Silent Design

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.

  1. Qin

    Hi Jeff,

    It was great talking to you last week in SF. It’s really nice to get my brain working a bit after a long holiday – hope you find the conversation interesting as I did 🙂

    Regarding Silent Design… The two you present here are the two main references I use for silent design as well… but I find a lot of similar concepts in CoP literature talking about the forming and vanishing of creative knowledge communities as part of the organisational activities… Silent Design should draw more research and practice attention in Service Design because the major stakeholder activities are often kept silent – and the designer’s job is to bring mindfulness to them 🙂


  2. Silent design reminds me of a term I often use for the people who practice this kind of latent design behavior: closet designers.

    Every organization has a few of these individuals who may not instinctively self-identify as designers or design thinkers, but who display an immediately recognizable set of behaviors that tag them as design‐minded. They may not see their work as explicitly design-related, but they nonetheless utilize similar approaches and tools. They are also the type of people who are constantly on the lookout for projects that have design-like challenges, what we might call “wicked problems” that involve multiple stakeholder groups, unclear objectives, or new areas of inquiry that offer the chance to work under the radar.

    These “silent” or “closet” designers can be business analysts, managers, or strategists who relish a chance to flex their wings creatively. What they bring is internal expertise that “real” (ie, formally trained) designers often do not have access to. When working with organizational clients, it is always useful to try to identify these “silent designers” as allies in the design process. Interestingly, if you don’t find them, they will often find you.

  3. Jeff

    Hi Angela, thanks for the comment. It’s good to see some confirmation that this type of unsung designer is out there. I’m excited about how these tools might help to identify them.

    And Qin, it was great to meet you. I’m glad you were able to dip back into Ph.D. mode for a little while. Safe travels.

  4. I’m a silent designer, and I’m coming out of the closet…

    Hi, Jeff. So happy to have stumbled across your blog! I’m in grad school at University of Washington’s Information School getting a MS in Information Management. Before going back to school, design wasn’t really even on my radar. One of my best friends is a game designer and has always said that I have a “designer” mind. I *love* wicked problems and I love thinking about complex problems strategically and creatively. As an undergrad, I studied sociology and for as long as I can remember I’ve been interested in systems and how they interact and relate to one another.

    I agree with Simon who “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.” That’s me! But, I’d argue (as Simon does) that wanting to effect positive change on one’s environment is also an innate human quality.

    I’m not convinced that “design” thinking is really anything more than “smart, creative, human” thinking. But I’ve really been enjoying what I’ve discovered and read by people who intentify what they do as design.

    Recently, I was thinking about how the most influential social change activists could be labeled as designers — as could others with less noble objectives. In fact, I was thinking in the shower today that Karl Rove is a brilliant designer.

    So is a designer just another way of saying “smart person” or “strategist?” What do you think?

    On another note, last week I saw
    Jared Spool
    ‘s amazing talk:

    Revealing Design Treasures from The Amazon
    . I highly recommend checking it
    out along with

    keynote by
    Erin Malone on
    experience, social and service design.

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