The annual EU Design Days brings together the design industry from across Europe providing an opportunity for dialogue between regions, and with EU institutions. Design for Europe partner Invest NI sent Director Vicky Kell to attend. As a relative newcomer to the world of design she shared her impressions of the event.

I attended my first EU Design Days in Brussels this September. As practitioner of process improvement and strategy development and was keen to understand the principles of how design could be applied to this area. I was intrigued by the first panel discussion on “Design Trends in Europe and Worldwide”. There were some pragmatic definitions presented of design. The most memorable was from Mathilde Bretillot “Design is an action not a style”.

As the sessions unfolded I began to contemplate “what is design?” Many of the techniques, tools and methodologies described and presented resonated with me as similar to those used in various change and process management products. Typical problem solving techniques can work for simple problems but the idea that something extra was required for complex situations came through.

The white rabbit syndrome – the perception that the designer can and will fix all problems (even if we don’t know what the problem is) – is alive and kicking. Design projects too seem to be perceived as higher risk.

There is a methodology, there is a process and there are many value added examples which need to be used to help to explode any myth. We do however need to be conscious of the approach that matches the stage of development of the customer. I wondered if designers were doing enough to explain what they do and how they do it – or is it consciously portrayed as a black art?

So this led me to the following conclusions and questions:

  • Do we create too much of a “black art” around design?
  • It is a change management methodology that uses tools shared by other improvement concepts so why is it treated and perceived differently?
  • Design can help define what to focus on, how to deliver a result and break a big problem or aspiration into components
  • Design allows solutions to provide multiple benefits – many by-products to the original e.g. a solution that solves the problem efficiently, cost effectively, with social benefits in an aesthetically leasing manner but there also needs to be a value for money benefit.

The value of design came through loud and clear in the examples presented the Strategic Design workshops on the afternoon of the first day where we heard about Isover, Easifoods and Grundfos and value added Design projects.

On the second day the concept presented by Deborah Dawton that “we mustn’t confuse a challenge with a project” allowed me to add an additional elements into my thoughts on the definition of design. Is this where Design can help – addressing challenges?

Deborah’s health warning of needing to manage designers introduced another thought. Do designers over complicate what they do or detach it from reality? Do the people managing them understand the synergies, conflicts and value that can be delivered by the correct design input? Do we challenge designers enough to participate in the commercial world – defining problems and solutions in a commercial context?

The days of design for design sake are gone. The revenue evidence presented by Mark Hoevenaars highlighted the declining revenues of design houses and left no one in any uncertain terms of the future trends and value that needs to be generated by design.

My lasting conclusions:

  • Design does add value
  • Design can be used to influence aspects of our every days lives including economic, social, education, health and culture
  • Design is one of the tools that can help business
  • Design can help break intangible issues into problem solving projects
  • We need to use it wisely and ensure we do not lose supporters by making it seem too risky and akin to witch craft.