Design Practice Research

Between 2013 and 2017, Dr Mark Green undertook doctoral research into the impact of new design practices on organisations.

Data was gathered from two in depth case studies with Ryder Architecture and Greggs plc. 

My research was to understand how people engaging in new design practices might be a driver for organisational change.  This required an understanding of design practices as courses of action involving the creation or development of artefacts to tackle organisational issues – an understanding which moves beyond the traditional notion of design as creating objects and towards creating tools for thinking.  In this blog I give an overview of my research and its findings as well as highlighting the proposals for Ryder.

Design activity workshops
One of the activities from the design workshops


New design practices were introduced to the organisations through a series of design interventions initiated by me acting in the role of external design researcher.  These usually began with people taking part in design led workshops before progressing to more specific projects.  I was particularly interested in the impact of change resulting from design intervention, as opposed to top down change implemented by senior managers.

Impact was considered at micro (individual), macro (organisational) and meta (role of design) levels.  It was also important to understand how impacts were achieved, the conditions required for new design practices to flourish and the role played by external experts.

Accordingly, the research followed a series of design interventions in both Ryder and Greggs over a two year period.  Observations, images, artefacts and interviews were gathered, focusing on examples of existing, introduced and emergent design practices.  The data was then analysed by applying a framework of communities of design practice, which I developed from Wenger’s (1998) theory, and focused on engagement, design attitude and alignment to organisational aims.

The main intervention with Ryder was a making task given to randomly selected participants, not intended to meet any existing organisational aim but instead situated in creative practices, an area central to the organisation.  Observation of individual participants and the artefacts they had made were developed into proposals for changes to wider organisational practices.  This included a reinvigoration of in house model making and support for an existing project, which sought to promote the value of sketching alongside digital tools.

Design activity workshops
One of the activities from the design workshops

Main Findings

At an individual level, people from both organisations performed the role of design champion.  The characteristics of this role included deep organisational knowledge that enabled interpretation of design practices and identifying where insight could be applied, motivation to change behaviours, understanding that design practices have a strategic organisation value and recognition of the importance of pioneering new methods of working.  As well as developing their own emergent practices, the design champions acted as brokers for change and actively sought to influence senior management.

Engaging in new design practices also encouraged people who were not expert designers to develop the characteristics usually associated with that discipline.  Rather than becoming expert designers, they undertook a transformative process in their own disciplinary fields, building confidence and enabling people to adopt a more constructive and critical role.

At macro level, the impact was demonstrated both through meeting existing aims and implementing changes to objectives and practices.

At meta level, new design practices contributed towards the further development of organisational design culture, through increased awareness of design, sharing across the organisation and promoting the design practices through the creation of design champions.  This contributed towards a wider overarching conversation regarding design and at a pragmatic level, encouraged greater exchange of value perceived to have been generated by design.

One of the activities from the design workshops
One of the activities from the design workshops

This transition, starting with individuals then creating change at the heart of organisations, is a form of emergent change.  It’s value to organisations leverages existing resources and helps drive outcomes that would not be otherwise achieved.  My research found that for new design practices to drive this transition several conditions were critical – in particular, access to
resources, recognition of contribution, alignment to organisational aims, official sponsors, a design vocabulary and design champions were all needed to enable new design practices to flourish and become sustainable.

In addition to these needs, my research established that it was not enough to be aligned to existing organisational aims, as this may lead to simply maintaining the status quo.  The design practices needed to be concerned with core organisational issues.  When this occurred with both Greggs and Ryder, significant change was achieved.  Accordingly, this situated approach was an overarching condition for new design practices to successfully drive change.

I also found it was not enough for me, as an external expert, to simply introduce the design practices and then let people use them as they wished.  To drive wider organisational change, it was important I performed a role that was both provocative and critical – which in my case was informed by an approach based upon collaborative design activism and design disruption.

In practice this meant creating provocative artefacts through the introduction of new design practices and initiating critical dialogue with managers and senior managers.  New design practices were often different and conflicted with existing ways of doing things.  The conversations that followed helped to develop understanding of these new design practices and find ways they could be implemented.  They enabled me to support the work of people acting as design champions, suggesting a new mediator role for external design experts between changes proposed from within an organisation and its senior management.  For this role to be effective, establishing trust, embedding in the organisations and engaging with core organisational issues were important factors.

One of the activities from the design workshops
One of the activities from the design workshops

Proposals for Ryder

My research suggested several changes for Ryder to consider:

Emergent design practices, developed by people in the organisation, could benefit from earlier and less formal development.  Often proposals for change gained recognition because they were introduced by senior management.  An alternative approach would be to make resources more widely available so that new design practices can be developed without the need for input or permission from senior management.  This would enable more robust and diverse proposals for change to be made.

Whilst most people at Ryder are expert designers, those who are not could benefit from the opportunity to engage in and develop new design practices – enabling people to transform their core disciplinary areas and benefitting the wider organisation as people would work more harmoniously with expert designers.

One of the activities from the design workshops
One of the activities from the design workshops

Conversations with Ryder’s partners established that some of the design practices introduced through this research were already known to them as design thinking and design of strategy.  The consensus was that Ryder had been unconsciously using design in these ways for many years.  However, the value of using design practices as a strategic tool would be better understood and exploited if Ryder took a more conscious approach and made the use of these practices explicit.

Mark is a design researcher and a practitioner with ggreenhouse.

Email Mark

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