Andrew Doyle On Slow Design

A version of this article first appeared in New Design, issue 79, July 2010

Slow Design

‘The love you take is equal to the love you make’

The last words sung on the second side of the Beatles ‘Abbey Road’ album.

And actually a good way to start talking about slow design, because it’s our belief that the more you care about what goes into design, the more the user gets out of it.

The concept of ‘slow design’ isn’t brand new, but it’s early days. Some brilliant thinkers have started to get to grips with what the idea might mean; how it could translate from the theoretical to the real world.

Most of these proponents of slow design start by looking at the slow food movement and then build on its beliefs in sustainability, tradition and care - sometimes getting a bit strident and Luddite-like in the process.

Our definition is a bit different. ‘Slow design’ for us is nothing to do with going back to the old ways of doing things, but rather employing tools that help the designer be reflective. In a sense, we are building on Malcolm Gladwell’s ‘Outliers’ idea that it takes ten thousand hours to become an expert. Good design needs the same churning process to deliver something valuable. Sometimes drudgery can be divine.

Our road to slow design discovery came about in a pretty mundane way. The team were working on packaging for a new food product. It needed a memorable logo and, as we were doodling, the idea came up that this brand mark should somehow be signed by the chef. And that led us on to ways in which people in the kitchen put their own mark on things.

We thought it would be neat to try writing the logo with a piping bag. One of the team, Richard, decided he was up for it and the next day our cutting room was dripping with brown and white stalactites of icing sugar. He actually got pretty good after about three hours practice and we ended up photographing a great looking logo.

Could we have done it in Illustrator? Of course, but it was the accidents and dribbles Richard made that helped the logo be so distinctive – things we couldn’t have discovered on the computer.

Now I know many designers find clever, non-electronic ways to build their pack designs, but that’s not my point. Slow design is another way of expressing ‘design thinking’. And behind design thinking lies a truth about designers – that they are the world’s dreamers - the ones who think by wondering what would happen if….? I even read somewhere that this method of thinking by wondering has been given the very serious name of ‘abductive thinking’.

‘Slow design’ is in other words a description of this type of thinking. Using techniques, which force us to slow down and reflect more deeply on the job in hand.

And just going back to the slow food movement for a moment. The whole point of it is to protect great tasting food for all of us. The same applies to ‘slow design’. If enough time is spent experimenting and wondering, then the final result will be obvious to the user of the packaging. Care and attention is always obvious on a pack.

This ‘wondering what would happen if’ expression of slow design is also how the great stories behind new products are discovered. It takes the butterfly brain of the designers to look at clients’ innovations and ask questions starting with the reflection ‘I was wondering why’ or ‘I was wondering how’.

I had one of those moments in a client briefing for a new cheese coming from the south of Ireland. I asked him what the farmers, who deliver the milk to the creamery, look like. Don’t know what made me think that. But it led on to an evening of Guinness with twenty-five dairymen from Wexford. And in turn, provided the stories and inspiration behind the Wexford Cheddar cheese design in your local Sainsbury.

So for us, slow design is not about smashing up all the Macs and dragging out the artwork drawing boards again. It is about taking the time to reflect and wonder.  And that does not necessarily mean loads of time the client won’t pay for, but just a different mind set.