Design All The Things

what does it mean to be a great designer?

The post originally appeared on Pitch to Product, our co-founder Nick Marsh’s personal blog. 

I did a talk at Design + Banter about Designing All The Things. This is the presentation in blog format. The big idea is that being a great designer is about more than your technical skill or ability to help others solve problems.


Being a really great designer is about trying to bring your vision for how to live better into the world.

I guess I did this talk slightly in response to the quite focused presentations that I’d seen at the event previously. Clearly it’s rambley. But that was my intention. I’d love to get your feedback on Twitter, and if you’d like me to talk at an event you are doing feel free to contact me via nick@makeshift.io

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Hi, I’m Nick.

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Sometimes you have a moment with your brain, when your actual brain feels tingly because you’ve just had a really, really big thought. I wrote a bit more about these a while back.

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In my experience, there’s two kinds of moments like this - explosive, and implosive.

Explosive brain moments are when you sort of leap forward quite far in your understanding of something, probably because you’ve seen it from a different perspective. The intellectual version of when you suddenly join up a bit of London on a map.

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Like the other day I walked from Old Street and ended up in Islington. Wow.

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For me, discovering design was like this. I went to art school by mistake, and was ready to sack it off to do philosophy. And then I discovered this audacious course at Goldsmiths called Design. This is a blog post from one of my tutors. Seriously - his approach to teaching you about design is to make you invent crazy fictions about the future. Quite different from teaching you photoshop.

What I suddenly realised was this Design is the way humans make the world they want.

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Another example of a brain explosion I had was when I read Thomas Kuhn’s ‘the structure of scientific revolutions’. His thesis - we’re all right, until we’re wrong. Strong ideas, weakly held. It blew my mind. What in our current reality could turn out to be totally wrong!? Turns out, anything.

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Implosive ones are where a lot of stuff that has been swirling around in your head crystallises.

For me, after leaving college and getting a job at Engine, discovering ‘service design’ was like this. I realised that the meta patterns behind design could be really useful in helping others design all sorts of stuff, from airports to internal processes.

I realised that service design is the way designers can influence big companies, who in turn influence the world a lot.

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I used these techniques to design all sorts of things, culminating in this mad project we did at Sidekick Studios with the NHS to design a radio that let mentally ill people tell their friends how they were feeling. This later turned into Buddy.

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Another great example of an implosion was finding Dan Locktons work on Design with Intent.

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Of course, these things are really overlapping, and sometimes you get a double whammy. Which is ace. Which I has a couple of years back about Startup.

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What I figured out, after doing lots of startup style projects, reading that Lean Startup book (well, the first third) and spending time with lots of startups is that ‘Startup’ is capitalisms innovation process - the mother ship human invention - and thoughtful designers are very well equipped to manage that process.

That’s why all of my work since then, and the company I started this year, has been about trying to get more towards, and remain at the very start of startup.

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Both types of brain moment are driven by external events - inspiration - that is outside your primary field of work.

  • Read unexpected stuff
  • Visit strange places
  • Meet different people
  • Make new things

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This last point is important, and is something I’ve always tried to do. I like to chuck myself in at the deep end and see if I sink or swim.

The reason I bring up this rather crazy sounding approach with this audience, is that I just want to put forward an alternative to the highly focused, technical designer that I’ve heard discussed here quite a lot.

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This idea of not specialising. It’s interesting. Back in 1909 Gropius said something like this. We’ll come back to him.

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I’m also reacting against the whole ‘designer as problem solver’ thing. I think that’s a very weak view of the role of design. I like this from Jack Schulze at BERG.

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We actually had a technique called ‘dreaming the dream’ which we used to use at Sidekick to give designers the time to come up with some mad stuff.

This wasn’t stupid. It was carefully planned, as a way to encourage some small brain moments.

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Sometimes, it seems like you get a chain reaction of brain explosions and implosions, between several people, over a longer period of time within the context of a design studio. What makes this happen? I’d love to know.

One important thing, I think, is that these places engage in this ‘meta design process’ and have an idea that is bigger than their craft. And then they Design All The Things in accordance with that principle. It can be a style, but this doesn’t last. The best ones have a political idea - not normally theirs - which they manifest in their work.

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Final thought. What made these places special?

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This is Thomas Edisons Laboratory. He was one of the first people to really bring together science and commerce, as was passionate about bringing the value of science to a mass audience. He said “anything that won’t sell, I don’t want to invent. Its sale is proof of utility, and utility is success.”

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This is the Bauhaus. Their big idea was unity, which came from their socialist politics. Gropius, the Bauhaus founder said “The Bauhaus strives to bring together all creative effort into one whole, to reunify all the disciplines of practical art-sculpture, painting, handicrafts, and the crafts-as inseparable components of a new architecture.”

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Studio Eames. Their big thing was about access to design. Charles Eames said “We want to provide the best for the most for the least.” I love that line.

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One for the brits - don’t forget that many of the mid-century product design greats followed Eames’ manifesto. This is David Mellor and Kenneth Grange’s work.

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Finally, IDEO and David Kelly. Their focus on ‘Design Thinking’ and innovation were some of my really big influences at college. The idea of design as a synthesis activity bringing together human factors with making with business is very powerful, although it lacks the political bite of the other studios I’ve mentioned.

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So, my question is who’s coming up in the digital world with this kind of vision? Some great makers, some great work. Some amazing craft. But where’s the political angle?

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Lets end with this amazing quote from Daniel Burnham about the enduring power of the designs you create.

"Make no little plans. They have no magic to stir men’s blood and probably themselves will not be realized.

Make big plans; aim high in hope and work, remembering that a noble, logical diagram once recorded will never die, but long after we are gone will be a living thing, asserting itself with ever-growing insistency.

Remember that our sons and grandsons are going to do things that would stagger us. Let your watchword be order and your beacon beauty. Think big.”