Talking design with Belinda Abbot
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Talking design with Belinda Abbot


Belinda Abbott has joined Design Thinkers Academy as Head of Faculty, coming from the Royal College of Art, via a period as a consultant and freelancer. Hayley speaks to Belinda to find out more about her career and what she loves about design thinking.

What’s been your career journey so far?

My career choices felt quite random whilst making them, but it’s interesting looking back, how I’m able to connect the dots and see how experiences from the past remain relevant and become quite valuable much later on. As a child, I was very drawn to the natural sciences and never really thought of myself as creative or interested in design.

My working life began in marketing and publishing at The South African Institute of Chartered Accountants, which helped me lay fantastic professional foundations, but I quickly realised that I most looked forward to collaborating with our various creative agencies and partners. Harbouring this creative spark, I relocated to London where my access to creativity and design talent increased exponentially.

By the late 1990s, I was working for a direct marketing company based in grungy Camden, surrounded by young, energetic, creative types and this experience galvanised my desire to jump track and change career.

After graduating with a graphic design degree, serendipity again intervened and I was invited to join the team on a collaborative project between the Royal College of Art (RCA) and Imperial College London, called Design London. We ran multiple streams of activity relating to design-led innovation and creativity in business. I headed up the support programmes aimed at helping small London businesses become more creative and innovative. We worked closely with the UK Design Council and this is where I first met David Kester. I went on to join the RCA full-time as their Executive Education Manager and worked with great clients such as 10 Downing Street and Samsung.

When did you first become an advocate of design thinking?  

I was first formally introduced to the term design thinking whilst working on the Design London project. We called it design-led innovation (and this is where I was first exposed to the politics of nomenclature in our field!).

I quickly realised that I’d been practicing a form of DT (design thinking) for many years. It stems from my desire to want to get to the bottom of things, to be ‘pathologically inquisitive’ as one of my previous bosses always used to say.

When I studied marketing, I remember feeling slightly uneasy about selling people products that they did not need and probably could not afford. To me, there were flaws in the marketing approach. And then when I was studying graphic design, I realised there was something different going on for me compared with my peers. Not only was I a lot older than them (I was 30 when I went to art school), but I was less interested in spending hours perfecting my typography skills and more drawn towards strategic questions. Why are we wanting to communicate? Is this actually the right information? How might we better get the message across?

It came as an epiphany when I was able to put a name or a label to the ‘feeling’ or ‘sense’ that I’d struggled to articulate for such a long time. It is a total no-brainer that you’d spend as much time identifying and defining the problem as you would on finding possible solutions.

The passion for DT really grew in me when I saw its power harnessed by some of the RCA graduates who joined the newly established business incubator I helped set up. Their products were truly radical, disruptive and more importantly, they addressed real people’s needs in a way that was direct, personal and meaningful.

Why do you think design thinking is important for businesses?

We are heading into a time of great uncertainty. We are going faster than we ever have before and the rules are no longer the same. A lot of businesses have been able to become successful over the last 50 years through growth and the opening up of new markets. This has changed so much recently – there are few markets that remain untapped. Business process improvements have helped squeeze more efficiency and profit out of existing systems, but there is a limit to what you can cut with those methods before you begin to erode foundations. There is a dawning realisation that businesses aren’t really about the businesses themselves and that you can’t spend too much time looking inwards if you want to be successful. Businesses are all about customers and users.

And this is where design thinking comes in. It’s a paradigm shift: from inventing things and then trying to get people to buy them; to understanding the user, understanding their problems and then working with them to explore the best possible solution. And its about doing it in an open, connected way that recognises that none of us operate in a vacuum, but influence and in turn, are influenced by everyone and everything around us. So being flexible, iterative and light on our feet is super important.

Using DT can really help businesses embed new ways of approaching complex problems and serve the needs of customers. And even though it may come across as a bit idealistic, I still believe that design thinking can really help make the world a much better place! And that’s why I think its also really important to say that DT is also super relevant for the public and charity sectors too.

Which design thinkers do you admire most?

Ah, there are quite a few. But I don’t want to trot out the usual suspects – you’ve already heard of them. I’m still so delighted and excited by Jane Ni Dhulchaointigh and her product called Sugru. It’s mouldable silicone rubber glue that allows you to repair and ‘hack’ your belongings. And the key is that its so much more than just a product – it’s a company, a community and an entire ecosystem. You have to check it out: my home is full of Sugru hacks. I’ve had the pleasure of working with Jane briefly and she is just a lovely human being, which makes me all the more keen to sing her praises and promote Sugru!

What led you to join DK&A/ Design Thinkers Academy London?

They say it’s not what you know it’s who you know! And maybe that really is true in this case. I’ve been friends with Holly May Mahoney, our Lead Designer, for a number of years. I like to think that our many long and rambling design conversations were the catalyst that led her to study her MA in Service Design at the RCA. When Holly returned from Stanford last year and joined DK&A/DTA I was so delighted for her – it was such a perfect fit! And then when David approached me and said that he’d been speaking to Holly about me and would I “come in for a chat”, it was like all the stars aligning.

What excites you most about joining?

Our values – helping future innovators, living in beta, learning by doing and being authentic. And character. Coming into the studio feels like joining a family. The team work incredibly hard and strive for excellence in everything they do, but they’re authentic, kind and truly care about each other. That is an increasingly rare thing in our hyper-focused, pressurised, competitive world. The real clincher, between you and me, was finding out that there is a studio dog, Filo (because she’s sweet and flaky). Any company that welcomes dogs in the workplace is a winner in my book!

What are your initial goals?

We’ve grown fast and organically over the last few years. I’m really looking forward to helping the team capture some of the amazing goodness that has been created and to consolidate and structure this into a really strong foundation that sets us up for continuous, sustainable growth over the next few years. We’ll be looking at growing and diversifying our open programme of courses as well as ramping up our capacity to develop bespoke courses for our clients and partners. I want us to spread the goodness as far and wide as possible and to have a significant and measurable positive impact in the world through the people and the businesses that we train and equip.

What do you enjoy when you aren’t working?

I am a water baby and a nature lover. I swim, kayak, and try to go wild as often as I can. I am (still) quite a good tree climber!