Kindred culture

Design Attitude

Book review by David McAra

In his study of what he calls, ‘Design Attitude’, Kamil Michlewski’s sees designers as a tribe with a particular worldview and culture. 

This worldview seems to me, to be based upon a set of values, likely to be shared by readers of e-O&P, if I may presume to speak for them.  Our readers, AMED members and designers observe and inquire, with curiosity and respect.  

The author takes an interesting position as observer and studies – as an anthropologist might – “the tribe consisting of professional designers.”  He sets out, “from an embedded outsider’s perspective,” to describe their culture and to capture “larger social themes not immediately apparent to the designers themselves.”  His observations of “the distinctive aspects of the professional culture of designers that form ‘design attitude’” are drawn from 10 years of observing and speaking with designers as they work. 

I am intrigued and puzzled by the way he explicitly positions himself as an outsider.  He values the qualities he associates with ‘design attitude’ and laments their scarcity but doesn’t seem to feel these qualities might be available to him, as if he is admiring a gifted artist or the graceful flight of birds. 

Design and content of the book

The book is divided into three sections, starting with context.  He opens with what he means by the terms, ‘design’ and ‘the design profession’.  Then he offers a short and interesting chapter on the nature of culture, which started me thinking about the interplay of different cultures: the distinctions between and the overlap of the cultures of professions, organisations, societies, nationalities and so on.  The first part concludes with ‘The Making of a Designer,’ a detailed look at the education, formation, psychology, management and skills of designers.  In this chapter, he highlights something of a gulf between technical and aesthetic approaches to design, with regrettably little overlap. 

In the second section, the ‘Five Aspects of Design Attitude’ are introduced in a chapter each.  They include:

  • embracing uncertainty and ambiguity
  • engaging deep empathy
  • embracing the power of the five senses
  • playfully bringing things to life and
  • creating new meaning from complexity. 

Do you see what I mean about aligning with AMED / e-O&P values?  I find this a lovely checklist that’s not only relevant to design attitude, but also to what I believe AMED stands for.  However, design attitude but I wonder if the author might have found a way to make more use of the ideas himself, in the very design of his book – in effect, practising what he preaches.      Although its presentation is clean and attractive, with many engaging, hand-sketched illustrations, I found it a rather long and linear read, with little evidence of empathy or playfulness.  

The final part considers how design attitude plays out in the world, how it influences the way organisations work, the kinds of products that emerge and its direct impact on what they are like.  The author makes it plain that he finds the contribution of design attitude to be extremely positive, leaving me puzzling still why he doesn’t embrace and take full advantage of it for his own book. 

How I responded to the book

I feel he could have made more of the ‘power of the senses’.  Given that sight is the only one of the five senses directly available in a book, he might have looked to Edward Tufte for inspiration.  Tufte campaigns against wasted ink and cumbersome PowerPoint presentations designed to persuade, generally by transmitting prefabricated and simplistic points of view.  With great passion, he highlights the importance of exploiting to the full our amazing capacity for making sense of complex visual data and for responding appropriately to the information it contains. 

Perhaps, however, I do Kamil something of an injustice.  Looking again at his blog, I found this excellent visual summary of the book.  If only this could have been extended to the book itself.

For my part, I align myself with the tribe known as systems thinkers.  We have found that exploring the way the parts join up is more rewarding than exhaustive study of the parts themselves.  We believe that examining reality in all its complexity serves us better than imposing a false simplicity to try to make things ‘manageable’. Such exploration often uncovers counter-intuitive insights, where tiny interventions can give rise to results out of all proportion and yet, communicating these insights proves challenging, as they seem to threaten established positions. 

Design thinking, like systems thinking, was hailed as a transforming innovation not that long ago.  Both of these ways of seeing the world are not new but rather long-established ideas.  I find them congruent, both seeking to understand complexity, sensitive to the limits of orthodoxy and both demanding something like a profound change of heart, before their value can be appreciated fully.  The analysts may study the behaviours and articulate the methods but they somehow fall short of capturing the fundamental essence of the change being proposed.   Perhaps the concept ‘attitude’ comes closest to this ideal. 

I am always interested in the transformation of paradigms and attitudes.  Perhaps Kamil’s academic approach will illuminate the concept of ‘design attitude’ and make it more accessible to the analytically-minded. Then, what dreams might we realise?

Publication details

Published by Gower, March 2015, 262 pages including 38 black and white illustrations, available in hardback from Gower at £36 or Amazon and also in electronic formats.  ISBN: 978-1-4724-2119-7

About the author

Kamil Michlewski is passionate about bringing sound thinking and heart to organisational challenges. He believes that the best results are achieved by highly motivated teams through a combination of bold, original approaches and a large dose of tenacity.  Having spent the last 14 years in the United Kingdom working with global brands, he has developed a global outlook. Working closely with companies such as Sony, Unilever, Nestle, France Telecom, Electronic Arts, Argos and Visa he has delivered large projects in the area of branding and strategic marketing.

He may be contacted through his blog:

About the reviewer

David McAra is a recovering engineer, systems thinker and promoter of organisational learning.  He is a member of AMED Council and of the e-O&P Editorial Board.  His main interest, at present, is searching for communities and individuals who remain optimistic about the future in the face of the slow adoption of the radical ideas which might be changing the world.  He is also interested in learning about the flaws in these same radical ideas.  

He may be contacted at:  

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