I’ve added a couple new papers to my Service Design Research collection. Silent Design and Why Design is Difficult to Manage are a pair of papers from the London Business School by Peter Gorb and Angela Dumas. Silent design has come up in a few different service design contexts [PDF 240k] over the past year so I finally decided to check out the source:
It can be argued that a great deal of design activity goes on in organizations which is not called “design.” It is carried out by individuals who are not called “designers” and who would not consider themselves to be designers.
In framing silent design activity the authors reference the work of Herb Simon in The Sciences of the Artificial. He proposed that design is a basic human activity and that, in fact, everyone designs who devises courses of action aimed at changing existing situations into preferred ones.
This perspective can be a little difficult for professional designers to accept. But that also makes it a decent shibboleth for evaluating potential service designers.
At any rate, the researchers adopted a broad classification for design activity. Their definition was “a course of action for the development of an artifact or a system of artifacts.”
They carried out a one-year pilot study in the UK to explore the silent design phenomenon. They followed this up with a more detailed questionnaire, enlisting the participation of sixteen companies across the manufacturing and service sectors.
The first paper outlines their methodology and includes two tools that strike me as incredibly useful for service designers.
Their first matrix [PDF 212K] includes seven levels of design activity that organizations might adopt: from initial exploration to deep integration. It’s a way to quickly map out silent design activity across the organization.
Their second matrix [PDF 208K] is designed to map out the relationship between functional areas responsible for types of design activity. The diagonal matrix allows for any area of the business to intersect with any other area, including professional designers. The half diamond shapes can be shaded from either direction to indicate which side initiates the contact. The idea is to complete up to seven copies of the second matrix, one for each level of design activity identified in the first.
These matrices are a great way for service designers to explore the “linkware” within an organization.
The second paper follows up on the pilot study to outline four types of organizations that emerged from the research. The basic split is between product and service organizations and between organizations that employ some form of “design manager” and those that do not. These factors were the two strongest predictors for how design manifests within an organization.
Here’s a quote from “Why Design is Difficult to Manage” that describes the silent design phenomenon:
A senior engineer who had responsibility for the design department identified himself as the design manager and answered [the questionnaire] throughout the interview in that role. However, all of the other senior managers from this company who participated in the survey felt unable to answer questions on the role of the design manager because they did not consider that their company had a design manager.
This highlights the confusion that can surround design: the ‘Silent Designers’ who unknowingly participate in design tasks are scattered throughout organizations. […] As long as managers can only identify a fragment of the design process as design, the sense of diffusion and lack of definition will remain.
It’s worth noting that examples of silent design turned up in every organization involved with the study, including those with formal design departments.
The researchers encapsulated their findings in three simple maxims: First, a design policy cannot be purchased off-the-rack; it must be tailor-made. Second, do not expect a design policy to be effective if the structure does not exist to implement it. And finally, do not expect designers to understand the company if the company does not develop methods to integrate them.
This research took place over twenty years ago and I’d like to think that attitudes about design have progressed since then. The researchers mention a follow-up study scheduled for the United States but I haven’t been able to track it down.
If you come across any information about this study or silent design in general I’d appreciate a heads up.