Svenja Bickert on Design Thinking

Svenja Bickert graduated from the MA in Design Futures in 2012, and this year she is back at Goldsmiths Design as a visiting lecturer on the same course, bringing in the knowledge she acquired on the MA as well as in her professional practice to a new group of students? What was her experience on the course? What is she doing now? Here she is answering those questions (and others) herself, in an interview for the Design blog.

Nadia: What made you want to come back and teach on the MA in Design Futures?

Svenja: I enjoyed the course when I was here, and I believe in Meta Design and the theory behind it. It’s quite exciting for me to be in the course now with students who are just starting. Because I was on the course myself, I know how they feel and what they may need, and because I graduated so recently, it’s easy to remember how it felt coming to the course and what I was, maybe, missing at that time.

Nadia: So what is the course about?

Svenja: It’s a Meta Design course, meaning designing design, re-thinking design practice, and it’s also quite a loose framework, though it has specific tools and specific values. The whole course is quite ecologically and ethically-driven, and I really like that you can focus throughout the year on your practice, on how design practice could be different, and on how you could work differently yourself. I think that’s quite original, because normally you learn design and you learn about design being specific, graphic design, product design etc, but this course is about what design could be. I’ve never heard of a different course that put that at the heart of the course.

Nadia: What was the topic of your dissertation?

Svenja: It was called “Making Sense: Research into Design Praxis” and it was looking at the tacit space between theory and practice. At the end of the course, because it was so theoretical and written, I thought: “OK, when I go back into design practice, how do I bring this knowledge in? What lies between design theory and design practice?” These areas don’t connect very well, design practitioners quite often don’t read design theory, and design theorists are not that interested in design practice. So I started to research into the space between them, I wanted to find out what actually connects theory and practice.

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Nadia: And what does connect theory and practice? Though I realize I am probably asking you to condense fifty pages of research now!

Svenja: Theory and practice are in a relationship, and what connects them is praxis; I was really interested in tacit knowledge, the knowledge involved in doing something, or in prototyping. Through my research I tried to situate tacit knowledge into the concept of praxis, and praxis has different forms of knowing- so that was one outcome for me. And then I had to create my own research around it, because it was so abstract that I needed to find a metaphor for what I was doing. So I produced a video and talked about myself as a patient who is sick and can’t connect theory and practice, and then I invited people to workshops where I showed them the video, and I used words and images from a survey that I did before, so I had a pile of images and a pile of words for theory and practice for them to build their own relationships; I did a couple of workshops and I found out, for instance, that people who’ve been for a long time in their professional practice can’t think about theory and practice separately anymore because for them they’re already interconnected, and it’s personal how you connect them; also, values lie between theory and practice and they define how you connect them and how you bring them together.

Nadia: What do you say to students who are just starting on the MA in Design Futures course?

Svenja: What do I tell them? I tell them, “Guys, it’s going to be hard! But it’s going to be awesome for you!” But I think they should totally enjoy the year and make the best of it, they can spend this year focused on what they’re interested in. They should also try to challenge themselves- if they want to do something crazy, this is the time for it! Although there’s a strict format and a certain way to write essays, it actually allows for a lot of experimentation, and they should still think that they are designers, and alongside with the writing they can bring that in and design essays like a designer, and produce a design outcome.

Nadia: What do you do now?

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Svenja: Mainly, I’m working as a service designer/change manager with local government. I work for the digital social innovation company FutureGov, they stand for the future of government and they mainly work with councils. I began working with them in March and they started an innovation hub inside a council in Kingston, in Surrey. We initially had 6 months to prove the concepts; we were three people from FutureGov with a background in design, change management and in digital technologies, and we worked on a team with people from the council on different projects. We had to create the hub and how it works, and then we started doing events in the council using design thinking and a different way of working to bring that into the council, which is really tricky, because it’s a massive organization. But they can always come to us when they have a problem, or an idea, and we can help them think through the idea, and facilitate workshops with the management to help them think through the strategies and problems they have at the moment. So that’s one thing I do! And then I work with a design consultancy called The Ludic Group, they do anything from communication design, to exhibition design, to workshops.

Nadia: Tell me more about the concept of “design thinking”.

Svenja: I studied Design thinking at ‘The School of Design Thinking’ in Potsdam, Germany for a few months, and I think the way they teach us is that Design Thinking is quite an open framework, and it helps people who don’t have a background in design to do things through a design process, how a designer would think or would approach a problem, or how they would approach creating a new product, for instance. You work in multidisciplinary teams and you do a lot of prototyping, a lot of hands-on thinking and doing, and it’s absolutely important to be human-centered, or user-centered. You’re not just sitting in your room and thinking how you might create something, but you’re speaking to the people you’re designing for, and checking if what you’re doing is really what they want or what they need, and that really is about iteration, so you have a lot of testing phases, you do something and you present it back to the user you’re designing for.

Nadia: Do you find yourself in your regular, everyday life, making plans about how to improve things and services that you come in contact with?

Svenja: I do! It never stops, everything in life could be something you could improve or re-design, especially when you experience bad service, you’re thinking: “oh my gosh, why is it so bad? Why don’t they do it differently?”

Nadia: I looked at your CV and realised you’ve done a lot of very different things; what did you get out of trying so many different types of design work?

Svenja: From the beginning, I knew I wanted to study design, but I wanted to find out what else is out there, I knew I wasn’t completely interested in graphic design, or visual communication. I was trying to challenge the boundaries all the time, I was still looking for something I’m really interested in or where I feel is my core area, and I found it on one hand with Design Thinking, and on the other hand with Meta Design, two areas where I feel much more comfortable, probably because it’s also quite open, there are frameworks and tools you can use, but you’re still quite flexible and you can work on any topic you want, so it’s not that restrictive.

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Nadia: Was there anything you absolutely hated in terms of design work, that made you think:”I’ll never do this again”?

Svenja: Loads! I’m definitely not a graphic designer. I appreciate when graphic design is done well, and I love it, but it’s not something I’m interested in. I did spend some time in an agency once and probably I just didn’t like the atmosphere, or the relationship with the clients, or the working conditions. I think it’s just more exciting if you work in an agency where you have people from different disciplines, design backgrounds or architectural backgrounds. It’s richer, and it helps to have people with a completely different perspective.

Nadia: What else do you want to tell me about you and your work and I haven’t asked?

Svenja: Working with local governments, I learned that, sometimes, even if you don’t have a background in the context, it’s quite good to have designers there or people who just ask the beginner questions, it really helps the people who have been working in that environment for 20 years! Also realising that you have different levels of working is quite useful, there’s a whole area of capacity building, teaching others how to do things differently, or introducing them to doing things differently, and then strategic design, influencing strategies and policy making in local governments, and thinking on these different levels is quite challenging. It’s quite exciting that as a designer you have so many different areas where you can impact and where you can work, and they all work differently. That was good for me to learn.

Nadia Barbu

Photos courtesy of Svenja Bickert

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