the European financial crisis meant that all of the smaller studios, aligning with my work ethos, were not hiring. Being forced out on my own became a tumultuous and wonderful adventure. So, prior to the PhD I worked as an independent design consultant with organisations like Forum for the Future, many start-ups and social enterprises. One experience was particularly significant and was what made me want to develop design research skills. Working in Northern Thailand with a social enterprise called Doi Tung, to design a story for the products created by hill tribe communities led me to ask myself certain questions, and realise that we need particular design tools to do that more effectively:
- How to empower small scale businesses to be able to become their own communication designers?
- How do we get them to amplify the qualities of sustainability so present in their DNA?
- Can non-design experts think like designers? And what's the wider impact of that?
Some of those questions developed into the PhD proposal, which has been about working with small scale businesses that have an impact ethos and to develop a communication design tool called Assemblage (see below). But there is a wider vision of where this all fits - and it's this growing landscape of new entrepreneurship models: lean budget, agile prototyping, passion-driven, community based businesses. There is a really important place for designers in awkward spaces, the margin and the fringes. For example, just the other day I was chatting to SY Partners in New York, they do organisational design and have great insights on people who are like this – malleable and a 'generalist specialist'.
Of course, profit is important - we live in a capitalistic system and this is not going to change...at least in my generation. That is why 'activism' is no longer the right word in 2017, it's not about that. It's more about how to integrate these principles into existing systems. And I believe truly the only way is to design tools that enable people to come together around a shared vision. Stories are ultimately what brings people together, and communication design has a massive role to play there. How does it all look like in a century where we have massive ecosystems of very small businesses and few extremely large multinationals? How are we supposed to balance those and how do we get people engaged in the conversation?
A lot has been written about the notion of 'prosumer' - people who are not just passive consumers but also producing. That can be production of content, that makes them part of the conversation. So especially with brands - I really see that as the future. The future of branding is people producing content as much as they are consuming it.
THE ASSEMBLAGE: a tool for communication design
The tool that I have created is called ‘The Assemblage’ - it assembles different parts that structure a message, to be then designed into a piece of communication. It brings together the business team with members of the public and they all sit together around this canvas that I designed. The canvas brings them through a full process in five different steps, looking at:
- what is the story they are trying to communicate?
- what are the challenges present?
- what are the assets available for communication?
- qualities of sustainability: what are the things that we experience that make us feel good or that we are contributing to, as the public, for a purposeful business - e.g. how long do things take to be made?
- lastly, it prompts them with a bunch of communication strategies that are recurrent in designers' work around sustainability. One could be 'transparency', that ranges from uncovering a process to actually using clear packaging. Others include storytelling, interaction, experience, etc.
This process takes two to three hours in a workshop format - and culminates with them being able to write their own brief - as in, what are the tangible things that we can implement whilst maximising our existing assets and addressing our challenges? How can that be written in a clear and structured way that designers can then take on? Designers will always be needed to come in with expertise in very specific areas, but this tool helps small business to focus their effort where it's most needed. It can be about designing a full communication strategy, as they realise there isn't one, to implementing a block-chain technology to trace their sourcing - or design an experience for customers to try their products.
When I started my research four years ago, I mapped all the sort of DIY-design tools available out there - and there was nothing specifically on communication. Today, people like THNK, Kaos Pilots, General Assembly, have all identified value in supporting this movement through creativity and leadership, they constantly develop materials and often for free. A couple of other consultancies are starting to produce cheaper packages for small business though, because they see it's a growing market with great opportunities. So really, my PhD has been about spotting an opportunity early on and trying to explore its potential.
So far I did five iterations of the process in this workshop format, for an overall 20 businesses. And what I’ve found is that perhaps the tool cannot be disjointed from me as a facilitator in the initial stage of the process. But then towards the second part I disappear and become more of an observer, so that they can really take it forward. My conclusion was that it is possible for them to run it as an activity on their own, yet the contribution of the designer as a facilitator is pretty invaluable. To be there, to provoke maybe, to pull out the threads a bit more.
FUTURE DESIGNERS: re-write the brief first
The set of tools I came up with are not trying to challenge the role of designer in any way. Yet the role of the designer is changing - I see the future of design becoming more about creating and implementing systems, rather than end products. Within the start-up and social business movement there is a whole ecosystem growing in this direction. Not to say that design doesn't have a role, it's more like there’s a shift of it. I feel it is still generally perceived as the execution of a brief, whereas a big part of it is in the actual writing of the brief! The proliferation of open source tools has changed the outlook. Things like Squarespace have enabled anyone to have an online presence and pull it together - but having access to a tool does not make you a web designer.
I like to believe there is a shift happening in the general understanding of what designers do and how to best incorporate their skill set into a business. The notion of 'design-thinking' has now become a real buzzword, but is useful. And we see places like IDEO offering short courses to non-design-experts, which offer the nuances of design process. The conversation around design-thinking will hopefully help designers in building a case, as to why we want and need to work at certain standards; why we take longer than 3 hours to create a logo. I still find it really weird sometimes - you are selling a service which clients can't see, it's not like they’re buying a designer's chair - so there is an entrepreneurial side to design that is fast emerging. Which is to explain, almost convert, to clients why they need us.
There is what I call 'design intelligence' which is not something that you can download or buy as a kit. There is an intelligence in the design process that you can only learn through practice, over and over again. That takes time and cannot be replaced, in any way. It's not a set of instructions. So, that's the added value designers will always bring in. In the next ten years, I personally really see it as moving focus from the end product to the middle part (the process and the systems involved) and the first bit (the brief).
I think as designers we have all been in one of those situations where you are brought in to 'do the logo' - the rest has already been taken care of by the client. But then, when you start asking questions they struggle to answer them - that's when you go 'Ok, that's my job. We need to answer some questions before we move on to which font and colour we want to use'.
The future for designers is really about developing a certain confidence - to come in and help clients identify the right questions and answer them; that is the 'design intelligence' I am talking about: it's not about being able to use a software; it's about building an argument and a case for our method. And normally it has almost nothing to do with personal taste! You would always have a client saying that it has to be green because it's about the environment - but it really is our responsibility to support and educate the clients in that sense.
Also, everything should be context-based. Very specific to the situation one is working in.
In that, culture plays a crucial role. I ran the very same workshops in India and in San Francisco, and the approach was radically different. None of us can remove ourselves from their cultural background, yet as designers we are trained to be empathic and to 'tune in' to the context. Like a prism, an apparatus: our job is not to produce an answer or export pre-packaged solutions, but to facilitate completing a brief that is always specific to that context only.
SUSTAINABILITY: a buzzword we still need
It has become such a buzzword. Unfortunately, we are still in this space where the majority of the public still needs that 'label' to understand what we are talking about. But we are moving towards a situation where it is more embedded, transparent and expected in the way things are done - and that's great. Yet, we are not ready to remove that word.
My favourite definition of 'sustainability' refers to it as a dynamic process. It is the way of life: living things grow, evolve, and eventually die. It's about having that understanding of systems, that are interconnected and in constant flow. To me this definition makes a lot of sense: our worlds are evolving, so it cannot be about 'preserving the status forever' - that is impossible. But we can be watchful and coexist around resources, technologies and community to the best of our ability.
In the end, it is also about common sense in the choices that we make. If as a consumer I understand that a £5 t-shirt at Primark is very sustainable for my wallet, but not so much for the environment or the social status of workers on the other side of the Planet then that is something that can inform my choices. My Assemblage tool might help in that way because it forces business to think about their social and environmental impact - and often at times there are practices in place but it’s just about having a conversation around them and communicating them to the public.
I like to talk about 'qualities of sustainability'; this was an insight gained from my literature review on the emerging frameworks for sustainability, that refer to qualitative rather than quantitative perspectives. For example, the work of Stuart Walker who discusses the spirituality in design, focuses on values in sustainability. Or, Ezio Manzini who talks about sustainable qualities as “something else” makes people want to participate in certain communities. So, sustainability is a way of being within our communities.
A major feedback I received, by the iterations with The Assemblage, is that it helps businesses better understand their community and co-create the brand with them. In that sense, my work aims to demystify sustainability. Start-ups often have all those answers and are very clear as to their purpose and why they are in business at all. I really believe it is a new generation and new way of doing business, that builds on the drive to both give and receive. My role is what I call ‘designer as a lens’ - a mediator that helps them to amplify and communicate to a wider audience.
DESIGN AND ACADEMIA: potential and frictions
I had some ideas of what it would be when I started. My experience ended up being quite independent as I collaborated so much with small businesses, gave lots of talks and workshops, which in a way put me slightly more at the margin of academia than some of my peers, perhaps by circumstance I did not participate as much in academic conferences and other more institutional activities as I thought I would. I was quite active in non-academia events, like Shoreditch Digital, Royal Society of Arts, Impact Hub, as I viewed my work as in-between academia and 'the real world'. I am very pleased with the outcome of my PhD and I see it having a tangible application beyond the institutional frame. I wanted my PhD to further my practice as a designer through a tangible set of research skills that I would not have had at all without the academic process.
I have experienced a friction at times. Academic research has to do with following a four-year research plan, which at times can feel daunting for a designer who is very much driven by practice. Often opportunities would come up, which would be relevant and might have informed my work in a more organic way - but because they were 'off the track' of predetermined research, I could not take them on. It's a funny loop: the practice informs the theory, yet the theory informs the practise. So, there can be few changes based on how the research itself evolves... but serendipity is not something that belongs to academic research. So ultimately it is a very analytical and consequential process, which is indeed what makes it an academic contribution to knowledge. Yet, often at times, the very nature of it would feel unnatural, not so organic, for a designer. Iterations, prototyping, serendipity - are all key aspects in design.
There is a tradition in doctoral degrees and there needs to be an academic rigour, otherwise it is no longer a PhD. Yet I personally feel that, in the area of Design, the understanding of what is doctoral research is still emerging. It is fairly recent so I suppose its normal to feel these frictions - that are inevitable - and will ultimately push the boundaries and help better define what 'academic rigour' means in this context, so to maximise its potential further. Central Saint Martins is definitely a place where these boundaries are being pushed and was a great place for me to be and incubate my project.
But also, my intention was to remain connected with my activity as a practitioner - you know, if you work with small start-ups, in four years so much can change! Some have grown, some no longer exist - as well as the whole business environment which is in constant and rapid evolution. I feel design research needs to accompany the changing world all the time. There can be a risk in building new knowledge if it is not rooted - if we grow a distance between designers and the world then we undermine their very reason for existing!