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"How did it get so hairshirty?" asked my friend Sorrel last week, reflecting on the evolution of design since she took leave of it to run Frieze Projects in 2007.  How indeed? I proffered a combination of yearning for austerity brought about by credit crisis and glutted consumption, and fear of the earth burning up.

"How did it get so hairshirty?" asked my friend Sorrel last week, reflecting on the evolution of design since she took leave of it to run Frieze Projects in 2007.  How indeed? I proffered a combination of yearning for austerity brought about by credit crisis and glutted consumption, and fear of the earth burning up.

The thinktank on "emergent design" organised in Cornwall by Dott and UC Falmouth had its hairshirtiness, although the accomodation was deluxe. It began with an elegant discourse by Nabeel Hamdi on how design and architecture are to address a bigger strategic agenda than is conventionally encompassed by "practice". He used an intriguing phrase, "the intelligence of informality",  to describe the structures that naturally emerge in places to permit human processes, and a lovely quote: "I know what a house is, but what does it do?" It all helped to give a (briefly) palpable sense of what might  be meant by "emergent design", the preoccupation of our confident and upbeat host, Dr Andrea Siodmok.

I and about 30 others examined our consciences aloud about design education, research and practice in a 2-3 minute "soapbox" session.  Clive Grinyer of Cisco claimed that "design is not well-designed for it's great new scope" and that we have a "looming crisis" in which we must "pull it into shape". Ezio Manzini's later observation that design is a "weak discipline" because its tools are ill-defined, echoed the irony Clive had nailed. Assuredly identifying a clear separation between "design-thining" (potentially practised by everyone) and "design-knoweldge" (which is practised by trained professionals), Manzini said this benign fissure appeared when creative responsibility began to be difused to a wider group than designers and architects.  The problem, he declared, is that "design knowledge" needs to be more like a toolkit, and furthermore that the purpose of design research is to create this toolkit.

Manzini's most frequenly quoted pearl of the day, dispensed in a discussion of design education, was that "there can be no interdisciplinarity without disciplines". Having looked at a few hundred RSA student design award entries, mostly undergraduate, over the years as a jury member and programme insider, I felt great sympathy with this remark: it's usually quite difficult to tell what the student's discipline is, and sometimes it would help if the discipline - the tool in use, the "design knowledge" -  were more salient. But we ask them to do difficult things in which the pure display of design tools - encoureged by the old pedagogical categories of ceramics, graphics, fashion & textiles, and so on  - would go unrewarded. For the sake of argument and as Chair of the academic session, Jeremy Myerson offered the simple solution that undergraduates learn skills or tools, and post graduates apply them in a discursive and interdisciplinary fashion. Simple enough until you consider what the world has started to ask of designers.

A propos, Mat Hunter wittily described how the kind of "next generation toaster" challenge on which he cut his teeth in the 1980s has morphed into the "next generation experience, service, whatever..." as design-thinking became "everyone's new best friend". Generally I had been astonished at the confidence with which certain people in the think-tank weilded the phrase "design-thinking", and his scepticism was comforting. His explanation of how "the act of selling design alters it" was especially thoughtful and well-expressed, and I agree that the much-vaunted "processes" and diagrams describing creative generation over-promise results. In his words, they "corrupt our understanding", being simplistic. Among the five things Hunter confessed to worrying about were the role of craft and, again, "what's in the new toolkit".

It strikes me there's an opportunity for design to draw from craft in these diffusive times in order to reclaim some definition. But I'm not just talking about designers re-asserting their craft credentials; I'm talking about moving from the inclusive, blurry, co-design notion to introducing more outsiders to the insider's "design knowledge". Less design-thinking, more actual design-craft. I think this is vastly difficult, but John Sorrell told me yesterday it's amazing how quickly children get it when you engage them in a conversation about design.

As we went at it with 80-odd Cornwall designers in parallel sessions on service design, user-centred design and collaborative design, I found it hard to forget the opening words of UC Falmouth's Deputy Rector, Geoff Smith, a musician and therefore an outsider, earlier in the day: "I admire the way you designers see design as a frame and methodology for every imaginable question. It's a lovely conceit".

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