Between ambition and humility

The DDC’s new chief executive, Christian Bason, offers a glimpse of the centre’s agenda for the future, which revolves around collaboration, openness, a global outlook – and high ambitions on behalf of Danish design.

The first working day in November was also Christian Bason’s first day on the job as chief executive of the Danish Design Centre. In this interview he outlines the course ahead for the DDC.

You have now been head of the Danish Design Centre for a month. What kind of place is the DDC – and what do you aim to make it?

The DDC is an organisation that has undergone many changes over the past ten years. At the same time, paradoxically, the DDC is more needed than ever for translating design into innovation and new value creation for society. We need the power of transformation and innovation that design can offer.

“The DDC has always dealt with the future of design and innovation, and of course, we should continue to do that.”

What’s unique about the DDC is that we exist in the field of tension between business and industry, the design industry, education and research institutions on the one hand and the government institutions, including ministries, agencies, municipalities and regions, that draw up design policy on the other. In other words, we operate in the cross-field between design practitioners versus the decision-makers who set the political conditions and influence demand.

As I see it, the DDC should be an organisation that generates change and results in cooperation with others. The DDC should have a foundation and an organisation that is solid and sustainable, and at the same time, we need to be open and receptive, interacting with the world around us. So the challenge for the DDC is to take a more long-term view, work through partnerships, being open and, at the same time, being extremely ambitious on behalf of Danish design, the design industry and all the companies and organisations that stand to benefit from Danish design.

To me, personally, this is a chance to work with something that looks to be very challenging and difficult but also something that is very close to my heart, and where I would love to make a contribution. I applied for the job because I’m passionate about Danish design and about the potential that design has for contributing to growth and prosperity in Denmark. I think that we could be doing a better job on that than we currently are. There is so much energy and potential here, and I hope to be able to help realise it.

And how can we do that?

Our primary task is to encourage Danish companies and public institutions to use design as a means of generating growth and prosperity. The DDC’s role has always been to communicate what design is about, and what difference design can make, in a real and concrete sense. If, in cooperation with good partners, we can make the value of design clear to both businesses and the public sector, then we’re at least halfway to achieving that goal. However, we also need to take the next step, demonstrating how design can offer maximum value.

“The DDC should have high ambitions but also a sense of humility, with the understanding that the only way we can achieve our ambitions is by collaborating with others.”

To do that, we first need to do what most designers also focus on, which is putting our users centre stage. In the coming years, I will invite the DDC’s staff, board and stakeholders to engage in a strategy process that respects and takes its point of departure in history and what Danish design stands for while also looking to the future. A strategy process that embraces the broad scope, variation and diversity that characterise design as a profession and a discipline. The DDC should have high ambitions but also a sense of humility, with the understanding that the only way we can achieve our ambitions is by collaborating with others. And we need to find a way to translate our ambitions into concrete actions and initiatives that are meaningful to our stakeholders.

The DDC has always dealt with the future of design and innovation, and of course, we should continue to do that. I think that it will always be crucial for the DDC to have a strong global perspective. Denmark is already on the world map as a recognised design nation. We need to get even better at bringing Danish design competences to the rest of the world, but we also need to bring investors and companies to Denmark that see the potential of this location because of our design tradition and design competences.

If we look around the world, what trends to you see that are important for the DDC?

Of course, we are seeing a number of global trends: Technological development and digitisation, globalisation, societal challenges related to climate issues, sustainability and environmental concerns, societal challenges related to health, ageing and lifestyle issues and societal challenges related to urbanisation, now that the majority of people worldwide live in cities. The many change processes and trends are changing conditions for companies, both now and in the long term. The conditions for what design can contribute are changing. The ways in which we can design products and services and run design processes are changing. We are seeing new platforms, new materials, new technologies and, most important: a new context for the way design is used in practice. This was pointed out, for example, in the DDC’s report on new innovation actors.

“There is a growing market for designers in processes related to organisational transformation.”

In my previous job at MindLab, I saw how the relationship between users and the organisation or company is changing. The relationship is becoming much more individualised and customised, and the users themselves can now design products and services. They expect a high degree of influence on their user experience, an extremely high degree of user-friendliness and a sophisticated design of their interaction with a product, a service or an organisation. The expectations of how we use design are putting companies under pressure, but they are also enabling new business models and new opportunities for designers.

You came from a public servant position at MindLab. How can you utilise that background at the DDC?

I think that understanding how the government bureaucracy works, and how political and administrative decisions are made can be important for a place like the DDC, which is, at least for now, mainly publicly funded. This means that the DDC should also act on behalf of the political system and help translate the political ambitions for our society into practice. That may include, for example, contributing to the efforts to realise the government’s innovation and growth strategies, as they are set out in Plan for growth in the creative industries • design. In our practice at MindLab, I have seen how professional designers but also, in a broader sense, design thinking and design methods can lead to new user perspectives as well as new working processes, development processes and innovation processes. I have seen how design can help transform abstract strategies and ideas into something that is very concrete and effective in practice.

Would you say that you are a typical public servant?

I cannot deny my past as a public servant. Of course, that is no longer my role, as the DDC is an independent organisation. I think that I’ve always seen myself as a different kind of public servant. I came to MindLab from the private sector, spending almost ten years at Rambøll Management where I was charged with developing a business and crating value for our clients. So I have first-hand experience with the notion of operating on market terms. My role in the public sector was to work systematically with design, innovation and creativity , and that is still a fairly uncommon role for public servants.

During your time at MindLab you have often written and spoken about what technical and managerial specialists can learn from the design profession. Is there also something that the design profession can learn from the specialists?

I definitely believe that the design world needs to engage even more with the issue of generating growth in organisations. Effective design of visual communication, products, services and systems also requires the design of business models, organisations, strategies and procedures. For many designers, the success of their products and services requires designing or redesigning the organisations that are to deliver them. That does not mean that the designer should become a technocrat, but designers do need greater insight and understanding of what goes on in organisations, which also contributes to creating value for clients and users. And here I think that designers have a lot to offer – in fact, there is a growing market for designers in processes related to organisational transformation.