Colin Burns

Posted by PH on September 15, 2007

My fourth and final post on the D&AD Xchange 07 conference brings us to ex-IDEO Global Head of Interaction Design and ex-Managing Director of IDEO London, Colin Burns. Colin now runs his own company, Martach Designs, that specialises in what he calls Transformation Design: according to his bio this “is a methodology that harnesses user-led creativity to create new strategic business and social value.”

Colin’s presentation was called Beyond User-Centred Design, and began with a gentle introduction that outlined some basic definitions of what we mean by ‘a designer’ and what we mean by ‘a successful product’ of design. Having set these basic premises up, he then outlined his conception of what it means to be a designer in the 21st Century:

  1. A designer is not now an author, but a facilitator of other people’s ideas.
  2. A designer changes behaviour, not forms.
  3. A designer does not produce a finished object, but is the catalyst to an emergent system.
  4. A designer works in mixed communities, not just within a closed professional community.
  5. A designer works in the field, not the studio.
  6. A designer is not the arbiter of taste, but a facilitator of mixed ideas.

Colin illustrated his Transformation Design thesis with a case study of the Activmobs project he did for the Design Council and Kent County Council. Briefly, this involved designers working with healthcare professionals and groups of patients to create fitness regimes that would be integrated into people’s lives and allow mutual support mechanisms. For Colin, this type of project highlighted a single fundamental issue: whether it was really possible for designers working in isolation to understand complex real-world problems or dynamic systems.

This is an excellent question to ask, and you’d have to answer that, as Colin suggests, no they probably can’t. However, when Colin suggested in the Q&A session that, because of this, the ideas of a non-expert should carry equal weight to that of the expert, a passionate debate kicked off. Firstly, it was suggested by someone in the audience that in the Activmobs example used by Colin it was ridiculous to suggest that the advice of a lay-person should carry equal weight to that of a healthcare professional. Secondly, Chris Bennewith said that the vast proliferation of “crappy” movies on YouTube shows what happens when you put sophisticated tools in the hands of people without the formal skills to use them. To which Colin said things like “But are they really crappy? Who says they’re crappy? Aren’t they vibrant and life-affirming?” And “I keep asking myself as a designer what right I have to judge what’s good and bad or right and wrong.”

And then the session ended!

I think this is a really important question and it can’t be left unanswered, so here’s my take on it: the reason an expert—and it doesn’t matter here whether we’re talking about designers, doctors, lawyers, musicians, or whatever—has a right to judge on issues within their own specialism is that they’re familiar with the cultural discourse associated with it. That is, they should be aware of the history, context, and theory of the discipline. They should be highly experienced practitioners equipped with a broad range of techniques and the insight that can only be gained from the day-to-day involvement with it. They can speak the language of that discipline.

Which does not mean I don’t agree with all the six points laid out by Colin, above. Yes, of course all experts need to work with mixed communities, get out in the field, and—as I discussed in the Flo Heiss post—leave their work ‘unfinished’. They need to participate with the end-users in the dynamic systems they operate in. But this does not mean that they must therefore relinquish the right to arbitrate, to make decisions, to exercise authority. That way leads to madness…

The example of YouTube is illuminating. Here we have literally millions of short films submitted by people from all over the world, 99% of which are culturally insignificant. It doesn’t matter whether they’re crappy or not: the problem is that they don’t engage with culture at any level: they’re just throwaway, ephemeral, meaningless except to those involved. (It’s only as an aggregate, a phenomenon, that they have any cultural meaning). To be involved with culture means engaging with discourses that persist over time and that evolve through dialogue and negotiation, and you can’t do that without some knowledge, some expertise, some willingness to get involved with a community of practice.


I hope this post has given a true reflection of Colin’s presentation and the discussion that followed from it, bearing in mind I was hastily scrawling down notes and at the same time trying to follow what was going on. I thought this was the most thought-provoking and important of all the sessions I saw at Xchange 07 (i.e. for me the question becomes what right do I have to teach this subject?).

Thankyou Colin Burns.

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