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December 21,2016

The 59 Minute Design Challenge: Out of Watt's workshop and into his footsteps?

Andrew Cameron - V&A Museum of Design Dundee

Standing at the beautifully refurbished Tontine building in Glasgow’s Trongate on a sunny Saturday in July there was excitement in the air. Outside the streets were bustling on the first day of the Merchant City Festival. Inside an enthusiastic group of people from a range of Scottish businesses were preparing to take up The 59 Minute Design Challenge. This was to be the first event of V&A Dundee’s Design for Business programme, taking place in the historic workshops of one of Scotland greatest designers and engineers, James Watt.

Watt was one of many great Scottish innovators whose ideas shaped our modern world, far and beyond our shores. Scotland has punched well above its weight in terms of innovators for many centuries, and it was in the spirit of those innovators that we gathered to look at our modern understanding of the innovation process, and how design, and specifically Design Thinking can help businesses innovate and grow.

So what is Design Thinking? It evolved in the latter part of the 20th Century in various strands of engineering, architecture and urban planning. Then in the 1990s Stanford University began to apply it to business. Tim Brown, CEO of IDEO sums it up nicely, “In its simplest form, Design Thinking is a process—applicable to all walks of life—of creating new and innovative ideas and solving problems. Design Thinking is all about upgrading within constraints”. As we gathered in James Watt’s workshops, this aspect of “upgrading within constraints” became particularly resonant. Many people assume that Watt invented the steam engine. However the steam or “atmospheric engine” was actually invented by Thomas Newcomen in 1712. Watt’s great design innovation, almost 80 years later, was to make the existing steam engine better – much better. He realised its design wasted a great deal of energy so he introduced iterative improvements which improved the power, efficiency, and cost-effectiveness. Essentially he “upgraded within constraints”. Taking something and making it better through the process of iteration. The very personification of "Design Thinking”.


And so we set to work….. Guided by Will Mitchell from award winning Glasgow design consultancy 4c, and assisted by Simon Smith and Pauline Wallace of Glasgow City Council’s Economic and Social Initiatives team, our participants from more than 20 Scottish businesses immediately embraced a key philosophy of Design Thinking - having a bias toward action - and threw themselves into the process. Over the course of 59 minutes the participants discovered and applied all the key concepts of Design Thinking – Empathise, Define, Ideate, Prototype and Test – in a workshop based around the teachings of Stanford University’s D.School; where Design Thinking as a process all began.

The event wasn’t about trying to turn people into designers in under an hour. It was about showing everyday Scottish businesses how a designer’s sensibilities, tools and processes can be applied to address any business problem in a very short space of time.

Were we successful? Well, the feedback from the participants seems to indicate that we hit the right notes:

Great, practical hands on skills with a clear link into business

Loved the practical prototyping

Lots of learning and interaction

Fun, informal, informative!

An event that I can take practical learning from and apply to my work”.

Our core vision at V&A Dundee’s Design for Business programme is to foster relationships between design, business and enterprise, and our 59 Minute Design Challenge was a great start to this. If you want to get your business involved then look out for more events like this on our website when our Design for Business programme launches nationwide in early 2017.

There’s an old saying, “Tell me and I forget, teach me and I may remember, involve me and I learn”. That’s what the 59 Minute Design Challenge is all about - learning through involvement. Putting a little trust into a process to help unlock the innate creativity which Scots, and Scottish businesses, have had for centuries. Who knows, perhaps even leading us out of James Watt’s workshop, and into his footsteps…


Andrew Cameron leads the Design for Business programme at V&A Museum of Design Dundee. His programme aims to instil a designer’s sensibilities, tools and processes within Scottish businesses to help them innovate new products, services, and ways of working.