Maria Rampa: Hello, I’m Maria Rampa. Thank you for joining us for this episode of Engineering Reimagined.
Design has a powerful impact on our lives, from the smart phone we use to stay connected with friends and family to the bicycle that enables us to get from a to b.
While the COVID-19 pandemic has been extraordinarily challenging, it has also inspired many designers to innovate, repurposing their production processes to meet demand for everything from hand sanitiser to PPE and ventilators. What lessons can we learn from this creativity to reimagine the manufacturing sector and drive economic growth?
A recent study by McKinsey found that organisations that excel at design significantly outperform their industry peers financially. Should organisations therefore embed design as a strategic tool within their business to become high performing? Or has the term design thinking done more harm than good?
John McGuire, Aurecon’s Chief Design Officer, catches up with Dr Brandon Gien, CEO of Good Design Australia, to discuss the remarkable world of design as we celebrate Good Design Week showcasing world-class projects recognised with award winners chosen from a record 835 entries. Let’s hear what they have to say about the role design plays in our society.
John McGuire: So it's a pleasure to be here today on this edition of Engineering Reimagined in Good Design Week, which is very exciting. And I'm talking today with Dr Brandon Gien, who is the CEO of Good Design Australia. Great to have you with us here today, Brandon.
Brandon Gien: Thank you, John. It's a real pleasure to be talking to you.
John McGuire: I thought we'd wind the clock back a little bit because you actually initially started in mechanical engineering prior to moving into industrial design. We'd love to hear about your journey from engineering into industrial design, and be really interested in how you see the similarities and synergies between the two disciplines.
Brandon Gien: It's a really interesting little journey, actually. Like many engineers, and designers and architects, you really have that yearning from a young age and ever since I can remember I've always been interested in how things work and essentially taking things apart and trying to understand the inner workings of a product. I actually grew up on a farm and I have these amazing memories of really helping my dad fix things and take things apart and always had this natural sense of curiosity. Engineering seemed like an obvious thing for me to do, was either that or architecture. I didn't actually even know that a subject like industrial design even existed. So keep in mind this is 30 years ago. I started off with mechanical engineering, I went to the University of Newcastle and it was only halfway through the year that I met someone who was studying industrial design. And the course was fairly new at the time. I'd never heard of it before and he invited me to one of his lectures. Within the first 10 minutes, I just went bang, exactly, this is what I want to do with my life. And I never looked back.
I see now that there are, I guess, a lot of similarities between design and engineering. I think the two disciplines, they go hand in hand. You can't be a good designer, whether you're an industrial designer or product designer, if you don't understand basic engineering principles, and I believe that goes for the other side as well. I think you can't really be a great engineer, if you can't embrace the idea of design and creativity. One of the things that was drummed into our heads studying design at university was, it doesn't matter how clever or original or innovative your design idea is. If you can't make it, if you can't manufacture it, that's all it'll ever be, just another great idea sitting on the shelf. So I think there's an incredible amount of crossover. We see that in many of the projects that come through our Good Design Awards. Where they are a blend of great, clever, creative design with really, really hardcore and innovative engineering as well.
John McGuire: This word 'design', sometimes we define it around ‘it means different things to different people’ and on one level I guess it could mean form making or style or aesthetic and at the other end of the scale, it can talk about strategic transformation, and even national economic advantage and any one of those activities can all benefit from this process of design. With such a varied application of design and sometimes a misinterpretation of the word, what does good design mean to you?
Brandon Gien: Design does mean so many different things to different people and it's a really difficult thing to communicate, this idea that design is everywhere. And because it's everywhere, it's also nowhere. I love that, we take design for granted and in essence, unless it’s a tree growing out of the ground, everything around us has been designed. Sometimes not very well at all.
To answer your question in more detail I kind of look at the word design. And for me, there's a difference between design as an outcome, firstly, everything around us is designed from the toothbrushes we use in the mornings, the beds we sleep in, the houses we live in, the cars we drive, they are all objects of design. But then when you look at the word designing, there’s sort of this idea of design as a deliberate function or as a considered process. And then I guess the last part is looking at the word designer, which is the professional who's been trained to think and act and work like a designer.
If you think of those three words, design, designing and designer, they all have very different meanings. So coming back to your question about what good design means to me, I look at it in that context or the outcome of design, the end product or the service or the solution that's been designed. It's pretty simple, good design, for it to be good, it must make a positive impact on our lives, it must have the least possible impact on our planet. If the outcome is not better, if it's not solving a problem, or if it's not improving our quality of life, then it's bad design. And this could be anything, it could be a simple product that's just been beautifully designed or that's a pleasure to use, or a service, that we've interacted with, that's been meticulously designed with the user in mind and works in the way that it's intended to. Simple, functional, sustainable, are probably three words that really sum up good design for me. But it comes back to this idea that I think a lot of people are blinded by, by good design, it's almost invisible. If it works, and it does what it's meant to do, you don't notice it. But when it's bad design, that's when you do. As a design promotion organisation, we put a lot of focus in promoting good design, but we should probably also put a lot of focus in promoting bad design as well.
John McGuire: The journey of design, as well as a profession and as a discipline, it has matured and evolved and grown in its own way, our own understanding of it has matured and I can even see that in how design has morphed now from design schools into business schools and we're using design to design businesses and corporations and strategies. How do you now rate design in Australia? And how mature and how far are we along that capability curve? And could you see that this could impact our competitive advantage as a nation?
Brandon Gien: There's so much debate right now, John, about the term design thinking and whether it's probably done more harm than good in terms of promoting and educating businesses about the power and the value of design. On a negative side, we're seeing every man and his dog basically calling themselves a design consultant. On the positive side, though, the term design thinking has certainly elevated the value and the importance of design and design profession to business leaders.
If I zoom back, perhaps 10 or 15 years ago, design was very much associated with styling. We were sort of considered to be the profession that made things look nice. But if you look at any high performing business right now, those ones that are really competing at the forefront, are positioning design as a strategic tool within their business. There's so much evidence now, to support the fact that strategic investment in design by those businesses really help change the game for them. I'll give you an example. There's a very well known study now, from McKinsey's where they looked at about 300 publicly listed companies, looked at their performance on the stock market in terms of shareholder value. And they ran the study for about a five year period. And what they were trying to find is which companies took design seriously, which companies actually positioned design as a strategic tool within their organisation. And they found that the ones that did outperformed those companies that didn't by a factor of two to one.
It's a massive bit of evidence that basically goes towards saying, if you take design as a strategic tool and put it into your business, you're going to grow, you're going to employ more people, you're going to become more competitive. In terms of your question around Australia's uptake of design, and where we're currently at, we've got some excellent examples of companies who get design. Companies like Cochlear and Resmed in the med tech sector and companies like Rode in the technology sector who all get design. But I think there's incredible potential for Australia to really embed design within our SMEs, our smaller, startup businesses as well. And that, is where we really will unlock amazing economic growth for this country.
John McGuire: When I reflect on it, the pandemic, it shines a spotlight on your vulnerabilities, the things that you should have been doing, but perhaps weren't doing and if we think now and cascade that into, say, our national economy, and over recent decades, we have pivoted our economy from an agricultural based economy into a resources economy and in the same process, probably hollowed out our manufacturing sector. This pandemic could be the greatest design challenge of our time. How do you think design can help us navigate our way through the pandemic and more importantly, the long term impacts of post pandemic?
Brandon Gien: Yeah, wow, that's a really big question. I'm not even gonna pretend that design is going to solve the problems of the world and particularly now, position design as the silver bullet that's going to help us through this pandemic. What I do believe though is possible is that design allows us to look at this challenge that our whole world is facing through a completely different lens, and gives us a different perspective on how we can navigate our way through it. Our manufacturing sector here in Australia has been on a steady decline over the years. The pandemic has really highlighted how susceptible we are to things like global supply chains. There is a unique opportunity to reimagine our manufacturing sector as a result of the pandemic and to position design right at the dead centre of this.
If you look at design and the role that it has in differentiating products or services, if Australia is going to compete internationally, from an export perspective, we need to be able to design and develop and hopefully manufacture things here that are not only good, but the best in the world. How does Australia become a design-led nation? How do we get businesses, whether they are big or family run businesses or SMEs, to be globally competitive? It's about getting them to understand how they can position design right at the heart of their operations. And the challenge that I see is that we've got on one side of the divide this incredibly talented design sector.
On the other side of the divide, we've got a lot of businesses out there that just don't understand what design is. They don't actually understand how to position design or whether they actually even need design. And to me, that's the greatest missed opportunity that we've got and I'm hoping that if there's some little light at the end of this this pandemic tunnel that we can help bridge that divide and bring more businesses into this design fold and bring more designers and connect them with businesses to create fantastic globally competitive products and services.
John McGuire: Have you seen any upswing in creativity inspired by the pandemic as yet?
Brandon Gien: Absolutely. One of the things that's been just so incredible to see is the design community over the world just sort of come together to collectively say how do we remain part of the solution here? I've seen so many different businesses adapt their operations. I'll give you an example. Dyson in the UK took their engineers and their designers and said right, how do we use our knowhow in vacuum technology and try and design hospital ventilators? I think it was about 10 days, they turned around the design of a ventilator and now supply the health service in the UK. Necessity is the mother of invention. Some of our greatest breakthroughs probably come under adversity. It's just incredible, incredibly inspiring.
John McGuire: The mindset of a designer revels in contradiction. Where a lot of other people would move away from complexity. The mindset of a designer, that's the greatest challenge to them, is to be able to think of something completely different as what we've had to do in this COVID-19 response. And so the mindset of the designer can actually help organisations, if you embed this into your culture and embed this to your way of doing, why would an organisation not do this is probably the right question to ask. If we turn now to Good Design Australia. The awards program, this is actually the longest awards program in Australia. Can you can you give us a brief history of Good Design Australia and what are its key objectives?
Brandon Gien: The awards have a very long and proud history. Originally, they were established under the premise of the Industrial Design Council of Australia back in 1958 as a way to educate Australian manufacturers at the time, about the role of design so you can think back to 60-odd years ago when there was no internet. The term globalisation probably didn't even exist. And you had Australian manufacturers who wanted to start exporting and be more globally competitive. Good Design Australia now runs the awards independently. We've opened them up to international projects as well. We’re one of the most diverse design award programs in the world, it's not just product design or industrial design or engineering design, there's categories for fashion design, service design, digital design, communication design, right through to design strategy and precinct design, which is a category that was added this year. And an area that I'm quite passionate about, which is social impact.
For example, how do we get homeless people off the street using a design process? The awards really exist to promote this idea of design for a better world, design for a more prosperous Australia. Whether that be better products, better services, better systems, that are safer, more sustainable, and are actually going to make our quality of life here on this planet better.
John McGuire: What for you has been the highlight of Good Design Week this year?
Brandon Gien: The highlight of the whole year for me, as it always is, actually is the judging. It's really bringing these incredible minds together. It's engineers, it's architects, it's product designers, it’s design strategists, it's digital designers, fashion designers. And, just to be involved in the discussion and the debate around what they believe good design is and where that bar should be set and the depth of knowledge that they all have and the different perspectives that they all come from in their own fields of expertise is just fascinating. Every single project that is entered you discover there's something special there. And it's not just the big end of town, sometimes we have startups entering the awards. And to hear their story, they've literally put their whole house on the line behind a great idea. And they've coupled that with great, clever, user-centered design to turn it into a product and then hopefully a business, is incredibly inspirational. And seeing the joy that these companies get when they find out that they've received an award, it makes me feel that we've played a small, little part in their journey as well in helping them promote their story to the world. So it's been a great week.
John McGuire: I was quite humbled to be the chair of the engineering category and even with my fellow judges as we were going through the assessment process, not only were we debating and looking at the quality and the merits, and the why, and the how, but we too, were learning along the way, so we were students. One of the things that I noticed in the entries, was a strong convergence in how digital and data are being used to amplify the physical design. That was really quite inspiring to see the creativity of how designers and organisations were bringing together this digital world, this digital twin into having a greater impact on the experience and the physical outcome. So how do you see this now starting to evolve? How do you see digital now influencing great design?
Brandon Gien: The idea of, there really not being a separation between hardware and software anymore. It's a holistic approach to a way a project is designed, you don't have digital designers and data designers collecting data on one side of the project and then hardware and designers or industrial designers playing a role on as a separate part of the project. You're not seeing that anymore. You're seeing a holistic approach to these projects, where design has really filtered right through from the hardware, the software, the entire user experience has been just beautifully designed and I think we'll see a lot more products being connected to the internet of things, you're seeing a lot more products turning into smart products, whether they be for the home or for work, or work automation, massive area for design to have a big impact in as well.
John McGuire: It would be remiss of me not to ask, particularly with the time that you've spent as a past president of the World Design Organization, you must have seen some incredible design innovations over your career. What's your favourite design Brandon?
Brandon Gien: It's like trying to ask me if I've got a favourite child. I had such an amazing experience being on the board of the World Design Organization, the global body for industrial design based out at Montreal in Canada. What it did do for me is allow me to see design from a completely different perspective, we travelled to pretty much every single corner of the globe. I actually saw the impacts of bad design, through that lens more than anything, the negative side of design where you look at landfill and the impacts of climate change and all these big hairy challenges that I think design in some way shape or form has contributed to. The positive side is that it also opened my eyes to the incredible power that design has to really change our world.
And if you ask me to pick my favourite child, my favourite project, I can't go past a project called the Community Cooker. This was in Nairobi in Kenya. They've got one of the biggest open rubbish tips in the world and a big challenge with garbage and landfill. And this organisation basically created a, for want of a better word, it was a giant furnace that burnt garbage. But the really, really clever thing that they did is they also developed a whole system around how garbage can be managed and turned garbage into a currency. So what that meant was that people who weren't able to access hot water for example, to cook and to clean with, were able to collect garbage and then bring it to the community cooker and exchange that for time to be able to cook their own meals and have access to clean water. I really encourage anyone who's listening to just do a quick Google search for a Community Cooker in Kenya. It's been quite a few years but I know they are actually now trying to replicate this model all over the world. For me there was just such a beautiful example of clever thinking, great design that's actually making a positive impact on our world.
John McGuire: Brandon, you have taken us on such a wonderful journey through this amazing world of design. The design community and the design movement is in fantastic hands with Good Design Australia. Thank you very much, Brandon.
Brandon Gien: Thanks, John. Absolute pleasure to be talking to you. Really enjoyed the chat and my final congratulations to all the Good Design Award winners announced this week, fantastic projects and if anyone listening has an opportunity to delve into the Good Design Awards website to check them out. They'll all be there for everyone to see.
Maria Rampa: That was a such fascinating discussion about how good design can shape a better world. I particularly enjoyed hearing about the Community Cooker waste to energy technology that is not only solving a rubbish problem, but also provides alternative fuel to trees and coal in these communities – a great design-thinking solution! If you enjoyed this episode of Engineering Reimaged, tell your friends about it or leave a rating in Apple Podcasts. You can subscribe to Engineering Reimagined on Apple Podcasts or Spotify. For updates about the podcast, follow Aurecon on social. Thanks for listening. Until next time.