‘ME 2 WE’

In conversation with Nicolas de Cordes and Assa Ashuach

Nicolas de Cordes is Vice President of Marketing Vision, Orange-France Telecom Group and co-founder of Digital Forming.

Assa Ashuach is Lead Researcher (Time Experience Objects Research Platform) and MA Furniture Design Course Leader at London Metropolitan University. He is a renowned product designer and Additive Manufacturing specialist working with companies such as IDEO, Nestle, Nike and Vodafone.

CG: When clients working with us, the values of their companies are not always the first aspect that they feel relevant to state to the new designers. However these are essential… it is this context within which they are designing. This ‘client fit’ is important for us to teach designers. Should their designs respond to real world issues or should they be allowed to be fantastical? Assa; you referred to Nicolas keeping you ‘tethered to the real’. Do you see this as a symbiotic relationship, rather than a dichotomy?

AA: The design process must have both abstract and less abstract phases. Design is a strategy – not only a skill. This is the way of teaching we have built the curriculum. Mini-shows to clients enable feedback and students then refine and develop. The design phases of design territory, research, concept and development (with presentation throughout); these five phases are extremely crucial to the subject. Nicolas has this design thinking and can channel design, using design strategy not only for product, but also for scenario and service design. These projects have developed this.

NdC I would describe the area that we have been working within as ‘upward marketing’ or ‘strategic marketing’. Starting from zero, without even a question, you invent a question, you propose what can be done and then you identify technological and/or consumer trends, regulatory trends, and competitor practice. Only then might you see an opportunity. If in business, we only take on a very traditional strategic approach (which I have practiced for many years), it can very paper-based, analytical but fundamentally missing the human touch, trends based on human behaviour or societal change etc. Working together here, we have tried to capture this, to inject design into strategic thinking

CG Can I ask about design innovation; how can we build a context where innovation occurs?

NdC Innovation is invention with application. I firmly believe in the importance of context; we’ve launched fast selling products simply because everything was ready for it to happen… When Orange launched pre-paid SMS text to Belgium, every single phone was text-enabled. The customer was very cost-aware and pre-paid was cheaper. When you have a fantastic innovation that everybody talks about, you must put the pieces together so that it is ready to go. The same effect Apple; they did not invented the touch screen, the gestures; the technology had existed for a number of years but they are masters of timing. Timing is extremely important for innovation. For creativity, I believe in unpredictability, but to increase chance, put experts together. With different domain experts, the project goes deeper. You can find the key aspect, an alternative to solve the problem. You can work on something quite specific. It is very different working for a new need, to solve a point of pain for the customer. It is a real constraint- art is born out of constraints, and I believe the same is true of design and innovation.

AA Yes, of course, but it is hard work; you must sweat for innovation. One student once complained ‘why must we innovate all the time?’…I told him ‘innovation is doing the right thing at the right time’. This is the bottom line, if you are operating now, you have to learn what’s happening now, and then offer something actual today. How can you stimulate innovation? You talked about experts, and we talk about wide boundaries in our masters’ programme. We call it ‘collaboration to innovation’. The wide boundaries between disciplines and the importance of the unfamiliar (between experts) provide completely fresh perspectives.

CG Who drives future design advances? Is the individual user more in control than ever before?

AA I believe both user and designer remain at the heart of design advances. There is a mini-revolution due to user input and I am building tools for effective user input into design, but designers are trained (often for five or six years), they are the professionals. There may be soon two domains (the amateur and the professional), where the user can through rapid prototyping, do-it-yourself, control their own data, control how and where they input to design, but people are busy and they will continue to need professional designers. We offer a better quality of life; this is why we are here…

NdC Within the last 10 years, social technology on the web has enabled people to develop on top of each other’s achievements. We can collaborate to go further. The phenomenon of ‘crowd sourcing’, sharing the knowledge within the crowd is more powerful than any one expert. The user can now add his own value to designs, the collaboration between professional and user will transform design and we are on the verge of it.

CG 30 years ago, lead designers were perhaps critiquing society through artefacts, through interfaces. Recent global events show the effect of telecommunication changes, the effect on the infrastructure of social, political, cultural identity, belief systems. Do we still have a responsibility to do what is required or asked for by the customer? Or should we question those decisions?

NdC Orange is doing research now into consumer trends in Africa, sub-Saharan Africa. I was in Senegal a few months ago… In a matter of 10 years, the society has transformed. Previously within the home, generations live together (a family of 20-30 people) and there is a clear hierarchical society. Today, individual apartment buildings herald a revolution, the young question authority, they access the web, they question who owns the money, who is independent, the role of women etc. So Orange is introducing the web into those communities, is this good or bad? I take a resolutely optimistic view. Whilst change will be tough, ultimately society will be better enabled. We see the revolution in North Africa and again it’s about timeliness.

AA When we look at future city landscapes, with local digital manufacturing and more power to the user, I propose that we will ‘own less but with more value’. Possessions need to perform better for us, within aesthetics too. They should reflect a sculptural quality of life as well.

This conversation was recorded on the 22nd September 2011 at the Faculty of Art, Media and Design, London Metropolitan University.