DDC year one: design squared

The first of November marked the one-year mark since I was entrusted with the leadership of the DDC. This first year has been a challenging and exciting process – a process that has only just begun. In this, the first of two blog posts on the topic, I would like to share some of our fundamental thoughts about the direction that the DDC is now taking. The focus here is on the basic principles that guide our efforts.

Putting the companies centre stage

From the beginning, my mandate for continuing the development of the DDC has been clear: The DDC is to contribute to growth throughout Denmark and help make the design industry an ever stronger force in driving this growth. The DDC is to pursue this goal by building bridges and generating renewed synergy between the demand for design and the supply of design competences.

This means that the DDC is to encourage decision makers in Danish companies to use design – in a broad sense – more and in more qualified ways than they are currently doing. First of all, the DDC is to know and reach out to the demand side, putting the companies centre stage.

This involves bringing the DDC closer to the top executives, heads of development, heads of design and innovation and other key actors who decide how companies approach product development, service innovation, business development and innovation in general. We also need to understand how to reach out to the decision-makers where they are today, meeting them at eye level. In this effort, the DDC should not only aim to strengthen existing markets for design but also help to (co-) create new markets and areas where design is currently in limited use.

“DDC should not only aim to strengthen existing markets for design but also help to (co-) create new markets and areas where design is currently in limited use.”

This emphasis on business and growth is also about understanding what drives business development among design agencies – the companies that carry out design work and act as design consultants to other companies. There are indications that design agencies and related creative businesses grow faster and are more resistant to economic crises than companies in other industries. They also contribute to innovation, growth and prosperity far beyond their own development. That is why a strong design industry is good for Denmark.

Back to basics

Because design competences are the input factor that the DDC helps bring into play, we need to be in close dialogue with the design field in Denmark and abroad.

Design is a broad concept; it is complex and rife with dilemmas, in constant change and the topic of ongoing discussion and negotiation. As I wrote in my first blog post as the new director of the DDC, we need to acknowledge the full range of the design concept and engage in a nuanced and reflective design discussion.

Over the past year, therefore, we have sought to attract new colleagues to the DDC who have worked with design from a variety of angles, and who help make sure that everything we do is framed by an in-depth understanding of design. For the DDC, this includes acknowledging the historical strengths and successes for Danish design as well as being able to ask the right questions and initiating the right activities to help bring Danish design DNA into the future.

New business model: from answers to questions

Today, the DDC is mainly funded by the public sector as a policy actor charged with implementing the national policy for design, business and industry on behalf of the government. At the same time, we are also the government’s natural advisor on design policy issues. But what role should public investments in design promotion, business promotion and innovation play? What are the implications of this public role for the DDC? Or, to put it another way: How can we bring about real change in a complex system of companies, design agencies and designers as well as a wide range of business promotion and innovation actors in public and private settings?

“ Asking the right questions is more important for the DDC than providing the answers. This might be called reflective design promotion.”

First of all, I am convinced that when we spend tax payers’ money – or, for that matter, funds from charitable foundations, private sponsors or international sources, including the EU – we need to devote these funds to activities that would not have taken place otherwise. This means that the DDC should strive to identify the tasks at the intersection of design, business, industry, innovation and export that are currently not receiving sufficient attention, and which have the potential to boost the competitiveness of Danish companies. Next, the DDC should plan, develop and carry out activities with relevant partners that provide answers – and which raise new important questions. We need to be critical in our thinking, and this includes acknowledging where design might NOT be the answer to the challenges the companies face; we need to keep an open mind and recognise that design use is context-dependent and driven by market conditions, organisational factors, geography, culture etc. It might even be argued that asking the right questions is more important for the DDC than providing the answers. This might be called reflective design promotion.

New activities: from analyses to experiments

That sort of strategy cannot be implemented from behind a desk; it requires the DDC to get involved and for the DDC’s staff to experience first-hand how design methods and processes work when they are applied in companies. That is the case whether they are applied by in-house designers in companies, by design consultants or by design agencies working on their own internal development.

The DDC has to get close enough to the process to be able to say, ‘we helped this happen’, ‘we saw it happen,’ ‘we were there.’ That is the only way to claim a credible and in-depth understanding of the possibilities, challenges and barriers involved in using design in a business, innovation and growth context.

The DDC’s board therefore defines the DDC’s basic business model as

  1. making new things happen in the meeting between business, industry and design,
  2. observing what happens and
  3. bringing the resulting experiences into play.

This approach could be described as a design-driven business model with a focus on concrete, practical and action-oriented initiatives. A model that begins with action and then brings in analysis and communication in the follow-up phase. We are driven by curiosity and interest, humble to the possibility of being surprised and learning something new – and we are passionate about sharing our experiences. Nothing – and I really do mean nothing – that we do at the DDC is done for our own sake. We do it in the interest of companies, of growth and of Danish society at large.

New partnerships: from solo to teamwork

For the DDC to succeed with a strategy based on concrete and action-oriented approaches, we obviously need to work in collaboration with others. This includes practical collaborations with organisations that demand (or might be encouraged to demand) design as well as those that supply design. But it also includes collaborations with the institutions and organisations in our field that go across industries and sectors. In a national as well as an international perspective.

It is a key value for the DDC that we are, essentially, never flying solo. Naturally, this requires us to hone our skill at co-creating and co-producing the prototyping processes, programmes and communication efforts and products that we want to develop and drive in cooperation with others. Here, we need to be able to plan and carry out co-design workshops with partners and stakeholders, establish strong relations and teams, provide clear leadership and ensure continuous documentation, learning and reflection in the collaboration processes.

Another implication of never flying solo is related to our ambition of sharing and scaling the insights we gain. We not only aim to communicate case stories and insights, we also want to work with others, for example in workshops with the actors who need to embrace new discoveries and findings and change their own practices. For example, we might help the local business growth centres Væksthusene develop new processes and tools for their business consultancy work, based on insights we have gained. Or we might make specific contributions to the policy development for business promotion and design within the Ministry of Business and Growth.

Openness: from analysis to open, visual data

Throughout the DDC’s long existence, we have communicated what design is or what it can be. We are going to continue to do that – probably also by staging exhibitions, once we have an appropriate setting for it. Part of our communication has aimed to convey design knowledge in the form of publications, folders and books. We are going to continue to do this, in a variety of formats, always well designed and presented in way that makes the knowledge applicable to the users.

But we also want to focus more on making raw data and resources available online. For example, we are not only going to collect and share knowledge about how companies use design; we are also going to make the data available for others to use and provide user-friendly, visual tools that others can use to interpret and analyse the data. Generally, visual is a key term to describe our communication efforts – more about this below.

Developing a new identity: reaching out

The methods I have outlined here challenge the DDC’s identity and self-image in certain areas. From being a centre, in a literal as well as a metaphoric sense, we need to move out and reach out. We need to be present (to explore) where design can add value, and we also need to contribute in less central areas of Denmark – in regions and on locations that are far from Copenhagen. The latter effort in particular encourages the use of local partnerships and online resources.

“Our approach should be user-centred, visually driven, concrete, explorative, experimental, creative, generative.”

It is not a goal in itself for the DDC to be widely known in business and industry. It is my sense, however, that in order to succeed in putting relevant and valuable applications of design on the agenda among the decision-makers in Danish business and industry, the DDC, and perhaps especially the programmes and activities we engage in, have to be visible where the companies are. Therefore, one of our top priorities in 2016 will be to put design on the agenda with the DDC as a key player. Both in terms of our media presence and in the form of a new, distinct corporate identity – in offline and online settings.

We clearly need to be on the cutting edge in the way we use digital platforms and media as tools – not only as communication channels but also as platforms for collaboration, engagement, inspiration and value. Just as many private companies have understood that their digital presence IS their business model, we too want to make our digital universe a powerful source of value creation.

Design-driven design promotion

The reader may have wondered why this post is titled ‘design squared’. The explanation is that the underlying premise of the thoughts I have outlined here is that the DDC needs to use design methods as the basis of our business model: Our approach should be user-centred, visually driven, concrete, explorative, experimental, creative, generative. In other words, we need to use design to test, learn from and scale the use of design in Denmark: design squared.

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