Conference: Design for Europe – key learnings

Design for Europe: Powering Innovation was a one-day summit which took place in Tallinn Estonia this month, with industry experts discussing everything from education to skills development and business growth – we summarise the speakers’ key points on the value of design.


Designers, government figures and policymakers came together in Tallinn, Estonia this month to discuss the importance of design education, skills and its role in improving public services.

The Design for Europe: Powering Innovation summit was a free day-long event organised by UK industry body the Design Council, and was host to a series of panel talks alongside focus groups where the audience could lead their own sessions on particular topics.

Key findings taken away from the day were companies should place more trust in designers, design education should be better invested in, and that designers need to be agile and ready to learn new skills.

Adapt to learn new skills

In a panel on design skills, Mustafa Kurtuldu, a design advocate at Google, said that designers should learn to adapt and develop new skills such as programming, communication and project management, depending on the context of their job.

“If designers can’t keep up with software, what will happen is they will get fired and developers will start to design,” he says. “We have to think about design systems as a whole, not just ‘design’.”

He added though that design should also be inherited by other disciplines too.

“The common question is over whether designers should code, but this is never reversed – ‘Should programmers design?’,” he says. “It’s a collective experience.”

“Shortcut” design processes

He also spoke about how designers should develop their time and project management, and be prepared to “shortcut” design processes to achieve the best results. He ran through Google’s Design Sprint methodology, which demonstrates that not every idea or product should be built and launched, but instead tested and learned from, to minimise wasted time, effort and money.

“We look at how you can shortcut the learning process to make sure the thing you’re creating is needed and of value,” he said. “Even if the thing you test doesn’t work, you’ve learned something and saved money in the process.”

Multi-disciplinary teams can do this, he said, by getting “key stakeholders in a room”, including designers, clients and people from sales and marketing, and sharing knowledge and ideas through “lightning talk presentations”.

Multi-disciplinary working

Bringing together these different disciplines was another theme explored at the summit. In another panel discussion, Anna Whicher, head of design policy at PDR, Cardiff Metropolitan University’s international design and research centre, said that businesses should be recognising design “through every stage of the innovation process” rather than “just at the end”. This stems from producing “quality design graduates”, she said, which in turn comes from good design education.

Design education should be prioritised

“Design education is often overlooked,” she said. “Across Europe and in the UK, funding for it has been at risk. Governments need to recognise that design is a driver in innovation so you have to put funding in to universities to ensure that design graduates are coming out with a good understanding of design and business.”

“The most progressive universities are making sure their graduates have fantastic business acumen and digital skills. The skillset is unfortunately getting broader and broader,” she said.

“T-shaped” designers

Tobias Haug, head of design at software company SAP, also spoke about the importance of being multi-skilled, adding that designers need to be “T-shaped” – a concept which means that people have great expertise and depth in a single field, represented by the vertical bar of a “T”, but also the ability to work across many disciplines and experts in other areas, represented by the horizontal bar.

“Designers need to be able to handle large challenges, and work in teams,” he said. “A key skill they have is empathy, which helps to facilitate design processes from strategy to execution and delivery, and helps them be communicative.”

Placing trust in designers

In a panel on business growth and productivity, Yvonne Sonsino, partner at human resources firm Mercer, cited the company’s research, which shows that 35% of core skills will change by 2020, and as a result working environments, and designers, need to change to adapt.

Margus Simson, chief executive at online finance platform Ziraff, added that there should be more responsibility and trust placed in designers within top-down businesses.

“Mindsets of CEOs need to change,” he said. “We need the decision-makers to trust designers, so they can go on to improve design processes.”

This was echoed by Haug, who said that there needs to be a “cultural change” in businesses to place more emphasis on the designer.

“Apple does not have the best designers,” he said. “They have a culture where everyone cares about design.”

Audience participation

Accompanying the panel talks, was website Glisser, a platform which enabled attendees to ask questions of the panellists and vote for their favourites, allowing the panel chair to choose the most popular, contentious or well-formulated questions, while giving a voice to more members of the audience.

The panels were followed by a series of focus groups led by speakers and audience members on topics including intellectual property rights, the effects of Brexit and design’s impact on the UK and European economy.

Through actively engaging attendees and inviting a range of delegates that stretched far beyond designers, Design for Europe looked to show the open nature of the industry and stress the value of multi-disciplinary working – the main point that many of the speakers made in their discussions.

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