Reflections on Salon 8- How has digital technology changed the dynamics of the designer start up?

For those interested in design culture, the structure and arrangement of the designer start-up is a fruitful place to focus attention since it captures and animates the dynamics of design in relation to a host of other factors: the social, environmental, economic and cultural. Examining where and how design practice is established and the processes by which this is achieved tells us something about where design sits in contemporary culture and also indicates where it might be heading.

The panel gathered for the eighth Design Culture Salon presented a promising set of perspectives on the subject. This included two emergent designers Alexandre Bettler from DesignMarketo and Andy Merritt from Something and Son. A broader view was offered from the chair Liz Farrelly, who started her career in design in the nineties as a journalist covering the start-up culture and Nicolas Roope, founder of new-media art collective antirom (1994), and went on to co-found interactive consultancy Poke and product design group Hulger,  which released the award-winning Plumen lightbulb. It also included the voice of intermediaries and facilitators, the design curator Heloise Parke from The Aram Gallery, a non commercial and independent contemporary design museum in London and observers of this historical change, in Jonathan Sapsed Principal Research Fellow at CENTRIM and project leader of the Brighton Fuse research project.

Kicking off, Farrelly laid out the territory for discussion. It was to be about design start ups, not exclusively digital start ups. Also, importantly, this is no longer a story about ‘getting your first job’ in the traditional ‘career ladder’ sense. Digital technologies (note the plural) have facilitated an entirely new start-up culture that occupies a specific place in contemporary design. Included within this is the evaporation of the design object as the principle point of a relationship between the designer and the public.

Alexandre Bettler was a good to person respond directly to the series of ‘new conditions’ outlined in the introduction. He spoke about his work at DesignMarketo with partner Jerome Rigaud. His practice mixes designed events and designed objects, often incorporating sensory experience and food design. DesignMarketo’s work represents the role of the designer as a conversation between these elements of design, setting design products in social environments. In describing this process, Bettler presents his practice, which is formed around relationships, in resistance to the instantaneous and direct role of digital technologies. This also involves a more craft-like approach to mass production processes, including baking, whereby the bread dough is one material that can be mass customised to produce a number of outputs and outcomes. Part of their strategy as a start-up has been to hook onto the cultural and social aspects of design.

The next panellist, Andy Merritt, designer at Something and Son with partner Paul Smyth, focused on the relationship between design start-ups and the press, speaking about the implications of being ‘media savvy’ on the design process. For example, he stated that Something and Son developed a conscious strategy of working on projects that can be explained and promoted in one sentence. This, he argued, was in direct response to the role of Twitter and internet platforms which currently structure and circulate start-ups. Kickstarter,  exacerbate the ‘attention grabbing’ culture of designers seeking to establish their practice. It is also strikingly formulaic. Most entries follow the rule of: ‘Trigger words, objective, key words, promise’, he argued. This in turn mirrors patterns established in the tabloid media. For example, the successful Kickstarter proposal: ‘Snaak. Millions of shapes in your hands’ carries the same language and rhythmn as: ‘Contraceptive conservatism. Who wants to take the male pill?’. He proposed that the pressure to access and address popular concerns and interests also shaped design outcomes. Merritt identified the exaggerative role of crowd-sourcing digital technologies in enlarging concerns about the relationship between the designer and the public.

Heloise Parke took another angle on the digital technologies topic and spoke exclusively about the role of 3D printing. Referring to her experience of curating a 3D Printing exhibition in London at The Aram gallery in 2012, ‘Send to print/Print to Send’ she outlined two functions of the 3D printing as an access point for emerging designers. This referred to those who used it to produce something and those who used it as a starting point for future customisation. Generally, she argued, in her experience, most recent emergent approaches fall into the latter.3D printing has therefore re-shaped the meaning of the start-up because it sets in motion a new function for design. This constitutes a layering up process that is open ended and evolving. In this sense, contemporary start-ups are not only using new processes, but in doing so, opening up an entirely new function for design.

Nicolas Roope situated his response within a bigger narrative in addressing how we think of technological change. The expanded distribution of design has had an impact on the structure, shape and organisation of contemporary design start ups, he suggested. As a result, there is an inevitability about the shifting dynamics of innovation in design and the speed, form and culture design needs to respond to. Roope articulated digitisation as a process of broad democratisation, whereby a small design team’s creative output could be shared instantly on a global scale and, crucially, directed at ‘huge niche markets’. Roope injected greater historical perspective into Andy Merritt’s judgement about the formulaic process of circulating a design in one sentence.He did a similar thing with ‘Plumen: Designer Low Energy Lighting’. The very purpose of a start-up has always been to grab attention. This is not necessarily something new. Additionally, speaking from a more hopeful perspective, he argued that the internet has altered the concept of scale in design start-ups. In contrast to the image Merritt presented, he argued that designers don’t have to focus on the mainstream or the middle, but can go to extremes. As such, digital technologies have radically altered not only the pace of innovation in design, but expanded the opportunities for working at different scales.

Building on this more observational overview, Jonathan Sapsed began his response by asking ‘what has changed and what has not changed?’ He suggested that there were two ways of examining this, by looking at design processes and at the concept of entrepreneurship. In previous work, Sapsed compared innovative tools and processes in renaissance Italy and contemporary design. Whereas in the Italian renaissance, he argued, design constituted a discrete step and a preparatory stage, this has now been compressed in the digital age. Design is no longer a step before business. This is what Manuel Castells calls ‘timeless time’. In a survey of the digital cluster sector in Brighton, for the FUSE project, Sapsed and his colleagues examined the dynamics of 500 firms covering digital marketing, media and games development. The results showed that nearly half of design businesses were started by those with design, arts and humanities degrees. Beyond digital networking, designers still have to do face to face interactions to build their businesses. He also pointed out some of the myth around the idea of disintermediation arguing that digital technologies have introduced rather than eradicated intermediaries. In summary then, digital technologies have compressed processes, but many aspects of the overall structure and framework remain in tact.

Posing a brief reflection on the themes that emerged from the five responses, Liz picked up on this theme of time. While the speakers had pointed towards imperatives and pressures of the digital global market, many equally articulated their practice as a process of resistance against this. This involved a sort of re-balancing, or,as Liz put it, ‘putting time back into the process’. Digital technologies might make things quicker, cheaper and more direct, but the challenge for contemporary start-ups is pulling against this, bringing back friends, personalities, baking and using craft processes.  Nicolas Roope made the important point that it’s not an either or situation and that digital technologies also facilitates this texture.

It was also clear that both Alex and Andy were working with a view of design beyond the object. Both had been concerned with designing systems and looking at the social interaction around their object. Someone asked how they had moved into this space and how it worked in practice. Alex described the process of ‘being organic’ about his work, introducing his practice to friends he really trusted and then gradually building up from here.

Another question focused on how the designer can present value through such loose processes. One answer to this was that it depended very much which discipline you were working in. Nicolas Roope noted the emigration of language that had previously characterised the design start-up, such as ‘agile’, into mainstream business spaces.

The structure of the design school was bound to come up in any discussion of the design start-up, and the panel had some predictably negative responses as to its preparatory role. Andy Merritt suggested that the point of graduation marked a starting point, rather than a launching pad for his career. The lack of support structure beyond design school sets a challenge rather than a path for emergent designers, although as Heloise pointed out, this is also formative and not always negative. Part of the reason Andy had to start afresh, was because he left his background in graphic design and although this continues to inform the practice ‘in his head’, it means engaging with an entirely different network of people and institutions. Therefore, while digital technologies facilitate easy movement between disciplines, educational models do not.

In the design school and beyond, public funding initiatives in design have been bound by disciplinary criteria. One member of the audience remembered that when she was starting her practice, if you were a craft maker you could get funding through the crafts council ‘setting up award’, (now called the Development Grant) but things get more complicated when you move outside your discipline. Heloise Parke argued that this was less complicated than it seemed, because it was a matter of self-definition rather than imposition. You apply for the funding that meets your practice at that particular moment. The panel agreed that while the journey from degree to start-up was not easy, some measure of unpredictability is also a positive thing.

Another interesting question from the audience concerned the flexibility and adaptability of the contemporary design start up. Is there a ‘next stage’ in this agility, or is start-up status something to be sustained and managed? In other words, could it be that start-up culture is an end rather than the beginning? Interestingly, Andy Merritt suggested that in the case of Something and Son, this looks increasingly likely. In his recent experience of working with IKEA, for instance, he found that this large corporation was eager to bend to fit and incorporate their model, rather than the other way round. Equally, he said that the company structure will continue to operate on multiple levels, growing by building up layers, much in the way Heloise described the 3D printing process.

This, it seems, says something powerful about the shifting dynamics of design culture, structurally and economically. However it is important to ask: how new is this and how directly altered by the digital process has it been? Do digital technologies extend and exaggerate processes of flexibility and adaptability that have characterised the movement of design culture for some time, or does it instigate something new entirely? In other words, as Liz pointed out in her introduction, how revolutionary is this?

Perhaps the most interesting thing to emerge from this discussion was the concept of design as the starting point for a new dynamic increasingly directed at the social, whether through baking, bathing , or the mass-customisation potential of 3D printing. If digital technologies have facilitated the start of a new conversation or a customisation of what design might be, then maybe that’s where the revolution is.

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