Digital democracy + design tools

Last week I had the pleasure of speaking at Near Now’s Know How programme. Know How is a great 6 month programme aimed at arts, cultural and heritage organisations in the East Midlands, putting design thinking and digital at the heart of what they do. 

Despite being a little jealous that there is no similar project in Scotland (although there have been great initiatives in the past which are sadly no more), it’s brilliant to know that service design agency Snook, based in Scotland and working globally, are at the helm.

I was asked to speak about design and digital literacy in the arts, a pretty big subject to cover in a limited slot. I briefly touched on some future digital trends, although sometimes I struggle with them myself: big data, internet of things, wearables, quantified self stuff and crowd funding – and the problem with predicting the future is well articulated here.


But a lot of good work is already being done in this space, like Dutch designer Maaike Roozenburg, who makes smart digitally enabled antique objects, replicas which can be read like a device and handled without care.

My struggle with some predicted trends are that organisations are not taking the time to consider if and how new tech can help overcome their own challenges, seize opportunities or work with the resources they have – which is where Snook’s excellent programme comes in, phew. Yes, most arts organisations need to change radically to keep up with their audiences or to reach new audiences; but I think the steps need to a bit easier to climb.

For me, embedding design and digital at the heart of everything is crucial, as design both pushes boundaries and provides structure; and digital is the ultimate democratic tool – we can reach anyone in the world (almost) and anyone can have their voice heard (almost). Combining all of this with the arts, which offers incredibly rich experiences, creates a really vibrant dynamic.


I looked at some of the common challenges and opportunities I’ve found arts organisations face when trying to implement digital change; and I reckon applying design methods early would greatly improve success in the long term:

  • Content and the death of the homepage: people want to hear from real personalities online, not automated robotic corporate tweeting machines. It’s all about tags, time and traction and being responsive (The New York Times leaked innovation report sums this up and more). One of my favourite FB accounts is Orkney Library because of their humour spliced in with more serious stuff – it means I quite frankly learn more because I’m interested in what they say.
  • New types of philanthropic giving – the rise in digital creators, those who have the technology, resources and passion to do give their time online – for example instagrammers who dedicate their time to causes can be hugely valuable. Cultural organisations have phenomenal access to people, and this reach is of course increased through digital methods.
  • App fatigue – yes apps are hugely popular and growing, but they are also massively misunderstood, often not well resourced or promoted. I think they can actually create barriers to accessing content, rather than enabling people to access content more easily, unless solid plans are in place to ensure they succeed.
  • Senior management/Board buy-in: when faced with convincing reluctant senior team members about the joys of digital, it’s time to douse them in case studies (check out the ace Native) and offer well evidenced research of how life could be so much better in the long run.
  • Resourcing digital projects once implemented: often this isn’t considered early enough and can lead to unloved social media pages, outdated web content and just broadcasting out to the unknown, rather than having a conversation with real people.
  • Commissioning – there’s massive value in working with designers and technologists who share similar visions and values to your own organisation. By seeing the project more as a partnership, rather than a contractual relationship, it can lead to much better outcomes which all parties can be proud of.
  • Inspiration – looking outside the sector is a very good thing indeed. We’re good at working in our own sector silos, but what happens if we start looking at the healthcare sector, or the construction sector – what can we learn from them?

Cultural organisations are often tarred with the brush of being reliant on public funds, but I actually think that the majority are achieving something incredibly tough and are some of the best entrepreneurs, because they manage to find the ever tricky balance of ‘delivering’ public benefit whilst having a commercial focus.

The recipe of a boundary pusher + democratic tool + artistic experience + enterprise skills = potentially a very powerful thing indeed. I’ll be watching the Know How selected projects with great interest over the next 6 months, as this is the one of the first times I’ve seen these key ingredients – design, digital, culture and enterprise – being blended in such a way and uniquely by a number of arts organisations across the the East Midlands…