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Meet the RCA: Professor Ashley Hall – Part Two

Design Research and Innovation

portrait of Ashley Hall
Professor Ashley Hall
Find out more about the RCA’s Professor Ashley Hall: how he defines his practice, the value of partnerships with industry and what design research means to him.

At the RCA you wear several hats – Professor of Design Innovation, Head of Programme MRes: Healthcare & Design, and Postgraduate Research Lead in the School of Design. How do you define your practice?

I always struggle with how to describe myself as there are different angles to being a designer, researcher and educator. At the end of the day they all use the core skillset of a design thinking practice and many of the values I have are those that I started building when I was a student at the RCA in the 1990s. 

I’ve certainly moved away from primarily designing objects to designing networks that facilitate design and innovation either for commercial partners like Huawei, Ford, Philips, Samsung and British Airways, through to new educational programmes like MRes Healthcare & Design and collaborations like the GoGlobal series of projects for MA Innovation Design Engineering (IDE). At the same time, I’ve realised that I have shifted from trying to get more out of myself to supporting others to get more out of themselves through building collaborations and challenging projects.

MRes Healthcare & Design exhibition
MRes Healthcare Design
You originally studied furniture design, completing an MA at the RCA in 1992, and then worked for a number of years as a furniture and industrial designer, co-founding Diplomat with fellow designer Matthew Kavanagh. How did your approach to design evolve over your years in industry?

I think a lot of design studios gravitate towards a consistent and reliable design process whereas we kind of did the opposite. Diversity and creative process experimentation was always important for us. Design should be designed. One of my favourite approaches was ignorant design where we would start off without any research or market awareness whatsoever and just design out of instinct and curiosity. It would always introduce something new that made its way towards the end result. There would always be a second stage that then looked at these areas matching ignorant and informed ideas together. 

a montage of product design
Diplomat, Ashley Hall, Matthew Kavanagh
You have a PhD in Experimental Industrial Design and lead Postgraduate Research in the School of Design. What is design research and how is it distinct from other kinds of research? 

Zilla chair Designed by Ashley hall and Matthew Kavanagh for Diplomat. Hand constructed fibre reinforced windings over an aluminium tube core with green epoxy finish
Zilla chair Designed by Ashley hall and Matthew Kavanagh for Diplomat. Hand constructed fibre reinforced windings over an aluminium tube core with green epoxy finish
Being a design researcher is a liberation for me. I am no longer goal orientated in delivering a final product and the ‘sell’ that goes with it.  The process, methods and the new thinking and knowledge that arise from projects is what drives my curiosity and I have come to realise that this is what underpinned my motivation as a designer all along.

Doing a PhD transformed my thinking entirely, like moving from a two to a three-dimensional world, or maybe that should be from a three to a four-dimensional world. It helped me develop ways of thinking and frameworks that connect my design practice to deeper bodies of knowledge and how that can connect through to making a more strategic impact in the world than I could purely through adding more objects.

I think the big difference we have come to understand in the School of Design is around how design research produces a very different type of knowledge. Science is always knowledge of the things that have been observed – an experiment that has been completed, a phenomenon that we have discovered – so in many ways it’s always about knowing what has been. Design research is very different in that our knowledge is always future based; we are always looking at what should be, what ought to be, and what could be. The big challenge we have, especially considering the global climate and healthcare challenges at the moment is how to successfully combine scientific and design thinking. 

What does innovation mean to you and why is design innovation important? 

sculpture in exhibition
Tastenation, BA 2119: Flight of the Future
Most innovation in the world today is technology driven as we invent new technologies and then monetise them for our economic model. It’s what has created climate change and massively upset our global balance. The other form of innovation is design led, where we look at how we can make improvements that are driven by human value in the context of a sustainable world. In other words, making sure that technology and society are designed in a sustainable circular balance. 

In many ways that goes back to the RCA’s original mandate. It was set up in 1837 at a time when the UK had great engineering technology but poor safety and economic success with our products. Technology and humans were not working very successfully together. We still have plenty of these issues today and they are increasing in some areas like AI and complex dynamic systems but there is also recognition that design led innovation can make a positive difference and this is increasing.

As well as leading Postgraduate Research and the MRes Healthcare & Design programme, you’ve also helped to develop industry collaborations for students within the School of Design. In 2017 you worked on the Lloyds Register Safety Grand Challenge which took on two water-related safety issues: ship-to-ship transfers and future city river safety. This involved mixed disciplinary teams of students and researchers working together. What did this approach bring to the challenges you were hoping to solve?

Lloyds Register Safety Grand Challenge
Lloyds Register Safety Grand Challenge
There were a number of things that came out of this and the most obvious is the seven prototypes we developed for saving lives at sea in ship-to-ship transfers on the river Thames for the year 2030. Two of these projects, Dynaweb and Crosslock system have now combined as a new funded start-up called Helm that can reduce ship transfer risks by 80%.

The less obvious outcome was working with a diverse range of maritime and safety stakeholders building a collaborative culture that allowed us to see safety in new ways. 

We recently went back to conduct an impact assessment and one of the interviewees told us the project has allowed him to see ship transfers in a completely different light. Instead of assessing the risk of transferring according to the sea state, he realised it should now be assessed in terms of the speed of rescue as a result of information from the RNLI on cold shock and rescue times. This came about from the cross fertilisation of knowledge from two very different sea rescue situations. 

Our applied design thinking from this project led to the design for safety foresight review which looked at the biggest risks in the world for the next five years and how design could tackle those and if we had the right methods and approaches. 

man climbs ladder onto a ship
Researching ship to ship transfers for the Lloyds Register Saving Lives at Sea Grand Challenge, Ashley Hall
More recently you co-led the partnership with British Airways to explore the future of flying, the results of which were exhibited in the Saatchi Gallery in London and then in Shanghai. What do design students gain from projects like this that are closely aligned with industry? 

It’s important for students to have exposure and experience of working with industrial partners to learn about how design interfaces with big complex organisations on global future opportunities and challenges. In this case it was an airline, which has huge complexity in its day-to-day operations. But this also works both ways and our partners gain from working with a large number of highly creative designers who will soon graduate to become leading edge global creatives. It’s quite a unique resource to be able to focus over 40  designers from around a dozen disciplines and as many countries to envision the future of flying for up to the next 100 years.

an exhibition with people watching screens
BA 2119: Flight of the Future exhibition at Art & Design Education: FutureLab, West Bund Art Centre, Shanghai
What are the key skills that a designer needs to be able to collaborate with people from different fields, or different cultures, be those geographical, or working cultures?

The key skill we have learnt is listening. It may sound strange but I think this is the top skill of good academics and collaborators. Broadcasting is easy, but listening carefully and gauging cultural sensitivity takes a great amount of effort and humility. Design is an intensely engaging discipline that defines itself by changing the world, so we have developed a wide range of participatory and inclusive processes in order to always be ‘designing with’ rather than ‘designing for’. 

The other aspect is to respect and, in some cases, even reinforce our differences. It might be a surprising thing to say but our creative diversity is based on differences and these are powerful opportunities for collaboration. The assumption is that we should collaborate to assimilate and in some cases this is useful, but in others we should row in the opposite direction and maintain distinct diversities.

5 people sit around a table
GoGlobal 2016: co-design workshop in Cape Town
Do you have a particular favourite project or challenge that you’ve set students?

We ran a project in IDE a few years ago on failure. We had amazing top-class students who had been successes all their lives yet rarely, if ever, failed. There is a great Thomas Edison quote ‘I have never failed, I found 10,000 ways that did not work’ while Churchill famously said that ‘success was moving from failure to failure without losing enthusiasm’. We found our students’ fear of failure limited their capability to innovate so we developed a project where they were assessed in terms of their ability to fail. The better the fail, the better the grade. They learnt about different types of failure and how to find the cutting edge, but most importantly failure resilience, how to bounce back, which for me is the top skill for successful design innovators.

GoGlobal Israel Palestine was also a standout project for me on many levels ranging from the ambition and scale of the project led by our partners through to the opportunity to meet and work with people in very challenging conditions. It was a great example of design engaging major regional issues and developing on the ground solutions to try and make a difference. We worked with Shenkar College in Tel Aviv, the Palestinian authority and a range of NGOs. Our students learnt from being exposed at first hand to a highly complex and challenging environment which was highlighted by a meeting with the Parents Circle – a group that aims to reconcile Palestinian and Israeli families who have lost loved ones as a result of conflict. The work we did in partnership with Israelis and Palestinians of all religions and backgrounds to collaboratively design new creative business opportunities, some of which still continue, shows the potential of design to tackle complex regional issues and bring people together.

Women make ceramic objects
GoGlobal Israel Palestine

This is the second part of an interview with the RCA's Professor Ashley Hall, you can read part one here.

Find out more about MRes Healthcare & Design and Postgraduate Research in the School of Design.