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Interview: Richie Manu

Interview: Richie Manu

6 December 2017

As someone who has worked and works in education, how important do you think ‘design thinking’ is to the future stars of the world?

It is vital that students, graduates and emerging creatives not only just understand what ‘design thinking’ is by definition, but that they are also able to acknowledge its tangible impact and effect on society. IDEO’s Tim Brown describes design thinking as a ‘human-centred approach to innovation that draws from the designer’s toolkit to integrate the needs of people’. Furthermore, it should not be assumed that ‘design thinking’ is the sole domain of designers and creatives, but conversely, a collaborative and inclusive process with users that are an essential part of the conversation. 

It is important that the process of problem solving involves multi-disciplinary groups. For this to happen, there needs to be a common language that is shared and understood by practitioners from all disciplines and expertise. This requires diligent and careful management of the process. It also means fostering a culture of collaboration and problem solving between, creatives, experts and practitioners outside the field of design.   

It is essential that emerging and experienced designers, as well as educators are open to cultures of practice, knowledge sharing and empathy. This involves taking a long-range perspective and approach on projects so that creative teams are able to embed themselves and step into the shoes of the end user. They need to understand the remit of ‘living with the problem or challenge’ long enough to truly understand implications and possible outcomes.

In 2015 Design Council led on a piece of research that stated the value contribution of design to the UK economy was just over £70bn. With this in mind, and as we approach the impending Brexit, do you worry that the UK economy may be affected by the potential loss of talent as they leave the UK?

The effect of Brexit will no doubt have a major impact on many sectors including the design economy in the UK. The most important thing is not to ring fence design into any geographical territory but to have a more holistic and broad outlook to what design and creativity can do globally. While we must continue to nurture, hone and develop homegrown creativity and talent, we must also enable creatives to navigate and project their expertise globally. Creativity has no borders and I hope that agencies, corporations, institutions and governments will find innovative ways in the future to ensure that talent is not compromised, restricted or neglected.

If someone was to ask you what the term ‘design’ meant, how would you explain/describe it?

I would describe design as the creative and strategic process that meets a need or performs a function. There are many perspectives and definition of design. The Cox Review definition is quite apt. ‘Design is what links creativity and innovation. It shapes ideas to become practical and attractive propositions for users or customers.’ But, it’s not so much as defining what ‘design’ is, but more about identifying and evidencing what good design can do and has accomplished in society. However, the term ‘design’ is so broad and comes with many prefixes. It is important that designers are able to articulate and demonstrate their practice and discipline within their respective fields as well as being able to identify the needs and expectation of the end users.

While ‘design' is the creative and strategic process of making ideas real or tangible, I see design more than ever as a dialogue. That dialogue must continue to involve stakeholders and end users. I also see ‘design’ as a solar system of processes. This is because there are important components that continually orbit around the ‘problem’ or task. The elements orbiting around the core include factors such as creativity, feasibility, function, psychology, ethnography, economics, finance, economics, collaboration – to name but a few. It’s a misconception to think of design as purely aesthetic but conversely, a homogeneous activity and process that encompasses just some of the aforementioned elements.  It’s also important to remember that design in not absolute. It is reductive to ‘put a full stop behind  ‘design’ – instead we need to see it as iterative, continuous, innovate and open-minded. 

I was really inspired by a recent talk given by Francesca Rosella, Creative Director of Wearable Tech brand, CuteCircuit. What was fascinating about their business was that ‘design’ was just one of the pillars of their business. Many of their collaborations involved working with engineers, programmers, garment technologists, scientists and other experts that you would not immediately associate with fashion. This amalgam and cohesion of disciplines is the future of design. In a future where the seamless integration of expertise and skills will be a natural part of the creative process, could we see the disappearance of terms such as 'multi-disciplinary’? 

It has been suggested that the design industry is full of middle class white men, is this your impression? If so, how do we go about changing that?

Research findings from 'The Design Economy’ reveal that the design economy is a ‘relatively young, male-dominated workforce’. (The Design Economy, Design Council, 2015). It is evident that there are noticeable gender and race gaps in the creative and design industries. With 78% male and 22% female representation, it’s clear there’s an imbalance. It is also evident in terms of ethnicity with 11% of people from Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic backgrounds – BAME, (The Design Economy, Design Council, 2015). It is more than a ‘ ‘suggestion’ and clearly an issue that needs action to achieve diversity in all areas (including gender and race) in the design economy. 

There is no easy or straight-forward solution to addressing or achieving a healthier and sustainable balance. I think one solution is to take a long-range view of the problem and look at creating more equal opportunities - real opportunities for a more diverse spectrum of graduates. This means ensuring that we create an ‘experience and opportunity based economy’ where people from a broader range of backgrounds, gender and disability have real opportunities to develop their careers and contribute to the sectors. This needs to be achieved by developing closer ties between Higher Education and Industry to ensure that there is some level of shared accountability for addressing diversity and reducing gaps.

The other issue is visibility and exposure. There are many prominent and important artists and designers of colour. And for many who are emerging, providing a long, sustainable, resilient platform for exposure and growth is crucial if we are to achieve a point where there is better circulation of diverse talent. Avoiding this only creates a block in the funnel!

Independent groups and platforms such as Diversity Matters, Shades of Noir amongst others are active and prominent organisations that are doing important work to increase and promote diversity, equality and social justice.  It is important to note that from an institution and education perspective there are an increasing number of initiatives and programmes to highlight, address and action diversity in the creative industries and other sectors. University of the Arts London’s Equality and Diversity Framework sets outs objectives for equality, diversity and inclusion for 2015-2022.   The Race Champions Forum at the University of the Arts London is a platform set up to build an inclusive culture to demonstrate fairness and inclusivity. They are also initiating programmes that are addressing under-representation in education.

The BAME Talent Day programme at UAL was an initiative devised to identify, nurture and grow the academic pool of BAME talent while increasing diversity.

Following the success of that programme and other initiatives at UAL, Teaching Futures: CSM is an opportunity for people of colour working in art, design and the creative industries to be introduced to pathways into lecturing and teaching at Central Saint Martins and to explore ways to develop their teaching practice within their professional practice with potential roles such as Visiting Practitioners and Associate Lecturers. These are just some of the ways that students are aware of the knowledge, expertise and value of people from all cultures – and starting with education is paramount.

Do you think that the general public understand what design is, and the part it plays in daily life? If not, how would you go about getting that message across?

I think the general public have an understanding of good design. They vote with their pockets and are able to distinguish between ill-considered design practice and experienced and well-considered design.  I think there is a bigger challenge of the general public understanding the value of the sub-sectors of design. The general public know what Fashion Design is, they know and live with Graphic Design and Branding. They may even know that the phone they hold in their hands is the outcome of the process and practice of Product Design or Industrial Design, although they may not fully locate or acknowledge its discipline in a commercial sense. Even harder to locate and position are areas such as Service Design, Experiential Design, Spatial Design or relative new comers UX Design (User Experience Design) and UI Design (User-Interface Design). While the general public are immersed in the outcomes of these important disciplines in society, it can often be more challenging to articulate or describe these disciplines and their function and role in society.

Do you think too much focus is applied on a person’s educational background or achievements, instead of the ‘talent’ that they bring to the table? If so, how do we correct that?

I once attended a talk from an advertising executive who said that they rarely hire graduates with advertising degrees. Instead they employ a spectrum of problem solvers, including comedy writers, psychologists, anthropologists and even scientists. While expertise and skillsets are vital to ‘the table’, it is also fundamental that creative and business opportunities are allowed to benefit and flourish from a spectrum of thinking that enables and fosters ideas, approaches and strategies from a broad reach of talent and expertise. It is not only important to recognize qualification by way of academic attainment, but also qualification through experience and value.

Who was your design inspiration? 

A broad spectrum of designers and artists informed my work in the early years of my career.  But in the mid 2000s, I was a hugely inspired by the creative agency Attik who were originally founded and based in the UK. Their meteoric rise from starting their company in the attic of one of the founder’s grandmother’s attic, to growing ion a global empire was very inspiring. They also started out with a small grant from the Prince’s Trust. Their focus on lifestyle and youth orientated brands, they applied risk, unpredictability and ‘unexpected aesthetics’. I found their work ground breaking, rule-breaking, unsettling, provocative and reviving. I really wanted to work for them and sent them CVs and portfolios, but alas never got an interview. Today, they continue to be leading creative forces in the channels of design for print, outdoor advertising, broadcast, viral marketing and interactive design.  

What design inspires you today?

Instruction-free design. For me design works if you don’t need necessarily require instructions. There are plenty of good products, processes and services that by their own nature are simple, clear, concise and more importantly user-friendly. Design outcomes should be intuitive and innate and some of the best design today continues to meet our most basic needs.

Richie Manu a best-selling author, designer and TEDx Speaker. Richie blends a career in professional design practice with other roles as an educator and writer. Richie is a Senior Lecturer at University of the Arts London where he is the Course Tutor and Coordinator on MA Applied Imagination at Central Saint Martins. He is also a Fellow of the Higher Education Academy, and as a qualified lecturer has a Postgraduate Certificate in Teaching in Higher Education. Richie has also won teaching awards for his teaching practice and was recently awarded a UAL Teaching Award 2017. With a background in design, branding and communications, Richie has specialised in working with start-ups and entrepreneurs, devising strategies on differentiating and standing out. His book YOU: Rebranded has received positive reviews and was noted as an essential read on personal branding, amplifying individuality and distinctiveness.

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