Special Report; Multi-Disciplinary Design

We can easily get lost in the illusion that as designers we will only ever go on to working in product design companies or consultancies. In truth, the skills of a designer can be applied in a whole multitude of disciplines.


On January 23rd, The Design Museum hosted its first of a series of events as part of their Industry Insights events, run in partnership with Jaguar Land Rover.

Throughout the afternoon, a number of guest speakers presented their experiences of multi-disciplinary approaches to design.

Mike Thompson – Thought Collider

The first to speak was Mike Thompson from Thought Collider, an Amsterdam and London based experimental design practice. At thought collider they frequently collaborate with brands, universities, and bodies such as the NHS. The majority of their work revolves around reframing questions, allowing people to create links between problems and their causes, but also assisting the means in which design solutions can help others.

Mike described all of the work they do as ‘ongoing experiments’, as none of their projects are ever really over. Recently their projects have shifted towards being more about cross-species relationships. One example of that was their project ‘Rain Rain Go Away’, which focused on utilising more natural (and therefore more predictable) ways to protect people from populations of malarial mosquitos.


During the course of this project they acted upon the old myth that mosquitos wont fly if it’s raining, and looked to the reasoning behind this with the help of chemical scientists and biologists. By being the mediators between old knowledge and science, they were able to bring attention to the fact that it is because the insects don’t like that ‘rain smell’ due to its chemical make-up. Consequently, this alternative design thinking meant that scientists had a formula for repulsing these creatures that was safe, natural, and more powerful than DEET.


In another project, Thought Collider were initially looking at the massive fatbergs that were being found across London’s sewer network.

“Are our perceptions so limited that we require a fresh perspective?” Mike asked.

At first they had been looking at fat as a problem with a system, but Thought Collider realised that fat has another association; biology. In biology, fat literally sustains life. Mike made a connection that could bring the expertise of a surgeon together with the expertise of a sewer worker; an unlikely team.

“Creating tangible experiences is a new way of researching.”

Mike experimented by purposely build fatbergs in a lab, allowing him to focus on a phenomena that usually remains hidden. He wanted to take a bit of a step back from traditional science as it was his philosophy that science is too standardised and controlled to be able to consider alternate perspectives. This was were the role of a designer could intervene.

“Playing ‘dumb’ could be the smartest thing we can do.”

Natsai Audrey Chieza – Faber Futures

Following Mikes presentation, Natsai took the stage. As a materials designer, she firmly believes that the 4th industrial revolution will be the blurring of biology and technology. We are already beginning to talk about biology and synthetics in the materials domain, and not just around medical application. Designers have helped to change the perspective, and propose new uses for biology.


Natsai suggested that multi-disciplinary design can help overcome the dated method of material development that usually puts science first, and design second with the designers using what they’ve been given. Instead, encouraging a more equal hierarchy and collaboration of the two faculties can then result in experimental research and development.

“We should try making to understand it better.”

Past projects that she worked on within Faber Futures included Saudi Life After Oil (a talk and masterclass on a shift in industry towards environmentally beneficial technology and materials), and Other Biological Futures (a collection of articles that detail where various experts would like to see biology go in the future). In both examples Faber Futures communicated the power of biology and designing with organics to people who didn’t share these same expertise. They would talk about the shift in biology to other industries; something that the other industries wouldn’t have expected without discussion with materials designers and scientists.

“How are we going to script our ecological futures?”

By considering ecology, culture, materiality, and values, designers can begin to theorise what the future could involve. It is up to designers to communicate ideas in the ways they do best to allow scientists to see from their perspective. Natsai says that this can help the progression of science and provide better projections as to what the future of bioscience will be. Bioscience is currently a very slowly developing domain (it literally depends on waiting for things to grow), so forward thinkers are a necessity in the field of materials.


Amy Frascella – Jaguar Land Rover

Amy Frascella is works in material lead innovation at Jaguar Land Rover, and is a colour and materials expert. Within her role at Jaguar Land Rover she must work with many of the other departments and specialists, as materials define our interactions with all of the touch-points.

“People are starting to unpack the power of this discipline.”

Jaguar Land Rover see materials on par with the industrial design of their products. Materials and surfaces are what give personality and character. When used properly, it is possible to design a car to appeal to a specific target group.

Although the range of skills and roles is so varied, every discipline is able to have a set of the same 4 common goals that are the companies key design philosophies; Modernity, Relevance, Sustainability, and Desirability. Shared philosophies can ensure consistency even when you have multi-disciplinary teams that barely ‘speak the same language’.


Positively, mixed teams produce many outlooks (a recurring message from all of the speakers). Amy even suggested that you are more likely to have creative ‘accidents’ when everyone has their own approaches and methods, which results in unpredictable innovations. There is also the benefit of networking and cohesion, which is particularly vital when so many people work on one project and at such a big company.

Amy expects to see more blurring of boundaries in the future, particularly in relation to digital and material technology. It is possible to predict developments in one industry from looking at the shifts in another. In the case of the Velar, the materials concept team looked back at general trends in the past decade and noticed and increasing desire for ethical and animal free products. They caught on to the trend of veganism, and consequently began producing vegan interior options.


Other disciplines can help enhance your own. Amy frequently works with the digital visual artists to produce speculative images of the cars, which helps to capture emotion, and makes an image clear to present and imagine. Sometimes you can even borrow from other industries. For example, technology that may be common within the aeronautical industry might never have been attempted within automotive.

Cat Drew – Future Gov

The final talk of the day came from Cat Drew, a government policy maker with a background in design. When creating policy it is vital that you can understand the root causes of the problems that the policy is aiming to tackle. However, the causes are often very complex and have multiple stakeholders.


At Future Gov, Cat combines design, technology, and organisational change in order to direct policy. They intend to produce solutions that help to empower, explain, share, and enable. By including the public and a range of different professionals in their workshops they are able to solve old problems with new lenses. In Cat’s experience on a project for the BBC (The Fix), she was actively partnering with a team that included think-tank experts, a pub-landlord, an ethnographer, and a games designer.


Data needs combining with design. The delivery of data is more important than you might first think. In a project working with Luton Council to address support for the homeless, big data was employed to track individuals payments to the council and indicate whether they were financially at risk so they could target preventative / supportive measures before they became homeless. However, if the individuals at risk were to receive a phone call saying “we notice you’re financially at risk”, this would do more bad than good, and would receive a lot of backlash. The delivery of this information needed re-thinking.

Other projects Cat has been involved with include crossing health with architecture, data and ethical design, technology and service design, and multi-agency working (e.g. reviewing how to tackle crime without always depending on the police). From her experience Cat came up with her top 10 tips for multi-disciplinary design;

1. Get to know the partners personally first, and develop a shared sense of purpose

2. Find ways to ‘level out’ the expertise, so everyone can understand each other

3. Visually communicate information and ideas to ‘democratise’ information

4. Recognise that non-designers might just hate prototypes

5. It is better to experience than explain. Allow partners to have a go with your idea, e.g. role play, prototypes, experiment

6. Be careful about throwing around design jargon. People who don’t do design might not understand what such words mean, or even have an alternative understanding of the words definition 

7. Adapt methods to suit the context (and sometimes just change the name of a methodology to help it get accepted) e.g. instead of ‘show and tell’, call it a ‘merging insight session’

8. Be humble to new ideas, and create hybrids by building on each others

9. Recognise that there will be different ways that people prefer to learn, e.g. using statistics as well as ethnography, and using each to inform further research into the other

10. Bring the right people into the project at the right time (not everyone needs to be there in every meeting)

To finish off, Cat summarised with a beautifully eloquent and very true bit of wisdom;

“As designers, be curious, empathetic, and humble. We don’t know what’s best.”


Faber Futures (2018). NATSAI AUDREY CHIEZA CULTURES BACTERIA TO PRINT TEXTILES. [image] Available at: https://lh6.googleusercontent.com/VqVUfq9bZwGRiXtopY9kk2j-dUZLnlYqkX2o_uhkYse9LR5Qy4kRfL9B33ik5sOArYSUwRFgsqSmrrSlZTzBShk7LXdjCa36kxS0GJOYcR7PTWp9CqxvNCRaax_MFYt2qHszeGuu [Accessed 29 Jan. 2019].

Fatberg (2018). FATBERG. [image] Available at: http://www.brokennature.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/11/Fatberg3.png [Accessed 27 Jan. 2019].

Future Gov (2018). HELLO AWESOME PEOPLE. [image] Available at: https://www.wearefuturegov.com/assets/banner/careers-bcf3dbec24177e630253a1c6d7a2c586e02ab0ce7d778d90a59c2e024d6ea2df.jpg [Accessed 29 Jan. 2019].

Future Gov (2018). WHAT WE BELIEVE IN. [image] Available at: https://image.slidesharecdn.com/dominiccampbelloecdnov14-150319102224-conversion-gate01/95/dominic-campbell-futuregov-3-638.jpg?cb=1426762406 [Accessed 29 Jan. 2019].

Jaguar Land Rover (2018). FINISH, TEXTURES, AND QUALITY OF THE VELAR. [image] Available at: https://images.cdn.autocar.co.uk/sites/autocar.co.uk/files/images/car-reviews/first-drives/legacy/velar-int-1026-0.jpg [Accessed 29 Jan. 2019].

Jaguar Land Rover (2018). LAND ROVER PRESENTS THE NEW RANGE ROVER VELAR. [image] Available at: https://b.jcms-api.com/media/72a800ad-379a-4517-9de8-943d6753d81f/cropthumbnail-rrvelar18my031glhdprstudio010317-resize-1349×815-crop-1140×814.jpg [Accessed 29 Jan. 2019].

Studio Klarenbeek & Dros (2018). ERIK KLARENBEEKS MYCELIUMCHAIR. [image] Available at: https://lh6.googleusercontent.com/_mBfY9vxUvC1g_HBjLZ_f91pxHbApd4Kyd9tIRImcJ8RZI9mlzXCFYDYYyRFm9yAIu9R3zDG1xqnZJHwTCD3Yslqpd8_iiGtdlDbeBn-3Ahg0ZhitMLOpwYVhmopVYKVTRc0ct69 [Accessed 29 Jan. 2019].

Thought Collider (2018). THE SMELL OF RAIN + BACTERIAL DEATH. [image] Available at: http://thoughtcollider.nl/wp-content/uploads/cache/2016/04/010_MIKE-SUSANA-RAIN-RAIN-GO-AWAY-2016-PH_GJ_/3263224955.jpg [Accessed 27 Jan. 2019].