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Confrontation with the Idea of Designer's Identity

After three month spent in London being an associate at the Curiosity Bureau I went back to Sweden to finish my MA in Business & Design. My understanding of what design can contribute to businesses, organizations and society has changed a lot during the two years of MA and internship at The Curiosity Bureau. As a graduate of an international interdisciplinary programme by the end of the MA, I started to question my own identity as a designer. What kind of designer do I want to become? And how to present that? These questions led me to my research question – how does the representation of design transform in the context of a changing design culture?

I did familiarise myself with academia but my ways of thinking, researching and writing were still more “designerly” and far from traditional rigid academic norms. It was really hard to fit in to the academic frame, therefore I was more than happy when Tom Morgan enlightened me about the tetrahedron model created by John Wood which encouraged a more personal and reflective way of writing for designers. This model became a guiding star of my process and outcome. It helped to think in a multilayered, self-reflective and dynamic way in contrast to a more lengthy, linear academic forms. This model consists of four interrelated values, aspects or players and helps to visualise and therefore articulate a more holistic design process. I used the tetrahedron model to express the dilemma of the designers’ representation as a simultaneous set of relations that are meaningful from my point of view. In my case parts of the tetrahedron were:

  • Me as a design practitioner;

  • The bigger context, which in my research was the changing context of design. The complexity of the clash between the habitual representation and the idea of design as a changing culture for sustainable future;

  • My readers - design graduates and practitioners;

  • An finally the topic of interest – design representation.


Design has come a long way to become what it is today. It expanded from being a function of merely “look” to the wide-ranging system whose features include ergonomics, user-focused strategic and innovative thinking. In comparison with these changes the individual representations of designers did not evolve much. The classic understanding, which emphasizes designer’s natural talents, intuition, skills and the mystified processes of design, is still prevalent. Following this model design graduates create visual and objectified representations of themselves and their work. I am a design practitioner and my main aim for this paper is to contribute to the aspiration, put forward by Tony Fry (2009, p. 3), to “broaden your gaze (beyond the design process, design objects and design’s current economic positioning), engage the complexity of design as a world-shaping force and help explain it as such”. I begin with myself, to better understand what I know and how relevant this could be in future of the design culture. In the process I explore and highlight various aspects: the changing context of design, my own reflections and the representation of design. Within this exploratory paper I focus on the complex issues of the design representation from a point of view of an individual designer.

I discovered the ideas of Tony Fry, John Thakara and John Wood about a shift that had to happen in the design culture for it to become more sustainable. And that it results in changes of the habitual being of the practitioner. It is not a question of doing things better but a question of doing different things in completely different ways. The ideas seemed crucial but also overwhelming– sounds good but where do I start?

I got interested in the topic of design representation because of my personal struggle with my own very basic design representation, namely, the portfolio. I have a background in graphic design, and representation of it is clear and predetermined partly because you present objects and symbols. However, I was graduating from Business & Design programme and have noticed that I was using my habitual way of presenting new design works, which deal with intangible design values and are not necessary about objects (such as service design, participatory design and design driven strategy).

An important part of my research was Donals Schön’s concept of a reflective practitioner. However to “reflection-in action” “reflection-on action” I saw a need to add “reflection-on-yourself”. Because I saw I needed to encourage a change from an individual. We need to learn constantly and understand that “learning to become a professional involves not only what we know and can do, but also who we are” ( Being a professional: Three lenses into design thinking, acting, and being.)

From thesis– “Starting by studying the own identity as a developing structure, is a platform to move towards a desirable future (van der Merwe, 2008). Seeing the relationship between the designer’s role intertwined with the role of a human among others is crucial, rather than the relationship between the designer and the user (van der Merwe, 2008). Thinking about the consequences of design action before we make one; paying attention to the natural, industrial and cultural systems that shape the bigger context; and seeing place, time and cultural differences not as obstacles but as positive values, is referred to as design mindfulness (Thackara, 2006).”

As professionals these days we are facing rapid changes in society and growing amount of wicked problems, therefore the requirement for adaptability is crucial. “The future needs a transformative, adaptive and learning society, designers can contribute to, if they become transforming and adapting individual themselves (Fry, 2009). Schön emphasises that adaptation and transformation has to become integral part of ourselves (Schön, 1970a).”

I took a reflective and experimental approach with the goal to deepen my understanding of the phenomena as well as to find guidelines for the personal and the professional designer’s representation development. I look at this research as a continuing process and a part of lifelong learning. My research has been done in a threefold approach, which developed from inside out. First, I started from where I stand and took a look at my own portfolio and the way I feel about and represent myself and my works. Second layer was about looking around me at the new upcoming initiatives which corresponded with the idea of need of change in representation (such as Somewhere, the MethodKit, Discoverables, Business Model You, Metadesigners network) . And the third layer was going out there and talking to design practitioners and interested people about the issues of design representation.

MA and the internship at The Curiosity Bureau was a time of exciting growth and discoveries for me and I don’t want to stop. Now I am looking for new opportunities and exciting projects to use my knowledge and gain more experience in London.

Check out my thesis here.

Link to my CV.

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