Reflections on Design Culture Salon 14: How dependent is the design profession on cultures of migration?

Salon panel furthest from camera: Guy Julier (Chair), Alison Clarke, Melissa Clark and Robin Kinross.

Salon panel furthest from camera: Guy Julier (Chair), Alison Clarke, Melissa Clark and Robin Kinross.

How dependent is the design profession on cultures of migration?

As regular attendees will know, the Design Culture Salons have had a distinctly ‘mobile’ feel of late. Physically, this has involved a migration across the museum from our previous home in the Sackler Centre, South East of the museum (temporarily closed during Exhibition Road excavations) to the more intimate location of Clore 55, a circular room in the north-eastern corner. And like the room itself, thematically this series seems to have been preoccupied with concepts of circularity, from cycling to fashion cycles and the designer’s career cycle. So, it was in keeping with this general theme (and with political dialogue in the run up to the election) that we hit on the topic of migration to ask, ‘how dependent is the design profession on cultures of migration?’

Introducing things, Professor Guy Julier described the great legacy of émigré design culture that has underpinned the profession in Britain since the post-war period. He questioned whether this legacy had created a mythological status on the value of cultures of migration in design or whether there was something structural, practical even, about the relationship between migration and design practice. To test the case, Guy asked the audience to raise their hands if they identified as migrants. Roughly two thirds of the audience arms were raised. The topic certainly had an engaged audience.

The first to speak was Melissa Clark of Method design consultancy. Melissa spoke of the importance of the culture of migration to both Method as a brand and as a team, remarking upon the diversity of its workforce, which represents over sixteen different nationalities in the London office alone. Being able to capture the value of this diversity is a key part of the design process, she argued, and is a valuable asset when dealing with corporate international clients, from McDonalds to Nokia. However, she also stated that it was important not to be complacent about this diversity. She was aware of the privilege in being situated in one of the most densely populated areas of the global creative economy, the ‘Shoreditch silo’. This ‘global view’ is a particular, rather than a universal one.

Alison Clarke, Professor of Design History at the University of Applied Arts, Vienna described her own migration to the field of design history via anthropology and ethnography. One of her first major contributions to the field was in her study of glassware company Ysart, where she paid attention to Pablo Ysart’s journey from Barcelona to France to Scotland as an integral rather than incidental aspect of his identity and formed a tension throughout his work. Similarly, reading Raymond Loewy’s 1951 biography ‘Never Leave Well Enough Alone’, Clarke was struck by the revulsion Loewy continually identifies for American food- a fascinating point to consider in relation to his work there. Nevertheless, Clarke put the point that these personal ‘journeys’ need to be carefully considered before making connections with professional practice. There are careful distinctions and demarcations that need to be made in relation to émigré culture and identities. ‘They are often borne from different modes of displacement’, she said. In particular, a distinction should be made between political and economic displacement and cosmopolitanism. Clarke’s contribution reminded us that questions of identity are always fragile and in a constant state of formation rather than fixed according to the cultural categories of ‘émigré’ or migrant.

Robin Kinross, founder of Hyphen Press and design historian, the final speaker for the evening, brought a vital perspective to the topic as someone involved in the first wave of writing émigré design history in the late 1980s. Personally, he explained, his own interest in design was about ‘finding a way out of the UK’- a journey which brought him into contact with those who had found themselves here, having arrived from elsewhere. He spoke about the practical issues that equipped émigré designers with a specific skill-set, such as the Imperial metric system and being able to communicate in multiple languages. For him, these were indicators and facilitators of a broader ‘European’ mind-set. In this sense, it put these particular emigres (including FHK Henrion and Anthony Froshaug) in a position of privilege rather than vulnerability. He further extended upon Alison’s point about the significance of fully appreciating the circumstances for migration, be they political, economic or otherwise. For him, the issue of cosmopolitanism, was, for Kinross, something quite different to the ‘damaged lives’ of those fleeing the Second World War.

Prompted by Guy, the salon panellists then entered a discussion about some of the key features of ‘émigré’ design culture, including the difference between ‘travel’ and migration and the notion of privilege which is evident among many of the European designers in the formative years of the profession. The discussion also took in aspects of design ‘etiquette’ (with clients and with each other) and the extent to which this is moulded by cultural beliefs and values.

From here, and opening up to the audience, the conversation was rich and covered a wide range of topics, including power and technology. One member of the audience spoke about the materiality of émigré design culture we live with every day in the architecture of London and asked about the extent to which this process of risk and experimentation can be identified today. One barrier to this might be planning laws, for example, which are often culturally rooted and difficult to navigate as an ‘outsider’. The notion of ‘hustling’ was briefly considered as a valuable trait of the migrant designer.

A student in the room described the vitality of studio culture as an interesting example of a site in which the migration of ideas, people and diverse backgrounds meet and are negotiated in the art school. In her case, there are sixty students in her design course at Goldsmiths, representing a total of 20 different nationalities. In this sense, the studio can be viewed as an ‘incubator’ for the structural and cultural features that currently animate our creative economy.

Another audience member was less optimistic. While the design profession might be culturally diverse, its output has never looked ‘more boring’. A generic westernised cosmopolitanism now dominates client briefs and imposes an increasingly generic ‘global’ image of design practice. Examples from those in the room who had recently worked for or collaborated with clients in China, Taipei and the Middle East, confirmed this suspicion: the very act of ‘travelling’ or ‘moving’ in design doesn’t necessarily equate with the migration of ideas, or indeed, inculcate a culture of innovation.

As Guy stated, there seems to be a ‘soft side’ and a ‘hard side’ to the conversation. In this sense, we were missing the contribution of economist Max Nathan, who regrettably had to withdraw from the panel at last minute.

By the end of the Salon, several members of the audience were pushing for a closer convergence in the fields of anthropology and design research. As in previous Salon conversations, there was a healthy dose of cynicism in the air, as people pointed to what appear to be fixed and immobile features of design culture. Robin Kinross, for instance, spoke of the very limited age bracket that continues to define the graphic design profession, (picking up on last month’s salon topic). Therefore, while it is common to talk about design as a migratory, mobile and dynamic practice, the Salon ended by reflecting on the points of resistance within this. In this sense, what started as a conversation about migration came full circle and recurring issues, identified previously in the series, re-surfaced.

Dr. Leah Armstrong, Unviersity of Brighton / Victoria and Albert Museum

The next design culture salon is taking place on 13 March at 6:30pm in Clore 55, V&A Museum. The topic is ‘How does design address immobilities in our society?’

It is free and all are welcome.

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Design Culture Salon 14: How dependent is the design profession on cultures of migration?

Friday 20 Feb 6:30pm-8:30pm Clore 55, British Galleries, Victoria and Albert Museum

Immigration has been a bargaining point between the political parties in the run up to the 2015 election and can be seen to particularly divide attitudes to working cultures in the UK. Economic experts point to the vital and invigorating role immigration plays in our national economy. Design historians have established that the UK profession was carved out by émigré designers. Sociologists and geographers continue to note the lasting and continuing importance of global cultures of design in shaping the UK creative economy. Design Culture, as a research discipline, studies the migration of ideas, cultures, aesthetics and styles as well as practices and people. Building on these perspectives, this Design Culture Salon asks the following questions: Does migration mean something particular and distinct in design? If designers are in the business of innovating and instigating change, is it an advantage for the designer to be an ‘outsider’? Or even further, is the designer necessarily an outsider? Could the design profession exist without these cultures of migration? Is the identity of the migrant or émigré an anachronism in an increasingly global design economy?

Chair: Guy Julier, Professor of Design Culture, University of Brighton and Victoria and Albert Museum.


Robin Kinross is a typographer, writer, and editor. In the 1970s he did postgraduate research on the work of Otto and Marie Neurath and has since maintained an interest in the emigration of the 1930s from Central Europe to the UK. In 1980 he started Hyphen Press, which publishes books on design and related subjects. His own books include Modern Typography, Unjustified Texts, Anthony Froshaug: Texts and Typography / Documents of a Life, and many essays and articles on typography and graphic design.

Alison J Clarke is Professor, Design History and Theory & Director, Papanek Foundation at the University of Applied Arts Vienna whose forthcoming international biennial symposium, Émigré Design Culture: Histories of the Social in Design (2015) addresses the legacy of émigré histories in progressive design. As a design historian (RCA/V&A) and social anthropologist (UCL), Clarke specialises in histories and ethnographic research concerning the politics and social relations of design and material culture. A former Smithsonian Fellow, she is author of Tupperware: The Promise of Plastic in 1950s America (made into an Emmy-nominated documentary) and Design Anthropology: Object Culture in the 21st Century. She is co-founder and editor of inter-disciplinary journal Home Cultures: Architecture, Design and Domestic Space. Alison presently directs a major funded research project “Émigré Cultural Networks and the Founding of Social Design” (FWF: Austrian Science Fund), and is completing a related monograph with MIT press titled Design for the Real World: Legacies of Radical and Activist Design.

Max Nathan works at NIESR and at LSE, where he is a Deputy Director of the What Works Centre for Local Economic Growth and a Research Fellow at the Spatial Economics Research Centre. His research looks at the economics of migration and diversity, innovation systems, and public policy for cities. Max has over 12 years’ experience working in UK think tanks, consultancy and public policy. Most recently he worked at the Department of Communities and Local Government as an ESRC-DCLG Senior Policy Adviser, covering a range of economic development and governance issues. In 2004 Max co-founded the Centre for Cities think tank, where he ran the research programme. He is an Associate at the Centre for London and the Institute for Public Policy Research, and a Research Fellow at IZA. 

Melissa Clark is Client Service Lead for the experience design firm Method, and has ‘nearly’ a decades experience leading and delivering customer insight, strategy, marketing and optimisation projects for international clients across sectors. A born and bred Londoner, she started her career at a boutique strategic consultancy to help clients realise the power of digital. Wanting to be closer to the action, she then decided to join the design world because she saw an opportunity to better bridge the gap between working out what to make and then making it. Curious, playful and colourful, she works with both her clients and team to deliver projects that make a difference, and continue to push boundaries. Her work has touched audiences in over 23 countries and in over 14 different languages. To date, she has been featured in Design Week, Fast Company, Creative Review, Wired Design.

Free event: All welcome! Directions to Clore 55 here:

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Reflections on Design Culture Salon 13: How does age influence cultures of design?

Design Culture Salon 13: How does age influence cultures of design?

Contemporary design culture seems to be in a constant state of anticipation, on the look-out for the ‘next big thing’. The design media frequently compiles lists of the ‘ones to watch’ through which they promote the culture of ‘beginnings, creativity and risk’, the tagline of new magazine The Great Discontent. Here, design celebrates the young.

However, an alternative image and function for design has been nudging into view lately. Selfridges is celebrating ‘Bright Old Things’ and fashion design is finding its muse in a notably older generation. Likewise, many of the discussions which have taken place in previous Design Culture Salons have been interested in winding down or interrupting the intense speeds at which we are accustomed to talking about design. They seem to have suggested a more considered, responsible function for design discourse- whether through design philosophy, policy making or permaculture.

So what does this tell us about the relationship between age and design culture? What priorities and privileges does it reveal in our social values? How helpful or misleading is this correlation between age, innovation, creativity and design?

Salon number 13 acquired an entirely unexpected energy due to the fact that three of the panelists – Joe Smith, Laura Jordan Bambach and Lynda Relph-Knight- had all, for different reasons, been forced to cancel on the day. We were extremely lucky to bring in two fantastic replacements- designer Alasdair Scott and artist, activist and many other things, Susan Benn. Both seemed to encapsulate the qualities we were seeking to unpack and examine in this Salon, bringing a wealth of experience which cut across creative, artistic and design practices.

Salon 13 panel: Left to Right: Malcolm Garrett RDI, Alasdair Scott, Susan Benn and Sean Nixon

Salon 13 panel: Left to Right: Malcolm Garrett RDI, Alasdair Scott, Susan Benn and Sean Nixon

Malcolm Garrett, chair for the evening, was also ideally placed to speak about this issue. In his introduction, he reflected on his own career trajectory- describing the transition ‘from student to master’ (Malcolm is Master of the Faculty of RDIs at the RSA). Malcolm’s early career was also strongly shaped by his association with the late 70s music scene in Manchester and the punk movement aesthetic. Being part of a ‘generation’ has clearly played an important function in his career.

To start things off, Malcolm asked Alasdair Scott to reflect on how things have changed over his career and how he thought age has impacted the direction he has gone. In his response, Alasdair raised the significance of technological advancements, which shape the medium through which a ‘generation’ can find its voice. Expanding on this, he also made the important point that cultures of age are, of course, contingent upon social and economic conditions. When we talk about ‘age’, we are really talking about history. This might be used to make sense of the ‘being in the right time, in the right place’.

Professor Sean Nixon probed a little further into this theme. He was well placed to do so, since much of his work has focused on the lifestyles, attitudes and behaviours of those working in advertising. Here, he argued, youthfulness is valorized and celebrated above all else. This is not only visible in the emphasis on ‘creativity’ and ‘New Blood’ pushed by institutions such as D&AD, but also in the demographics of the industry, which puts the average age at 34. This fascination with youth is problematic, not least because of the limited capacity for representation it offers. It is, however, a central component of the ‘myth making’ that goes on in these industries, which presents creativity as a ‘moral imperative’.

Next to speak was Susan Benn, whose work in founding the PAL Labs has brought her into contact with a wide range of artistic practices and age groups. Malcolm asked her how she had managed to sustain her youthful energy throughout her varied career. Susan said she had always resented the very notion of growing up and has, throughout her life, felt that whatever the problem, the ‘grown-ups have got it wrong’. For her therefore, the idea of being a ‘grown up’ was an attitudinal, rather than an age-related, issue. The fixed priorities of older generations can be stifling for young people in the fields of art, design and film. People rarely stop to ask the young ‘what do you care about?’. Susan also criticized the invention of words such as ‘creativity’, ‘collaboration’ which try to mechanise and formalize what is essentially natural human behavior.

The conversation flowed, moving through several themes, including the function of design awards as a ‘rite of passage’, (or perhaps ‘rite of consecration’, as Pierre Bourdieu would have it), in design. Alasdair noted that he used to receive awards, now he gives them out- that’s a marker of age. The discussion also veered at times into the ‘myth-making’ Sean had described. Malcolm and Alasdair reminisced about the ‘good old days’ in Shoreditch, when they were the first graphic design company to set up on Curtain Road (an area now pulsing with this sort of activity). However, Alasdair also bravely made the point that his own generation, the 40-something, has stubbornly clung to their youth, to the extent that younger generations now have to be ‘more extreme’ to represent youth culture.

The question of risk also became a major discussion point. Malcolm asked the audience, which was composed of many young students, to reflect on the last time they had taken a risk. There was a prolonged silence. One student from Goldsmiths admitted that people of her generation were consciously risk-averse. Guy Julier reminded us that Joe Smith, the youngest panelist on the original Salon line-up, had to cancel the last minute because of a meeting with his accountant! Time and money appear to be luxuries more freely available in previous generations.

Some students sitting in the front row said that their overwhelming attitude was one of fear and anxiety for the future and their place in it. They feel a great weight of social responsibility on their shoulders, rather than the youthful naivety and confidence Malcolm had described in his introduction. ‘It’s too late’, they said, ‘We feel that we don’t have enough time’.

Malcolm agreed that this was one of the most profound shifts he had identified through his work with the RSA. ‘Whereas we in the punk movement just wanted to change things, young designers today want to change things for the better’. It’s a great quote that neatly summarised the social imperative that now drives design culture.

So, this Design Culture Salon was notably different in tone from the others, as it became something closer to a conversation between two generations- the student and the master- to go back to Malcolm’s description. Some of the greatest sense of responsibility and ‘wisdom’ appeared to be coming from the youngest in the room. There is something very profound about this inversion- or perhaps, as Susan argued, it has always been this way. It was a sobering moment and certainly left me with much to mull over.

Dr Leah Armstrong

University of Brighton / Victoria and Albert Museum

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Design Culture Salon 13: How does age influence cultures of design?

Friday 9 January 2015

Clore 55, British Galleries
Victoria and Albert Museum

Creativity; intuition; innovation; experimentation: these words commonly punctuate design narratives in practice, research and in the media. They are also all, interestingly, most associated with youth culture. The designer’s career cycle appears to move in new directions with age. Design institutions such as D&AD promote the dynamism of the ‘new generation’ through its ‘New Blood’ scheme. So, what does this tell us about the relationship between age and design culture? How meaningful is this generational view of design practice? How is the career narrative of the designer framed in relation to cultures of age? To what extent is design a youthful skill, characterized by intuition and innovation, or is there a place for ‘design wisdom’ in contemporary society?

Chair: Malcolm Garrett, Graphic designer and Master of the Faculty of RDIs


Professor Sean Nixon, Head of Sociology, University of Essex

Joseph Smith, Designer, Artist and Co-Founder of Makerversity

Alasdair Scott, Partner at C3UK

Susan Benn, Founder and President of Performance Arts Labs (PAL ltd)

This event is free, but booking is required.
To join the guest list, please contact Leah Armstrong (l.armstrong[at]

Sean Nixon is Professor and Head of the Department of Sociology at the University of Essex. He has published extensively on the subject of advertising, the cultural economy and creativity. His most recent publications include Hard Sell: Advertising, Affluence and Trans-Atlantic Relations circa 1951-69 and in 2013, he co-edited the second collection of Representation: Cultural Representation and Signifying Practices with Stuart Hall and Jessica Evans. He is currently working on an Australian Research council funded project with colleagues at the University of Melbourne, UWS and Brown University. It explores the exporting of American advertising practices and techniques to Australia in the late twentieth century. It will focus the mediating role played by British advertising in this transfer of knowledge and expertise between the ‘advanced’ world of American advertising and the subaltern Australian industry. As a first step, he is researching the importing of the so-called ‘creative revolution’ associated with NY advertising in the 1950s and 60s into London advertising.

Joseph Smith is a designer and artist. Driven by making things and making things happen, Joseph’s work is largely focused around product, interaction and service design ­ working for himself, leading studios and inside large organisations. Projects have taken a variety of forms from new businesses, services and products in the real world, to more speculative research focused work. Most recently he co­founded of Makerversity, a digital manufacturing and learning company based at Somerset House in London.

Alasdair Scott is Partner at C3UK, a consultancy which builds mobile channels, content and services for the retail, entertainment and transport markets. An interactive veteran, Scott has been at the forefront of interactive media since 1988, working on a diverse range of digital platforms from CD-ROM and Interactive Television to Broadband Internet, Mobile Apps and WiFi services. Leading mobile-specific projects in Europe, North American and Asia Pacific since 2003, Alasdair has helped organisations such as Boeing, Pepsi, Landrover, Apple, Virgin, Amex, Universal and the London 2012 Olympic & Paralympic Games on breakthrough digital out-of-home experiences. His work has been recognized and awarded by BBC, BAFTA, Campaign, Creative Review, D&AD, Music Week and Time Magazine.  Scott is a Fellow of the Royal Society for the Arts and a Fellow at the Royal Institution.

Susan Benn spent 25 years (1987-2012) as founder artist director of PAL (Performing Arts Labs ltd). PAL labs attracted a wide range of exceptional talents making original work in the arts, sciences and in education. PAL intensive residential laboratories worked across disciplines, sectors and borders in the UK, Europe, India and Africa. In recognition of PAL’s achievement Susan received an award of over a million pounds from NESTA in 2000 to further develop PAL. Prior to Pal Susan had been a successful textile designer, children’s book editor and publisher and reportage photographer she studied weaving at Cranbrook and Michigan, textiles design at the Royal College of Art and received a Masters Degree from Sir Anthony Blunt at the Courtauld Institute of Art. Susan is currently co-founder and International Advisor of the Southasian Children’s Cinema Forum ( and board member of Strong Back Productions ( she is developing two personal photographic projects one in her home town of Detroit Michigan and the other in Ahmedabad, Gujurat. Her Indian project involves a small collection of locally made ‘work shirts’ which will be launched this March.

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Reflections on Design Culture Salon 12: Is innovation overrated and what is the role of design here?

A select group gathered in Clore 55 for this pre-Christmas discussion in which we buried innovation with a stake through it and then resurrected it in partial glory. If ever there was a perfectly shaped, end-to-end debate, then this was it.

l. to r.:  Jamie Brassett, Lucy Kimbell, Duncan Fairfax, Guy Julier Photo:  Jocelyn Bailey

l. to r.: Jamie Brassett, Lucy Kimbell, Duncan Fairfax, Guy Julier
Photo: Jocelyn Bailey

Opening play, I tore into the possible circularity of the dominant, economic arguments for innovation. ‘We live in turbulent times, and so we have to innovate to stay ahead’ we are told. But where does this tubulence come from? Okay, we could name climate change, the rise in commodity prices or the increasing economic weight of BRIC countries. But we might also add in a vigorous, ideological adherence to a belief in innovation itself as something that is constantly destabilizing markets and social life.

Noting the way that so much policy was being reframed under ‘innovation’ (e.g. the Technology Strategy Board being re-named as InnovateUK), it was asked whether innovation itself has reached the ‘peak of inflated expectations’? (This is taken from the so-called Hype Cycle that describes a common pattern to expectations regarding new technologies.) How far have we actually come from the 2005 Cox Review of Creativity in Business?

Useful working definitions from the 2005 Cox Review

Useful working definitions from the 2005 Cox Review

Jamie Brassett responded by arguing for a re-framing of innovation. First, he noted that understandings of innovation were largely configured around a ‘for economic growth’ discourse and that there is little critical opposition to this notion. Second, ‘innovation’ is really about the promotion of sciences over other fields where it might be equally important. Third, and leading on from this, he invoked Joseph Schumpeter’s 1911 discussion of innovation expounded in his Theory of Economic Development; here, Schumpeter included social and cultural change within his definition of innovation, something which the drive around economic growth has left behind.

Lucy Kimbell mapped out three current and prominent scenarios for innovation. These were: financial innovation where attempts are made to create new systems and arrangements for flows of capital; innovation in government and public policy making; and innovation in energy production and conservation in the context of climate change. Focusing more on the second of these, Lucy gave an outline of the Cabinet Office Policy Lab that she is working with as an AHRC Research Fellow. She drew attention to how, by including ethnographic approaches or creating ‘personas’, policy-makers are innovating their processes. In this they are thinking about the socio-material arrangements within which policy is bound up. At the same time, it is also recognizing the constantly performing provisionality of policy – that is, it is never finished.

Duncan Fairfax picked up on this idea of the performance of innovation. He argued that innovation is ‘over-rated’, meaning that it is subject to performance analysis techniques and, indeed, is framed by these. In other words, innovations are only innovations when they are recognized as such and it takes systems of measurement to do this recognizing. Practices that are outside understood systems of measurement cannot enter into the frame of innovation, therefore. Innovation becomes a performative practice, done in order to satisfy pre-ordained targets or requirements. Invoking Derrida, Duncan argued that it is impossible to get out of this; invention is always within the known space of actualization.

(Or as Derrida put it in an interview, ‘… the choice is not between repetition and innovation, but between two forms of repetition and two forms of invention. So I think there are inventive forms of respecting the tradition, and there are reactive or non-inventive forms. But I would not say that in order to invent something new, or to make something new happen, you have to betray the tradition or to forget the tradition.’)

This leads us to think outside the box (ha! ha!) and to ask what innovation could be? Design thinking seems to sometimes get reduced to an algorithm, a set of abstracted procedures that conform to known structures and outcomes. What else is there? How, for example, can we get beyond the false construction of ‘user needs’ where users are positioned as ‘needy’ and in some form of poverty?

At this point there was talk with reference to Jean-Francois Lyotard’s 1974 text The Libidinal Economy. I’ve always taken Lyotard to be wrapped up in all that Postmodern stuff around unending, superficial, jouissance-inflected sets of glances and exchanges. Certainly the libidinal economy is about an intensive drive to get out there and do your thing, regardless of the consequences. However, it seemed that, in contradistinction to the narrative around innovation that had been gathering through the evening, the libidinal economy at least offered a place to exercise our desires outside the strictures of audit culture. And if our desires are, in fact, social justice, sustainable living or democratic participation (as opposed to ‘growth’ or consumer culture), then we might be going somewhere else.

This is where we moved to a more optimistic and less-restrained view on innovation. Things were looking up. Within this Lucy Kimbell made reference here to Geoff Mulgan’s take on social innovation in which scaling is a key factor. Thus there is the sense of continual prototyping and developing wherein scaling itself involves new forms and processes. At the same time, I asked, can we talk also about scaling down to produce more precision, intimacy and stewardship?

Drawing on Gilles Deleuze (who else with Jamie Brassett in the room who is about to publish a book on Deleuze and design?) we discussed the proposal that acts of creativity should open up spaces for the creativity of others. There may be other ways of allowing this to happen by, for instance, deliberately not innovating or not designing. Preservation might be a radical act. Equally, managed decline might be a more human and more sensible approach to problems sometimes.

Duncan Fairfax, on a final counter-attack that expanded on a brilliant intervention from an audience participant, added that  ‘provisional performativity’ is where we might be going and where there is a sense of on-going prototyping and experimentation. This dumbfounds accepted notions of innovation as an end. The outcomes of innovation might not necessarily be preordained or formed around received systems of measurement and evaluation. Thus, he slotted the final goal into the back of the net with two moves:  let’s imagine innovations that can be efficiently destroyed and/or produce ones that can be turned into something else. This represents a fundamental challenge to our current modes of cognition and intention.


Guy Julier



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Design Culture Salon 12: Is innovation overrated and what is the role of design here?

Friday 12 Dec 2014


Clore 55, British Galleries, V&A Museum

Government think-tanks, policy wonks, business gurus, management book publishers and lots and lots of design commentators stress a need for innovation in order to ‘compete globally in these turbulent times’. Alternatively, innovation also gets tacked onto thinking about how new social arrangements, welfare services or participatory processes can unfold. But has innovation become an unthinking default position? Is this verve to aim for invention actually missing important challenges like implementation, poor leadership or infrastructure? What is the role of the State in promoting particular versions of innovation? Can designers provide a critical space where something else might happen? This Salon investigates how a certain cultural understanding of innovation has emerged, what it is doing and how alternatives might be forged.

Chair: Guy Julier, Professor of Design Culture, University of Brighton and Victoria and Albert Museum

Jamie Brassett, Subject Leader & MA Course Leader, Innovation Management, Central Saint Martins, London
Duncan Fairfax, Lecturer in Design, Programme Leader MA in Design & Environment, Goldsmiths, London
Lucy Kimbell, Principal Research Fellow University of Brighton and Associate Fellow, Said Business School

Dr Jamie Brassett has been working at Central Saint Martins college of the University of the Arts London since 1995 working across most of its subject provision – product design, fashion design, graphic design, textile design and fine art – and has been Subject Leader and MA Course Director of Innovation Management since 2008. Jamie has also consulted for a number of design and innovation agencies, and global commercial, public and voluntary sector organisations. He graduated with a PhD in Philosophy from University of Warwick in 1993, producing a thesis on Deleuze and Guattari, Kant and Bachelard called Cartographies of Subjectification, supervised by Nick Land. Jamie has published on a number of topics since 1991 and has spoken nationally and internationally at conferences since 1989, chairing ‘Out of Control’ the 8th International Conference on Design and Emotion in 2012. A volume for Edinburgh University Press called Deleuze and Design, co-edited with Betti Marenko, is to be published in June 2015. His own work for this book deals with philosophy, design, innovation and biology. Jamie is currently working on projects covering style and design, futures and trends, materialism and ontogenesis, sometimes all at the same time.

Duncan Fairfax is the current director of the Prospect and Innovation Research Studio (Pi) at Goldsmiths, University of London. He lectures in both the Design Department, and the Institute for Creative and Cultural Entrepreneurship at Goldsmiths, and Trinity College Dublin. His research and teaching areas include Leadership, Innovation, Management, Design Process/Thinking, and Sustainability.

Dr Lucy Kimbell is Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) Research Fellow embedded in the Cabinet Office Policy Lab, part of the Open Policy Making team, and Principal Research Fellow at the University of Brighton. She was co-Principal Investigator leading a study on Mapping Social Design Research and Practice, the report of which was published in September 2014. Since 2005, she has taught an MBA elective in Designing Better Futures at Said Business School, University of Oxford, where she is Associate Fellow. For Central Saint Martins, University of the Arts London, she scoped and designed a new MBA programme centred on creativity and design. Lucy was previously Head of Social Design at the Young Foundation and her new book Service Innovation Handbook will be published by BIS in early 2015, aimed at managers and entrepreneurs trying to design new services.

The Salon is now fully booked, but you can contact me,, to join the guest list.

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Reflections on Design Culture Salon 12: How do fashion cycles and design culture interact?

Reflections on Design culture salon 12: How do fashion cycles and design culture interact?

Panel L-R, Marloes ten Bhomer, Cher Potter, Lisa White, Joanne Entwistle, Chris Breward.

Panel L-R, Marloes ten Bhomer, Cher Potter, Lisa White, Joanne Entwistle, Chris Breward.

For those working in the field of design culture, the term ‘trend’ carries an awful lot of baggage. Specifically, for those interested in sustainability, the term and its associates (‘fast fashion’ and ‘fashion cycle’) are regularly deployed as ‘dirty words’ in design discourse. Design researchers can also be guilty of discussing these concepts as if they are distinct and separate to the study of design culture. It is something happening ‘over there’ in fashion studies. So, how have these barriers come to exist between the study of fashion and design culture? What can we learn, as design researchers, from the theories and ideas generated through the study of fashion cycles? This salon aimed to ask some reflexive and self-critical questions about the apparent division between design and fashion research and seek a more productive conversation between the two.

Fashion historian Professor Chris Breward, Principal of Edinburgh College of Art, offered an interesting route into this conversation by introducing one of the most fundamental questions that binds together the study of design culture and fashion cycles: time. Specifically, he suggested that fashion theory has something to offer design culture here, in its discussion of fashion as an embodiment of time and space. To illustrate this point, he quoted a wonderful passage from the diary of an American woman returning from China to New York in 1947, published in Fred Davis’ important text, Fashion Culture and Identity:

At every airport where we stopped on the way back from China I started watching the women coming the other way. At Calcutta the first long skirt and unpadded shoulders looked like something out of a masquerade party. At the American installations in Frankfurt (also in Vienna) a lot of the newer arrivals were converted and were catching everyone’s attention. At the airport in Shannon I had a long wait; I got into a conversation with a lady en route to Europe. She was from San Francisco, and told me that there they hadn’t been completely won over; just as many were wearing the long skirts as not. But as she flew East, she found that just about everybody in New York had gone in for the new styles and she was happy she wasn’t staying or her wardrobe would have been dated. By the time I took the train from New York for home, my short skirts felt conspicuous and my shoulders seemed awfully wide! Two weeks now and I am letting down my hems, trying to figure out which of all my China-made clothes can be salvaged, and going on a buying spree!

  • Langs (1961:470), quoted in Fred Davis, Fashion, Culture and Identity, (1992), p.151.

This narrative presents fashion, literally and physically, in motion.  This experience is at odds with our experience of fashion culture today, Breward suggested. The fashion cycle is now intensely regularized by a wider constituent of agents, encompassing the media, fashion forecasters, futurologists and fashion bloggers. We’re in the odd position, he suggested, of being in a ‘fluxive moment’, which can be paradoxically characterized by power shifts in how trends are understood and also a ‘weird homogeneity’. The street styles of New York, Paris and Berlin look disconcertingly similar. The challenge for the evening was therefore to think about how these ideas, which have emerged from thinking about fashion, can move out across other design disciplines. How can we think of a linkage between different forms of design that share these challenges and possibilities?

Cher Potter, Research Fellow at London College of Fashion and V&A, was the first to respond to this question. Cher initially reflected on her own position at the Museum as an indicator of recent attempts  to address such challenges and possibilities. She was initially appointed as a resident forecaster at the V&A, an interesting role to adopt within an institution traditionally concerned with narratives of preservation and historicisation. New dialogues about the relationship between fashion, design and time are therefore already in motion, it seems. Cher reflected on her work in Creative Direction at WGSN, where she works to present macro trend forecasts informed by research into art, philosophy, design, architecture and fashion. These so-called cycles are longer and more conservative than we might think, she argued. Consequently, the term ‘cycle’ might not be a helpful one. As an alternative, she described the geological theory of change proposed by Stewart Brand, which suggests different frequencies of change across nature, culture, governance, infrastructure, commerce and fashion. Within these sediments of change, fashion is presented as highly responsive and the most dynamic layer. The data-driven nature of fashion forecasting, which also takes place in real-time could also be better analogised as a ‘feedback loop’, she suggested.

Lisa White, Content Director of the website HomeBuildLife, also at WGSN, was next to speak. Interestingly, Lisa discussed the correlation and convergence between ways of thinking about fashion and design as a natural phenomenon, within her sector. Visible and physical manifestations of the cross-fertilisation between the two can be clearly identified in interior design, she suggested. For example, she has noticed a correlation between bed spreads and fashion clothing- which have begun to adhere to the same aesthetic. In addition, the concept of ‘fast fashion’ or ‘rapid response’ has a strong presence in patterns of design consumption too. While furniture design might observe longer term trends, interior accessories such as pillows and cushions are considered more short-term and fashion focused. Lisa’s response highlighted the cultures of taste that are implicated within the fashion cycle.

Our next speaker, Marloes ten Bhomer, took us away from the world of trend forecasting and spoke from her perspective as a shoe designer. Marloes originally trained as a product designer and opened her response by posing an intriguing question: ‘what is the relevance of the trench coat in the time of drone wars?’ This question wonderfully introduced the incoherence and anachronism which exists in the form of ‘classic’ fashion objects, such as the trench coat or the brogue. These objects are interesting, from both a fashion and design perspective, because they take a fundamentally familiar and stubbornly resistant cultural form.  What do the manifestations and circulation of these classic objects tell us about the rationale of fashion cycles in our society? They  highlight some of the inherent contradictions (and conservatism) in the concept of the ‘natural’ fashion cycle. The recurrence of fashion is constituted here not as an agent of change, but a ‘tightly wound machine’. This can be limiting and potentially devaluing, from a design perspective, she argued.

Joanne Entwistle, Senior Lecturer at Kings College, London, the final respondent for the evening, situated the discussion in the academy of fashion and design research. She introduced the significance of the body and the gendered body to account for some of the friction between design and fashion research cultures. This returned the conversation to Chris’ opening articulation of the importance of ‘embodiment’. There is an ambiguity about the body, she argued, which has inhibited and restricted possibilities for critique. The image and construct of the body thus steers fashion research in a different direction to design discourse. The ‘classic’ fashion object, like the little black dress, has played an important role in rooting fashion within the museum and has given it a shared status with design. Yet, lingering feelings of inferiority remain within fashion and in relation to design, she argued.

In the absence of any immediate questions from the audience (these salon attendees were a little more reticent than usual), Chris probed further on some of the emergent themes. Rather than focusing on the seemingly ‘natural’ links between fashion and design suggested by the first two speakers, this focused on the inhibitive factors that appear to be obstructing the flow between the two. The speakers returned to the idea of fashion as a sensorial experience, intrinsically linked to concepts of identity formation and individuality. There is also something tacit about the process of fashion forecasting which again links us to the body- the idea of a ‘gut feeling, ‘the eye for’, Joanne observed. Nevertheless, the lens of ‘lifestyle’, a popular term among cultural historians in the 1980s, can productively pose links between the idea of individual taste and wider cultural values. Perhaps this was a moment when the aims of fashion and design research were aligned.

Cher reflected upon some of the challenges of instigating new models for thinking and using fashion within the university today. She spoke from her experience of establishing the Fashion Futures course at London College of Fashion. The very essence of this course is about expanding the notion of the range of ‘futures’ with which fashion can engage. Nevertheless, the emancipatory potential of such ideas can always be tempered by the constraints of the employment market.

A member of the audience challenged the idea of the ‘fashion classic’, positioning this as a major point of divergence with design, suggesting that fashion has an ‘in-built obsolescence’. The idea of fashion as constantly in motion continues to be seductive. Another questioned the forms of capital that are generated through forecasting and the extent to which this is slavishly tied to economic rationale. The formulation of this question sparked a debate among the audience and the panel about the representation of fashion as constantly in ‘collusion with capitalism’. Why should fashion, more than design, be so insistently denounced and tainted in this way? One attendee suggested that fashion will always be treated as distinct from design precisely because of the apologetic way in which it circulates in our culture. However, it was also suggested that this might be something to protect and value. Fashion ‘doesn’t want to be respectable’, she argued, ‘it is transgressive’.

This Design Culture Salon set out to identify the commonalities that might regularize the relationship between the study of fashion and design culture, but by the end of the conversation, I wondered if this might be an elusive goal.  There are good reasons for thinking about the relationship between fashion and design culture- particularly in relation to the ‘function’ (or dis-function) of fashion objects within a wider cultural system. Nevertheless, it was interesting to note that the evening’s discussion took us to places of introspection- the body, feelings and forms of tacit knowledge- which have rarely featured in previous Salon conversations. Perhaps there is, as one salon attendee put it, something special to be cherished about fashion discourse on its own terms.

Leah Armstrong, Research Officer, University of Brighton / Victoria and Albert Museum

The next Design Culture Salon is on Friday 12 December and asks, ‘Is innovation overrated and what is the role of design here?’ It is now fully booked so please email me at to join the guest list.

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