Q&A with Philip Harfield, Senior Lecturer in Design Thinking and Innovation

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Philip Harfield is the MA Design Innovation Course Leader and Senior Lecturer in Design Thinking and Innovation. His advocacy for design-led innovation has been realised through international eco-innovation research, leading sustainable business initiatives and creative design practice.

In this Q&A, he gives us an overview of Design Innovation at USW, the advice he would give to his teenage self, his thoughts on current trends and how and why design can change the world we live in...

In fewer than 10 words, what is Design Innovation?

Bringing to life purposeful ways of reimagining the world.

What makes Design Innovation at USW so special?

Challenge-based teaching within the Faculty of Creative Industries, in the heart of Cardiff, provides students with a uniquely creative platform to conceptualise, design, and implement solutions to complex real-world problems. Through immersion in innovation initiatives across creative disciplines and business sectors, students will develop in-demand professional collaborative skills that will prepare them for the next stage in their careers.

What is your approach to design? 

My approach to design always has a critical mindset, asking does it have to be like that? This often requires us to rewrite the design brief, to push-back on brand responsibility, product lifecycles, service experiences and system impacts!

This approach is collaborative, where designers and non-designers can propose alternative solutions to complex challenges through experimental modes of design research to build new knowledge and a deeper understanding of the impact of design.

Why do you love design?

Seeing the world with the eyes of a designer, for me, has always posed the question of how ‘by design’ are we shaping the future? I’m constantly reinvigorated by this question!

The remit of design has changed dramatically from the passive making and commercialisation of things to questioning the social impact and the systems in which those products and services exist. We are all experiencing a dynamic moment in our perception of the world, making this is a very opportune time to be a design-led innovator reimagining the world we want to live.

What made you want to become a designer?

Introducing yourself as a designer always seemed to prompt the need for an explanation of what kind of designer are you? I left school at 16 to become an engineer, it was a while before I developed the confidence to understand that my love of hands-on making was driven by a creative spark, rather than the formal logic of engineering. Studies in Three Dimensional Design, where material experimentation prevailed, opened my eyes to the diverse possibilities of design. In the thirty years since this undergraduate revelation, I have explored ‘what kind of designer’ through various commercial, social and environmental design initiatives. I remain excited that at any given time my interpretation skills can be brought to bear on a fresh challenge.

Why do you teach?

Teaching and learning have always been an integral part of my experience of being a designer. Whether it be sharing techniques as a silversmith, asking how it can be reused as a product designer or empathising with conflicting perspectives as a sustainable business mentor.

The joy of teaching, particularly within creative industries, stems from this overlap of you as educator and learner, where your understanding evolves concurrently with others. I would describe this as a position of ‘confident vulnerability’, where the confidence to constantly question is balanced by the vulnerability of being in awe of the complexity of the world around us.

Can design save the world?

While design has certainly contributed to some of the challenges we face, not least natural resource depletion and environmental problems driven by consumerism, it can certainly play its part in transformative change.

If you could go back in time, what advice would you give to teenage you?

Think big, you can stretch what is possible! If you perhaps stretch it a little too far, understand that doing the wrong thing is still a step closer to the right thing.

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever had?

Not to get too hung up on the process - it’s your intent that matters, as it steers you to a better place! I suppose that this has become a mantra for me, where sustainable development provides a catch-all intent behind any design.

If computers suddenly didn’t exist, what would you do?

What did we ever do without them? Unfortunately, I remember using a typewriter for my first job application letters. I wouldn’t say this is a particularly fond memory of one finger typing and overflowing waste paper bins. However, a return to basics would heighten the preciousness of communication and being concise in language which would be welcomed by many.

Coolest brand right now?

We will no doubt see a reset (or at least a step change) towards brands which demonstrate authentic purpose rather than commercial rhetoric. The contract between business and society is changing, with businesses whose brand resilience is born from building long-term social relationships (employees as family, customers as partners). Brands leading the way are those which have clarified such intentions, such as certified B Corps: https://bcorporation.net/certification

Who or what are you really into right now?

As are many of us the moment I’m relearning online forms of communication and entertainment. I also seem to be experimenting with reading two books simultaneously WTF?: What's the Future and Why It's Up to Us (Tim O'Reilly), and Design Driven Innovation: Changing the Rules of Competition by Radically Innovating What Things Mean (Roberto Verganti).  

Do you want to make a difference through design? Study MA Design Innovation at USW this September!