Economies and Design

Guy Julier: Economies of Design

Sage Publications, London, 2017

There has been a lot of talk about design, innovation and business lately, but can we find a broader understanding of this development and frame the recent developments in design within an economic context?

If Katz described the development of design practice in Silicon Valley, sort of in a chronological way, Julier aims to build more of a theoretical framework around what has happened and why. Julier’s viewpoint is more on Europe, and his timeframe is a little shorter than Katz, with the main focus on development since the 1980’s, but in many ways the two books describe similar development. The usage of design has increased, and it is used more broadly than before.

Julier states that there are two related factors that his book is built around; one is the understanding of the priorities and impacts of neoliberal economic practices from the 1980s, and the other is the growth of the multiple ways that design practices have grown, accumulated and intensified through the same period.

According to him design works in two ways in relation to neoliberalism. Firstly, it makes stuff that is used within its systems. These can be products, environments or services, where the main target is marketisation and differentiation. Secondly, design also plays a more symbolic role. It points towards the possible. It shows what it is “in potentia”. It materialises the probable. Design plays a semiotic role in making change appear reasonable.

Although Julier is building a stronger theoretical network than Katz, the book is far from being theoretical. Throughout the book there are many very concrete examples of projects that have been done during the years. Many of these examples are from the UK.

The accumulation of design specialisms

Julier shows how the professional practice of design has expanded over the years. There are constantly emerging design specialities; a service designer might also be a strategist, a business consultant, a digital technology developer or an ethnographer. Part of this discussion is also about quantifying the growth of design, which has, according to Julier, become a minor industry in itself. The emphasis on quantities often misses the fundamental development in qualities. 

Similarily to Katz, Julier shows how design usage has developed over time. The British move from manufacturing to an economy dominated by services in the 1980’s changed the priorities for design and designers. In the 1980’s design would shape shopping centres to make them places where you went to spend time rather than just to buy things. Design was hence used in the needs of capital to produce new markets. With the help of design, not only a space to shop and experience more was created, but also predictable value and income for property developers and owners.

Design was also used to package products to make them more desirable, and by companies to look more competitive in their outward appearances and in their internal communications. Julier notes that in the West, Neoliberalism really got going in the mid-1980’s, and this was also the time when many design studios began to pursue profit in more strategic and organised ways. The labour market became more flexible, and technological and organisational ways were found to speed up the design process. Julier calls the change to this notion of design as something that is more commonplace and “all around us”, with a new set of conceptions of what design is in everyday life, the design culture turn. In the design culture turn, the domains of design, production and consumption have been brought into closer, more intense relationships. Design objects have also been brought into being that change the way we act in and feel about our economic lives.

Although Katz doesn’t connect the development of design to Neoliberalism, he showed a very similar growth of design agencies in Silicon Valley in the 1980’s and onward. He called this the “second-generation” approach of design where “people are understanding value through systems, through experiences, through brands, more than through the physical instance of the product”. Many of the most well-known design agencies, like Ideo and Frog, originate from this era.

Katz also showed that in Silicon Valley, a third-generation wave of post-industrial companies are now transforming. The goal of many of these companies is to create innovations that are scalable and sustainable. Julier recognises a very similar development in his book, with the rise of areas such as social design and designing for municipalities. He presents the idea of “design citizenship”. This is exemplified with the Danish city of Kolding, where a vision of the city states that “together, we design a better life through entrepreneurship, social innovation and education”, or “Kolding – we design for life” -for short. This vision has been executed for more than a decade, throughout the municipalities services and sectors. Design then becomes a skill, attitude or even disposition that is embedded into the organisation. Here Julier sees the understanding of design to be extended beyond the domain of specialized professionals to become embedded in the lines of citizens and to be supported through key cultural, educational and entrepreneurial supports. He also sees it to emerge out of deep, considered research and analysis of a location’s pre-exiting assets. For Julier this suggests a turn towards bringing citizen life back into control.

As part of painting the bigger picture Julier looks at the broader concepts of cultural or creative industries, and their historic origins. Julier builds on the (originally UK-derived) concept where the cultural industries are perceived to include a broad range of cultural activities that are highly capital intensive (such as film and tv) very labour intensive (such as crafts and performing art) highly responsive to commercial structures and business cycles (such as advertising or architecture) while others have or pursue greater independence (such as arts and crafts).

He also discusses how the definitions, measures and values of these terms have become a source of vigorous debate. Further definitions, such as creative economy and creative intensity, have emerged. Still, the narrower definitions are challenging because we should achieve a more varied and complex view which accepts that creative work comes as the result of interplay, collaboration and support between creative people and non-creative people. (Personally, I am not sure there is such thing as non-creative people, so my assumption is that Julier refers to people not working in areas perceived as “creative” fields). Julier continues that it is a team effort. He also states that creative work takes place in a variety of locations, including ones that are not obviously creative. As different terms and definitions emerge, we begin to appreciate both the commonalities and the specificities of different kinds of labour that exist across industries and institutions.

How the different terms around creative industries have been used

This broader definition comes closer to the practical approach that we have often used in the Nordics. We haven’t had such a strong cultural sector as the UK (with some exceptions, like the Swedish music industry). In London alone, there was in 2010 over 435 000 occupied in the creative industries and 46 000 designers. (More recent data from 2017 shows that there were a whopping 3,12 million people employed in the creative industries in the UK, of which 32% were in the area around London.) In the Nordics, the shift to services that Julier mentions has been more visible in mundane daily interactions. We have designed better ticketing systems for public transport, more humane hospitals, and our lift companies now sell “the moving experience” rather than a shell in metal. Just to mention a few.

When Finland was celebrating the “Design year” in 2005, design was seen as a pacifier, something everyone is happier having than being without.

Towards the end of the book Julier sets out to answer three fundamental questions: 1. Why are design and neoliberalism so “good” together?, 2. How can we talk about economics in terms of the qualitative functions of design? and 3. How is finance materialized through design? His answers are:

  1. Why are design and neoliberalism good together? There are four elements to this. Firstly, deregulation ushers increased competitivy and design is needed to differentiate their offers. Secondly, New Economy provides greater flexibility and speed of production and consumption. This gives faster design iterations; hence more design gets done. Thirdly, financialisation searches for investment and future value. Corporations and investors look for places for their capital to render profit. Design adds value to those locations (like buildings and technologies) and functions in a symbolic way to show the changes that are happening. Intellectual property through design also becomes an asset. Fourthly, austerity as a response to economic crises and a reduction of government spending has made design, and particularity service design, to become a quick, cost- saving fix for spending cuts in the public sector. Public services also get increasingly privatized, and again more design is needed.
  2. How can we talk about economics in terms of the qualitative functions of design? Design shapes products, environments or images. It also makes “economic imaginaries”. These cultural roles of design might be one way of approaching the role of design in the qualitative dimension of economics. The processes aren’t frictionless or consistent, and depend on where, when and how they are used. Hence it might be more useful to talk about economies of qualities in plural.
  3. How is finance materialised through design? Intensive design input is made so that artefacts may render the value through their licensing, serial reproduction or franchising. In the case of austerity, design can, in addition to cost savings, also be used to increase the value of for example a geographical area. Julier shows the example of the design efforts done in the city centre of a small and declining town, Kolding, where new businesses were encouraged to locate in the centre rather than at outskirt car-markets. Design efforts can add value both to the property and land as well as the town’s brand image and its inhabitants’ wellbeing.

Rather than Design Management, Julier proposes an economic sociology of design culture. These studies could go beyond the classical approaches to economies, where input / output or investment / profit conceptions dominate, and look at circular, green, social or feminist economies and include concerns going beyond commercial gain.

Julier concludes that economies of design are never static nor homogenous. He urges us to show their variance and to expose what is behind this variance and what drives it. He suggests that making visible and knowable the material and informational infrastructures, the systems of power, and the financial logics of economies of design, might be a task of the design practice itself.

I suppose one way of (maybe over-?) simplifying this thinking of what design has become is to draw a simple grid. On one hand we have Julier´s division, from the very beginning of the book, where design is either producing things (products, services etc) or showing the possible (imagining, visioning).  We then have different users of design; individuals, companies, municipalities, countries etc.  Instead of having design in just one of the intersections, we can have it in all combinations of these two. And in any of the contexts; commercial, circular, green, social or feminist; that Julier suggests.

Julier’s book started by showing how companies use design to produce things. A current example of this was also presented in the book by Kocienda, which showed how design was used in software development in Apple. Catmull’s example showed how design was used in a company, not only to design products or services (in this case animated films), but even more extensively to design a company culture, to enhance creativity and to vision a better future. Colomina&Wigley showed how we as individuals have always altered or designed ourselves. They also proposed design as asking questions, which comes very close to Julier’s thought of empowering the individuals through design and showing what is possible. In Lee’s book, we learned about many AI-based regional services that have been designed for example in China, and the ethical challenges thereof. Part of it was also to understand the national strategies of how and why these services are developed. Tegmark’s text was more about imagining the far future, on a national or even global level. Somehow, they are all showing facets of a world we are currently living in, looking for new solutions in one way or another.

What Julier does is very cleverly connecting the current usage of design to the economic tradition of neoliberalism.

Currently, the whole neoliberal approach is heavily questioned, and new value sets are arising. This puts us in front of an interesting thought – if the current usage of design is heavily tied to the neoliberal approach, and this is now diminishing – what are the new alternatives? What is the new kind of thinking, new design, and surrounding economic context that we have ahead of us next? Maybe the shift around us is bigger than what first meets the eye; not just a shift in technologies or jobs, but more fundamentally in how society works, interacts and generates value?

And if that is the case, where should we start designing, or imagining?

Guy Julier in February 2019

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