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At an expert seminar in May about our Design & Rehabilitation project, keynote Danny Brown said something useful about design. A product has to fulfill a basic function, he said: you  have to be able to sit on a chair; a cup has to hold liquid; clothes have to keep you warm, etc.. Then all of these things might need to be made for a certain budget and from a certain set of available materials. But within those constraints of function, material, cost etc. there’s room to negotiate lots of variables, and this is the designer's space.

At an expert seminar in May about our Design & Rehabilitation project, keynote Danny Brown said something useful about design. A product has to fulfill a basic function, he said: you  have to be able to sit on a chair; a cup has to hold liquid; clothes have to keep you warm, etc.. Then all of these things might need to be made for a certain budget and from a certain set of available materials. But within those constraints of function, material, cost etc. there’s room to negotiate lots of variables, and this is the designer's space.

The photo was taken by Yanki Lee on Day II of our 3-day residential design workshop for spinal cord-injured people last week. On this day, devoted to Analysis, we insisted on design as logic, not taste; on designed or man-made objects as collections of decisions and compounds of layers. Layers can be functional, we explained, or they might be material; then in addition there might be layers of association and significance. In design, every layer has a reason and represents a decision.

At this point our 8 participants had just returned from a hunting and gathering session in the neighbouring streets, charged with finding, photographing or buying something they could break down into its man-made decisions and layers. On the floor there's a package for some take-away barbecued chicken under scrutiny by designer Pascal Anson; on the screen a photograph of a motorcycle. In response to relentless interrogation, each participant performed an analysis of his or her chosen object.

The chicken box was relatively straightforward. We asked of it, What is it? What's it made of? Why? How is it made? Why is it made like that? Why is it yellow and red? Why are the figures dancing and jumping? Why the border of blue and white stars? How many type styles are there? Why? Its presenter later described this session as the moment he 'got' design.

The bike was more complex. Four of our participants were motorcyle enthusiasts, as are many people with spinal cord injuries. Its presenter may have felt comfortable showing a familiar object, or that this Harley would be so well-known and understood that it required little analysis, but the interrogation was draconian. The group swiftly dispatched the functional and material layers of the bike in favour of the rich layers of meaning its designers had contrived, and the bike itself had acquired by use over the years.

 It's cool, the participant said. Why? we replied. It has a great engine. Really, is that why it's cool? If it's got such a great engine, why do the handlebars look like they belong to a Chopper? Middle-aged men like this motorcycle. Hmm. I thought you said it was cool. Are middle-aged men cool? Why is this their bike? Let's look at it carefully. Why the rounded forms and swooping seat? Because you sit back to ride it. Why do you do that? Easy-rider. What's Easy-rider? Why does the mudguard have those red & white stripes? Because it was in TGI Fridays. What's TGI Fridays got to do with Easy-rider? And so on. This participant later declared that as a result of the workshop he wouldn't look at things the same way again.

In this workshop we aimed to explain design, and to teach a useful amount of design and creative resourcefulness in three days to people who have no training in it. This day of Analysis followed Day 1: Observation, and preceded Day 3: Opportunity. Watch out for the 2-minute film on the RSA website in next week, and the full report at the end of the month. Well done to Dean, Tim, Matt, Liz, Jason, Luke, Morag and Simon, and thanks to the Back-Up Trust.

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