Filed under: Social design
I had always admired what Livework (www.livework.co.uk) did – so much so that I went and met Ben Reason (another co-founder) in March 2007 at their offices in East London. Chris’ keynote speech at New Views was good but I felt that there was more that they could have said… or is it that they don’t know how to say what it is that they do so well?
Livework’s model of working is discussed by many (note, mostly by others). Upon hearing what Chris said, it seemed that he only touched the tip of what was much more interesting. Sure, they are interdisciplinary, they mix their mode of format from print to digital, they use visualisations in interesting and propositional ways, etc. These are good but not particularly that innovative. Listening to some of the critical comments among New Views delegates later made me realise that perhaps the presentation didn’t really get to the bottom of why Livework is such an interesting design firm that requires further thinking. Its the classic case of design practitioners not having the time to spend on reflecting on their own practice, therefore is unable to articulate clearly what they do, to others…
What I admire about their practice is how they can ‘twist’ the project around, transforming it from a ‘problem-solving’ project to a ‘problem-seeking’ project. In a way, a bit like research. Various tactics are used in order to accomplish this – sometimes in a cheeky way, like ‘faking it’ with outright lies. Though, I didn’t get the sense that they were trying to wrestle the control from the client, that didn’t seem to be the point, but they seemed genuinely interested and concerned with a different kind of ‘problem’, or even a broader kind of ‘problem’ that the clients were asking them to solve.
I was also impressed by the scales in which they work – organising loans for repayment for the environmental improvements done on houses etc – that’s a pretty hefty responsibility and therefore organisation to manage. It makes sense that a design thinking, design acting company should suggest this as an alternative proposition, but at the same time, it makes no sense that they are the ones doing it. Surely, you’d hand-ball that to the council, the government or some poor old NPO.. could no-one else do such a thing? When a design company begins to undertake projects like that, what do they call themselves? Is this a ‘design project’? Where exactly is the ‘design’? The fact that we (or I) am challenged by this concept is baffling..
Jumping aside, Clare’s talk (from SEED foundation) alluded to such outcomes with their community project on composting biodegradable waste. My question to her after her presentation was ‘where is the designer, where is the design?’ fishing for a meaty response but her answer was still about ‘collaborating with stakeholders’. Her response didn’t go deeper enough for me. Maybe she doesn’t know. Because the question we (designers, in any discipline/field) is facing is ‘what is it that we do?’ If we detach ourselves from the materiality of the designed artefact (which for the record, I am very comfortable with), and emphasise more about process, it seems like we are still pulling rabbits out of a hat. Its magic.
Is the fact that I am left without a clear definition (because I am also sooo tired of ‘what is design’ definitions. And yes, I have read enough books on this matter too. Its still no good) is due to me being a designer? What is this desire to know how to define the kind of practice that Livework/Seed foundation does? I know they term it ’service design’ but that is just a label – what skills do I bring to it as a designer, that no other person who’s done psychology, development studies, organisational management, welfare and social justice, housing and urban planning, have done..?
I just don’t know.