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I wasn't surprised when someone asked me this recently. I've argued for a re-distribution of design - or the tools and insights and processes that designers use - beyond the professionals for whom design was likely a vocation, to everyone else. So I must think designers are made not born. Let's see.

I wasn't surprised when someone asked me this recently. I've argued for a re-distribution of design - or the tools and insights and processes that designers use - beyond the professionals for whom design was likely a vocation, to everyone else. So I must think designers are made not born. Let's see.

I asked it myself of Rianne Makkink in the Arts & Crafts conference at Vienna Design Week last week. She'd regailed us with the highly-crafted, scintillating cabinet of curiosities inhabited by Makkink & Bey and its workforce of brilliantly talented young designers. You'd never imagine you could enter it without being a genius, without being born with it. Not so. Rianne used herself as proof that designers can be made: everything about her own birth and background, she said, indicated she should more properly be a housewife.

Roberto Verganti later a summarised of his recent book, Design-Driven Innovation. He points out that designers, more than most professionals, are plagued by stereotpyes. First they had to fight off the common perception that what they did was something like art; unbusinesslike. Now Tim Brown, David Kelley, IDEO and the spreading message of design-thinking have birthed another stereotype. Design thinking is the dream of managers: "Finally, there's a process! It's not art after all, and therefore I can understand it. You do ethnographic research, then you brainstorm, then you prototpye and test and finally you have your product and service, threaded through with deep cultural insight". Unfortunately, quoth Venturini, business schools tell people that it is wrong to decide from their gut. Put differently, I wonder if managers are being misled into thinking that designers are made and not born.

Last week we ran a seminar jointly with RSA Education for RSA Fellows: "How can design help education?" It asked, since teachers are increasingly required to undertake things that correspond to design - from lesson planning to timetabling to classrom layout to managing capital projects - whether and how the input of professional designers could help.  One Fellow raised the troublesome point that the creative, "cognitive", interdisciplinary, project-based approach to teaching is very much more resource-heavy than the traditional didacticism by which you teach a single subject. The interdiciplinary teacher, the teacher with a designer's knack for integration and synthesis of part and whole: born or made? And if he/she is made, then what is the cost?

The science-fiction writer Bruce Sterling was enthralling in conversation with Tony Dunne and Fiona Raby at the Icon Minds symposium on Wednesday. But as he extrapolated and ellaborated in glorious language the idea that design is a lot like writing fiction ("potentially thinkable objects and services"), I began to wonder. A significant number of designers are born dyslexic, which effectively makes them into designers rather than writers. Sterling reckons Karim Rashid is a "pretty good writer"; certainly easier to imagine as a novellist than a mathematician or a police officer. This is like saying if you're born a designer, then you're born a writer. Likewise if you're made. I begin to fear elision. Although I know many designers whose critical analysis is acute, I can count the ones that can (or want to) write on the fingers of one hand.

Our own debate on hacking yielded many insights in the midst of a tangled subject. Otto von Busch spoke of fashion designers' "source code", as if you could learn and re-apply (hack) the aesthetic insight with which Karl Lagerfeld was born, thereby transfering it into the "made" category. Colin McDowell's elegant response was to characterise the come-lately, made-rather-than-born creator, the happy hacking amateur, as "infantile". Scott Burnham, who chaired, praises the open-source-spirited denial of the lofty auteur in order to garner creativity at large; this he calls the hacking "methodology". It pursues the progressively made, the built-upon, rather than the thunderstroke insight of a born designer.

The purpose of universal education is to overide accidents of birth so that everyone has a chance to be re-made. Working with RSA Education colleagues I've argued that that Design & Technology (as it is currently termed by the QCA) comprises generic skills that can empower the learner and the citizen: problem-finding and problem-solving; improvisation and adaptation, visualisation and conceptualisation, drawing and making, order, sequence and the integration of “big-picture” and detail. Moreover that these have unique potential to contribute to a sense of practical competence and resourceful optimism in young people.

In spite of my personal wonder at what certain individuals can do on the strength of something innate and environmentally inexplicable (born), I believe this about design: that it can make you different because it teaches you (made) that problems have solutions and that there's a way of getting to them.

The born and made of design were arrayed grandly at Buckingham Palace last night for the Prince Philip Designer's Prize. The winner was Andrew Ritchie, inventor of the Brompton folding bicycle. The bike itself has clearly had a slow birth and progressive evolution to the elegant thing it is now, and Ritchie was himself in the process "made" from an engineer into a designer. In the nicest possible sense, Ritchie is a one-hit wonder.

The nominees with the inimitable innate gifts, Peter Saville and Hussein Chalayan, the born designers with a language all their own, were rather abruptly summarised by the Design Council's copywriter as pretty much a designer of record-covers and of freakish, avant-garde concept dresses. I think the born cateogry of designer is not optimistic for Britain Plc.. He doesn't seem to come from a continuous supply; seems the exception when we want a rule; a rational continuum from Brunel and his Victorian peers to the present. We want reassurance that there's more where he came from, which seems more likely true of the made than the born.

Someone asked how the RSA's nomination of Peter Saville squares with our argument that more people can be made to think like designers; he being so unique and all. I replied that millions of people know what a designer is because of Peter Saville. Seeing and looking at what he did has taught them to see and look. What he and Chalayan were born to do has made everyone more of a designer.

Bruce Sterling proposed that someone should write a science-fiction type of parody of Ruskin - put themselves into  Ruskin's head and imagine what the author of Modern Painters and Unto This Last would have to say about interraction design or Facebook. He didn't write fiction, but he could transfigure art and nature into prose images better than anyone. He is the greatest ever advocate of seeing and looking. I think Ruskin would really go for Peter Saville.


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