Sam Bucolo, Professor of Design Innovation, University of Technology Sydney
“Design relates back to society”: An
Interview with Sam Bucolo

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Sam Bucolo, a leading academic and practitioner in the field of design-led innovation, talked to us about design thinking in Australia. And he revealed why the middle management is oftentimes not prepared when it comes to the implementation of design thinking.

Sam Bucolo is one of the world’s most famous thought leaders when it comes to design-led innovation. As Professor of Design Innovation at the University of Technology, Sydney, he leads a team investigating the value of design-led innovation for the Australian economy. We talked to him about his recent projects and the current design development in Australia. How would you describe your mission right now? What are you dealing with?

Sam Bucolo: I suppose that design in Australia is normally linked predominately to the arts and humanities movement in government policy. I’m really trying to shift it more to economic policy. And the reason for this is that Australia is undergoing some real structural economic changes. In Australia there’s a very strong design community with world-class talent. But what is not being recognized is that design has become a driver for economic growth beyond just products and services.


Sam’s summary regarding the current state of design in Australia strongly resembles the present situation in Germany or the US. The common view of design seems to be changing. It is not linked to just the arts and humanities anymore. It is slowly, but steadily, seen as a driver for innovation and economic growth.

However, seeing design as kind of an economic policy is oftentimes criticized. Skeptics think that “you’re just making wealthy firms more wealthy,” as Sam puts it. But as firms grow they are actually putting a lot more back into the economy by way of taxes. And therefore, the standard of living also flourishes, Sam argues. “Because ultimately if a firm is growing, then the standard of living of every citizen is also growing. So, innovation isn’t a company problem; innovation is a citizen problem.”

Innovation needs be linked to the standard of living, and design also needs to be positioned in this context. Ultimately this view of design can be framed as a sustainable social innovation. “This is how design relates back to society. And for me this is where the policies have to shift.” And what does that mean in terms of policies?

Sam Bucolo: So, it’s interesting when you look at it as economic policy. You often see that the government uses policies such as taxation or regulatory reform to stimulate growth. An alternative approach or ‘lever’ that government can use is innovation and skill development. This is where design needs to be positioned. It will be changing the core management capability to adopt a new mindset, a design thinking mindset, which should form the basis of a new policy direction.

Economic policy can be more than just regulatory reforms or taxation reforms. It can be at the core of driving company growth through innovation. However, the kinds of innovation needed by companies will be different than what it was in the past. But to achieve this, industry leadership and management need a new mindset. This can be taught. This new approach will strengthen the role of design.


This is why for Sam the biggest change in people’s mindset still needs to be to clarify the connection between design and economic growth. This is where economic policies come into play: “These policies can be so much more than just regulatory reform or taxation reform. Economic policies can actually be at the core of driving company growth through innovation! For this to happen, firms will need to adopt a new, design thinking mindset and this will enable companies to grow through design,” he states. What should a design-led company as a total focus on?

Sam Bucolo: You can apply design thinking in a very tactical way throughout the business. This is how the majority of agencies and firms leverage the value of design. But as firms adapt to a new economy, they ask themselves if their business is still relevant. This calls into question the products and services they provide. A firm needs to question the relevance of their business model in present and future economic conditions. This needs to start with a solid understanding of who their customer is and what they provide their customer, before they start investing in new R&D, technology or products and services. Design can be used to start this transformation process. Design at this level is strategic, but it adopts many of the methods from traditional design practices. These practices need to be applied to the organization not just to the artifact or experience. This is how a business model can be designed and prototyped. Could you describe to us a little about your views on the role of management when it comes to becoming more of a design-led company?

Sam Bucolo: The leadership of the organization has to actually want to see some change in their organization. That’s the key. So, they approach it by saying: We know that our organization needs to enter the marketplace in a different way. We need to challenge the way we’re entering the market place right now. Our customer value changes significantly and therefore every part of the organization may need to change with it. At the same time, the company leaders know that they have to manage their business. And this is what’s going to be the biggest hurdle. Consequently, they adopt a program that actually changes the management mindset. The most important part of this process is that management actually has the opportunity to understand how their business can change. This is in fact very different from a bottom-up approach. You rather believe in the top-down approach?

Sam Bucolo: It is hard to bring about transformation with a bottom-up approach as the impact of the decision affects the core strategy of the company. While staff members are able to identify and frame the new opportunities, leadership is required to enable it. Typically when a firm applies design to its business model it will consolidate activities, as it can see which ones do not add value to its business. But staff members are often unable to detach themselves from projects. They sense an emotional connection to the projects and are therefore generally unwilling to see them end. This is why leadership is required. But design adds a step in highlighting why a project should end and what the next steps for the staff might be. Do you believe the current leaders in organizations you consult are prepared to take on this role?

Sam Bucolo: Yes. I believe to be successful you need that sort of leadership. We’ve advised many companies and said, “Are you ready for this shift? Because this is what it looks like.” We can work a lot with companies in preparing them for this. You can’t be half-pregnant, nor can you only look at the journey to know what it means to embark on one. You need to experience it. Once you enter into this transformational change, you can’t back out. And preparing a company to understand what is right is in itself a design process. There will be small gains along the way, but the impact firms are looking for will only come when they design a completely new strategy and business model. Let’s talk about the middle managers who really have to get stuff done and lead their teams then. Do you believe that they’re prepared?

Sam Bucolo: No, not at all, and this lack of preparedness is probably the biggest hurdle in the organization. There are two reasons for this. One, these managers probably have the most to lose and they’re paid to deliver on a particular set of targets. Design by definition will challenge that notion. Therefore they feel threatened. Likewise, this process may also get to a point when someone says, “We may not need that particular management position.” I can give you an example in respect to one of the firms I’ve worked with. We got rid of about 35 percent of the middle managers, which left the others feeling threatened. Because once management understand what a well-designed company looks like and how each vision goes into a core strategy there is the potential that individuals may no longer feel relevant. And putting someone into this conflict directly can be quite confrontational. To overcome this, design will need to create new pathways and opportunities for this level of staff. This is why management needs to be part of the process in understanding the context of change. Can one actually train people to become design-oriented or “designful” or is this virtually impossible? Do you have to recruit the right people? What is your opinion on this?

Sam Bucolo: Look, I think it works in both areas. In some organizations you look at the managers and you think “You’re not going to get this,” and it’s evident that they need external support. In other firms they quickly get it. What they may require is someone to provide the authority to allow them to implement change. In both instances the role of new forms of design is support and a new business model. In both examples the key is ensuring you have CEO sponsorship to allow the change to happen. Furthermore, you need a good senior design champion within the organization who understands this is not about new products and services but about applying design principles to the entire organization. You then need staff to experiment and prototype new directions, while still doing its day jobs. Firms will need external design support. Yet, how a designer engages with a firm changes and if this is not right, the entire transformation can fail. The key issue I see is that designers feel more comfortable in designing a product, service or experience as they do in understanding the complexities of the business. Therefore, designers will need to be educated as much as business as part of this new economy. This is where design policy can enable new skill development.



The Interviewers: Sam Bucolo was interviewed on May 7th, 2015 by Eva Köppen, Holger Rhinow, and Jan Schmiedgen .

Some Facts on Sam Bucolo

Sam Buccolo Portrait

Sam Buccolo Portrait

As Professor of Design and Innovation at the University of Technology Sydney, Sam Bucolo leads a team investigating the value of design-led innovation to the Australian economy.  Through multiple practice and applied research projects, the core of Sam’s published research is a better understanding of the relationship of design-led innovation to business strategy and organization value. Sam was most recently the inaugural QMI Solutions Professor of Design and Innovation at QUT, which spanned the Creative Industries, Business, Science and Engineering faculties. Previous positions include the R&D Director of the CRC for Interaction Design (ACID) and Program Leader for the Ulysses Design Integration program. Sam has also consulted widely to industry, spanning the medical devices, consumer products, telecommunications, automotive and mining services sectors.  Sam also is the convenor of the Australian Design Integration network and is an executive board member of the Cumulus global network.

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The Authors

Eva Köppen

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