Wednesday, 21 May 2014

Digital design – coming of age party?

It’s not often that you’ll get me to say. ‘what a breath of fresh air!’, but that’s exactly my reaction to the Design Commission’s new report, Designing the Digital Economy: embedding growth through design. innovation and technology, May 2014.

I think that it’s the position taken about technology and design that is refreshing. Designers are given credit for representing the people’s perspective (user experience) in the past in relation to tangible consumer products. However, there is criticism of their inert reaction to technology – a failure to embrace it in design terms. This is the gap that should be filled, according to the authors, and will stimulate the digital economy that affects people’s lives and working space while the ‘digital revolution’ is about intelligent connectivity through technologies. This stance is summarised by these quotes:
We have also found, that just as technologists would do well to align their practice with that of designers, the design sector should move out of its comfort zone and seek to engage with the possibilities allowed by the digital economy. Page 9
And, because of the inertia, they say:
Programmers and technologists are instead generating product ideas and moving into design territory, which risks undermining the classical design skillset and training. Page 42
Imagine my gasp of incredulity when the report backs the concept of interdisciplinary research. We have suffered tremendously because of the rigid classifications of ‘industrial’ industries. We have not known where to line up: creative, digital, technological, IT, or by sector, advertising, museums, libraries, web, mobile, and so on. The lack of interdisciplinary understanding and credibility has worked against us. We have moaned constantly about this in our book and in many of our blogs.

Hats off to NESTA for working with new metrics to put a monetary figure on the importance of the creative industries for the UK economy (See this quoted in this report, page 17). It’s a sad fact that the decision-makers only take note of financial data so the six times faster growth rate of the creative industries to the general UK, even during the recession (also quoted page 17) has made the decision-makers sit up.

It comes as no surprise to find that the complex skills needed in digital projects are in short supply. On page 28, the sort-after people are supposedly called ‘T shaped’. The types of skill are defined in the following:
... we heard from SMEs who struggled to find the ‘T-shaped’ people who could add real value to their enterprise. For the businesses we spoke to, this meant people with skills in both digital and physical making, as well as the ability to deal creatively with complex working practices.24 This shortage is obviously an ongoing problem for national policy relating to the skills base ...
A more in-depth assessment of the ‘T-shaped’ origin and skills is found in the highlighted section on Page 29 of this report. Here it mentions Microsoft’s Principal Scientist taking this ‘T-shape’ further. He looks for ‘T’ and ‘I’ skills where ‘I’ means innovation that can then be implemented by the individual in collaboration with a team.

The concept of big data is central to the report. As more and more data becomes available online in a supposedly open situation, the value of the data and how it can be understood and ‘valued’, is key to the future. This big data concept affects government, of course, as they are one of the biggest generators of public data. The report highlights missed opportunities and revenue streams from some big data and it sees an important role for designers conversant in digital to make better use of such data through design practices so it makes sense to the majority.

Coupled with this is a general education issue. People now lack the ‘critical socio-technical literacies’ to be able to judge what they are absorbing from such data exposure.

The report covers 4 main areas: digital design clusters, central government and the digital economy, education and research. I haven’t majored on these as I have cherry-picked what has seemed of most relevance to our themes covered in the blog.

I see this as an incredible step forward in thinking and mindsets that can only be good for what has been a misunderstood and under-valued section of UK society – the interdisciplinary workers in iMedia.

On the interdisciplinary note however, I must just say that the report itself lacks recognition of the broader skills relating to user experience that are already being deployed in iMedia teams. The authors seem to forget that the design gap they define has and is being filled by marketeers, HCI people, Information Architects, agency-led perspectives, e-learning experienced developers, and retail experienced developers - among others - who form part of and influence complex iMedia teams. They champion the users and affect the technical paths taken in applications. Yes, the report is targeted at design, but designers do not have an exclusive 'take' on users.

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