Design Intervention: Part 1

This is a second story in a series of short articles about Design Intervention that was organised at F-Secure Corporation in October 2019, supported by brief reflection on my earlier design work and studies that were the inspiration to the event. The Design Intervention was an experiment to bring art school vibe to the corporate working environment. The first story can be read here.

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During my first year at Aalto University School of Arts, Design and Architecture, I took a course called Systems Thinking. Luckily, both teachers were not designers but real systems scientists, who, as one of my university friends put it, “were like encyclopaedia”. The course itself was a bit messy. Within just 4 study credits they were trying to “touch and go” as many systems theories and methodologies as possible. By the end of the course the density of learned material felt overwhelming, nevertheless the course was extremely useful, it just needed to be improved. But how could a group of students change the course without being at university’s decision making position?

David Ing’s presentation about systems thinking at Aalto University, 2013

Seven years later I was contemplating about a similar topic — how could a group of in-house designers change their corporation’s culture to become more creative, if they were not executive level decision-makers?

There was a tradition at F-Secure to at least once a year organise a full-day event where UX and service designers from both B2B and B2C customer experience teams presented projects done during the past year. That was a good start. What if this tradition was redesigned to bring more creativity and art school vibe to the way designers work? The obvious answer would be to organise a full-day creative workshop. At the same time it was clear that working culture could not be changed in an instance. A fun workshop would be just a small distraction rather than a real change, unless it had a sustainable impact.

We needed to rethink the idea of creative workshops in corporate environment. Most of the workshops organised in companies or public organisations that I attended were based on a set of clear methods and steps: first brainstorm, often with play-doh or lego; then group ideas with sticky-notes; alternatively draw mind-maps or rich pictures of systems; and finally produce unconventional presentation. I tend to call it research approach, as it has clear structure supported by research done in academia and often facilitated by the person either from or trained by academia. Alternatively, art school workshops, as it was briefly described in previous chapter, have a less linear structure and are inspired by how artists approach their projects, and thus can be called artistic approach. Furthermore, these workshops are usually facilitated by artists or graphic designers.

The benefit of research approach workshops is that they produce tangible results that can be applied within organisation, but at the same time these results can become repetitive and fall short of innovation. While artistic approach workshops allow more experimentation and intuition based innovation, but its results can often be inapplicable in a corporate environment.

Would it be possible to combine these two approaches to achieve the best of both worlds? I would argue that — yes. But let’s dedicate our next chapter to this discussion, and for the time being go back to the question of changing the working culture.

Photo from OFFF Unmasked book, 2015

According to systems thinking each organisation can be described as a system of human activities. Each complex system can have a leverage point — a place where a small shift in one thing can produce big changes in everything (1). Once the leverage point is identified, it is possible to organise an intervention to intentionally shift the status quo of a system (2). Some leverage points can be affected by operational level employees, e.g. in-house designers, and thus can help the latter to start a grassroots initiative.

What if the main idea of a creative workshop is for participants to identify a leverage point and design a small intervention into organisation. Then going even further into ‘meta’ — what if the creative workshop itself becomes an intervention?

The goal was to bring designers together for a creative workshop, but also to do something useful, some small act of creativity that could, as in a butterfly effect, cause a wider shift afterwards. We decided to call it Design Intervention.

According to Russell Ackoff, a pioneer of systems thinking, social systems can be characterised as self-organising and follow a principle of equifinality. Therefore, to initiate a bigger change one needs to start with a small input and just see what happens.(3.)

This small input, or intervention, can be more effective if applied to thoughtfully selected leverage point. In our case the leverage point was the lack of communication and collaboration between designers from different teams. A simplified rich picture below shows the state of collaboration in the organisation, where a designer in one team might not have been even aware of designers in other business units.

How B2B designer saw our “design community”

As a result, the main goal of intervention was to nudge designers towards a more productive collaboration, and to do so, we had to find and bring all of them together for the workshop. We then shuffled them into groups, where at least one designer from each team was present, and asked to create a design project, so that they could not only get to know each other but also start a possible future collaboration.

The goal of intervention

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Our small intervention at the university was an hour long video dedicated to the improvement of Systems Thinking course. The goal was to collect feedback from both students and teachers, and develop several proposals based on it. The video was then shared with course organisers and programme managers with a hope that changes would be made.

A screenshot from our video describing the current state of the Systems Thinking course at Aalto University, 2012. This was our attempt to organise systems intervention from bottom-up.

A year later we learned that some changes were made according to proposals from the video. Since then the course has lived through several transformations, and currently instead of being split into two smaller parts that took place during two different semesters, it is combined into one larger course. So hopefully at least bottlenecks of time and credits from the image above were improved.

As a result, the second question for Design Intervention to tackle was: How can we start a transformation of corporate environment that will eventually be able to support designers to become more innovative?

To be continued…
(the third article will be published soon)

Previous chapter

Screenshot of Gary Metcalf’s interview for our video. He was our teacher in the course, and even though the video might have been a bit critical, I still think he is one of the smartest and kindness people I ever met.

References:

  1. Donella Meadows, Leverage Points: Places to Intervene in a System, 1999
  2. Leyla Acoroglu, Tools for Systems Thinkers: 7 Steps to Move from Insights to Interventions, 2017
  3. Russell L. Ackoff, Systems Thinking for Curious Managers: With 40 New Management F-Law, 2010

Design System Manager, Systems Thinker, Graphic Designer and Sustainability Fellow.