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The Genius of Design (doco – ep #1)

22 June, 2010

On the Living Channel they’re playing a documentary series ‘The Genius of Design’* (Wednesday, 10pm). I wanted to capture the thought provoking/prodding bits from the episodes.

Ep #1 ‘Ghosts in the Machine’ – As with most design shows so far its angle is the designed product/stuff, but I watch with a pleased self-reflective glow that most of what is said easily applies to the service and business design world.

What is design (variously) reeled off in the first 10 mins:

  • It meets/fulfils a need
  • It makes a better world for small things
  • It’s a communication tool – as in communicated the values of the brand
  • It makes/is part of a considered world
  • They also mentioned Dieter Rams 10 commandments of design.

The definitions work for me because I believe service design (in a public sector context) is about enabling people to do the things they possibly don’t really want to do (i.e. they’re compelled by law and that’s the context of their ‘need’). ‘Meeting needs’, ‘better world for small things’, ‘a considered world’ fits with designing stuff (incl services and the intangibles) so that it has meaning for users lives.


One scissor-waving business guy (I’m terrible with names, please forgive) talked about the need of the industrial designer to understand and hit the sweet spot of satisfying the corporate makers, financiers, marketers, etc. That the designer was at the nexus of them all, as artist, engineer, servant to the corporation. In my world we talk about ‘doing the right things and then doing them right’ and it is the designer that plays a big part in making sure the customer and service context helps to quantify what ‘right’ actually means.


There was further discussion of the industrial revolution, move to mass production, consequent separation of design from making,  drive to make more for less – yadda-yadda-yadda. Which brought to mind a doco I’d caught earlier in the week America Unchained – about a Brit trying to cross the States only using ‘Mom & Pop’ outfits, and no chain stores.

At one point the owner of the Beagle shaped B&B said he couldn’t understand why people wanted the homogeneity of Ibis, Best Westerns and their ilk and why people seemed to actually like them. Mass production of experience if you will.

My take is that mass production of chain-services is a response to people’s fear. “I don’t want to waste money”, “I don’t want to move out of my comfort zone”, “I don’t want to have to think”, “Please make it easy for me” are fears of the new or fears of difference that are allayed by the reliability of sameness. I can remember being in New York at the end of a very long trip around Europe and just wanting to find dinner that was familiar and easy. I found a McDonalds.  Yes, it was exactly like maccas back home but it meant I didn’t have to work out how to order, or what I wanted, or what I could expect (although the size of the drink was truly a shock – there’s the experience!).

Mass production of chain-services, which are cheaper for the business to produce, do provide meaning for a type of consumer/user – even if it isn’t sexy or cool or obviously innovative. Nothing wrong with those things – personally speaking, I’d prefer to stay in the Beagle – but I find it meaningful to design services that citizens find seamless and empowering, and are resolutely unglamorous, but they work and help people get on with their actual lives. That’s why I like the public sector I guess – you don’t have to love us but we’d like your trust and patronage (cos you kinda have to deal with us). Maybe our tagline could be “because you have to, we’ll make it easy and just get out of your way”

Rambling down memory lane follows. Please leave now if you‘re busy.

Watching the doco reminded me of my love of these types of show and indeed the power of TV to change lives. In 1996 I was off work with an injury and a subscription to Sky. They had a magical channel (named Orange?) that played many an obscure documentary series. One such series was called ‘White Heat’ and it literally changed my life.  (Now, I think it was called ‘White Heat’ I’ve never been able to find a mention of it anywhere – even after the internet came along and became my other living space.)

The premise of the series was six (I think) conscious evolutions that changed our very existence. From what I can remember (and I’m sure the wheel was in there somewhere) there was:

  • The tool – for obvious reasons, but this was the shift from bashing a stone with a stone, to shaping a stone to do specific things – nothing new here – but evidence of the first designer, no?
  • The process – thanks to Henry Ford, this was the notion that doing the same things in a repeatable way, and timing it could uncover and reveal efficient sequences which you could be done faster or in a better order, which meant you could do more with less (forget about the humans – this was about de-skilling, but it did have a big impact on me thinking about how stuff gets done in a corporate sense and that is often about upskilling)
  • The step – this was the real life changer for me. The notion here was that the conscious act of making of a step (as opposed to a natural formation of rocks that one could climb to a higher point) led to buildings which could be higher than one-level, which meant more could be fitted into the buildings, which basically led to our commercial, capitalist world where commerce and corporations exist. Thanks to the humble step. From roman empires to religious awe to wall street.

The series, and the Step in particular, made me want to go to university in my 20s and do a bachelor of arts. I often think about the step and get all poignant.

*All credit to hipstomp for pointing this out “‘The Genius of Design’…(Gotta love that acronym.)”

*Isn’t it cool how design gets publicly-aired documentaries, but project management and business analysis doesn’t!? Or Lean Six Sigma! Or the other emerging corporate terror Investment Logic Mapping. Disclaimer: I am surrounded by project management, business analysis, LSS, ILM.

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