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DARK MATTER AND TROJAN HORSES
A STRATEGIC DESIGN VOCABULARY

by DAN HILL

We live in an age of sticky problems, whether it’s climate change or the decline of the welfare state. With conventional solutions failing, a new culture of decision-making is called for.

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Strategic design is about applying the principles of traditional design to "big picture" systemic challenges such as healthcare, education and the environment. It redefines how problems are approached and aims to deliver more resilient solutions. In this short book, Dan Hill outlines a new vocabulary of design, one that needs to be smuggled into the upper echelons of power. He asserts that, increasingly, effective design means engaging with the messy politics – the “dark matter” – taking place above the designer’s head. And that may mean redesigning the organisation that hires you.


About the author

He is a designer and urbanist. He works for Sitra, the Finnish Innovation Fund, in their Strategic Design Unit in Helsinki, exploring how design might enable positive systemic change throughout society. Prior to Sitra, Dan was an associate at Arup, web & broadcast director for Monocle, and head of interactive technology & design for the BBC. He writes the well-known blog cityofsound.com

DARK MATTER AND TROJAN HORSES
A STRATEGIC DESIGN VOCABULARY

CASE #1: THE EDGE — FROM MATTER TO META AND BACK

Strategic design attempts to draw a wider net around an area of activity or a problem, encompassing the questions and the solutions and all points in between; design involves moving freely within this space, testing its boundaries in order to deliver definition of, and insight into, the question as much as the solution, the context as much as the artefact, service or product.

Call the context “the meta” and call the artefact “the matter”. Strategic design work swings from the meta to the matter and back again, oscillating between these two states in order to recalibrate each in response to the other.

“A case study: project work at the State Library of Queensland in Brisbane. Initially, Arup pitched a ‘post-occupancy evaluation’ of the library’s popular wi-fi service. This ultimately involved several days on-site, observing, interviewing, filming and photographing, as well as building 3D models of wi-fi signal strength in order to understand its relationship to physical space. This largely matter-based work then progressed to meta-based work over the course of three years, ultimately becoming embroiled in the strategic direction of the library itself.”

The wi-fi service was extraordinarily popular; it was effectively in-use 23 hours out of 24 every day, thanks to the largely open ground floor designed by Donovan Hill architects and Brisbane’s sub-tropical climate. Visitor numbers had rocketed since the renovation, and the research indicated that wi-fi was responsible for a large part of this increase. The wi-fi had transformed the use of public space in and around the library, and was transforming the function and character of the library itself.