Designer Soapbox: Gill Wildman

Gill’s nan used to work at the mint creams factory

Gill Wildman has been on a circular journey to Hackney Wick. Growing up in nearby Bow, she used to visit family in the area. She studied in Manchester and worked all over the world before returning to E9 a few months ago. Together with her husband, Nick Durrant, she makes up Plot, a refreshingly forward-thinking interaction, innovation and design agency. I met up with Gill the other day to talk about mint creams, lily pad lights in Bristol, regeneration in Pittsburgh and the future of design.

From no go zone to artists’ enclave

“When I was a kid, this was a no go zone,” says Gill. “It was dirty and industrial. Historically dyes and soaps were made around here. Before the Olympic site was developed, there was a mountain of fridges. They even found some radioactive stuff as they were clearing the area.”

Now there are more artists per square inch in the area than in any other part of London. It’s graffiti central, and all the people who take street photography tours around Brick Lane should really get the overground to Hackney Wick and point their lenses there instead.

This is Gill’s home turf. “My family came from here years ago,” says Gill. “My mum was born here and my nan lived here and worked in Clarnico, the big sweet factory around the corner that made mint creams.” In this picture, Gill’s standing in front of one of the murals from an art project, The Walls Have Ears, which celebrates the area’s history.

An opinionated teenager

“I was terribly opinionated at 18,” laughs Gill. “I couldn’t justify studying art for its own sake, so did an arts and community degree in Manchester instead.” She had a baby at university, so took on a job as an outreach worker for Manchester City Council, supporting community groups. “This was proper community development work, where you walk around, have cups of tea, identify local needs and adapt local services to fit those needs.”

Following a stint in an community arts programme in Cambridge, Gill decided to take a graphics degree at Manchester Poly. A Masters in Design Management at Brunel came next, and freelancing led to a job as Design Manager at the Design Council. “The Design Council is an interesting place because it’s an organisation that promotes design but isn’t full of designers. There are lots of lobbyists for design, people involved in that advocacy role. It was great because you could make so many connections through the network.”

Taking ‘design thinking’ seriously

Gill became interested in ‘design thinking’, before the process had a name. This involved taking teams of business people and strategic designers and getting them to rethink what the company does by using design tools. “I realised that if I really believed in this process, I should put money into it. So Nick and I both left our jobs – 10 years ago this summer. It was absolutely foolish. We had no capital, no money and no projects in hand. It was a complete standing start.”

Luckily for Gill and Nick, their connections and experience meant they weren’t hanging around at the starting blocks for long. Over the last decade, they’ve developed a name for themselves as the ‘go to’ people for using design thinking to anticipate the future of products and services. Plot is now well-known as a design strategy and innovation agency that combines strategic thinking with an understanding of innovation. As an example, The Design Management Journal recently published an article by Gill on ‘Touching Evidence’ about the value of prototyping new services as if they existed.

During the last ten years, Plot’s stand-out projects include:

  • Working with the design team at Nokia to explore the notion of simplicity and looking into the core Nokia-ness of design at the company, and discovering how to articulate what the company stands for with its the products, user interface and service.
  • Working with Maverick and Channel 4 on the possibility of creating a business game to help teenagers decide whether to set up in business, and how to encourage them to think of themselves as entrepreneurs.
  • Working with the BBC Innovation Labs to help the BBC engage with smaller dot com companies.

Lily pad lights in Bristol city

Another highly successful Plot project was Bristol Legible City – a wayfinding project that redesigned signs and maps around Bristol to make it easier for walkers to find their way in the city. The success of the initiative is proof of the power of strategic design thinking, according to Gill. “The council took out 170 signs from the middle of Bristol and replaced them with 40 new ones. That same day, visitor enquiries in tourist offices about finding their way around Bristol nosedived because they suddenly had a new, better system. Each map was specifically positioned, with distinctive blue lights you could see from a distance – like lily pads, so people could find their way around.”

A detour to Pittsburgh

Plot’s work takes Gill and Nick all around the world, and included a three-year stay in Pittsburgh from 2010-2013 as joint occupants of the Nuremberg Distinguished Chair of Design at Carnegia Mellon University. They sparked off some fascinating projects there, including the Happy Lab initiative, which explored happiness through a design lens.

The sojourn in America’s rust belt was a learning experience in itself. “Cities like Detroit and Pittsburgh started to die in the 80s and 90s as the steel and car manufacturing industries collapsed,” says Gill. “People moved out to the suburbs and so property in the centre became very cheap. This allowed a more entrepreneurial generation to move in and experiment like hell. There’s the right infrastructure in Pittsburgh for that to happen, because the city has a foundation in organisations like Heinz, the Frick Museum and Carnegie Mellon.”

“So now there’s lots of potential for entrepreneurs. It’s a really fertile space. Lots of designers there have gone into social innovation. The whole experience in Pittsburgh helped to reconnect me to the community development work I’d done in the past.”

Nomadic design

And what now? Well, Gill and Nick are taking a nomadic approach to design. “We’re taking our Design Incubator to where makers and designers are already working, to help them be more entrepreneurial. We’re just setting up pilots now in Barcelona, Bristol and the Artisanal brewery. We’re also working with Makerversity, a creative community in the basement of Somerset House in London.

Plot also loves making physical prototypes using click-together electrical components like littleBits – kits that make it easy for anyone to mess about with electronics and make little interactive gadgets. “At one point you couldn’t get the components without getting another company to do it for you and taking your idea,” says Gill. “But now we can do it ourselves. Even people who don’t know about circuitry can start designing things. So we have the tools to do a million and one things, to work remotely, to connect to each other. There are amazing opportunities.”

The internet of things: a hot potato

But Gill sounds a note of caution. “The hot potato is the internet of things. It can be harmful if people design things and then lock people into buying their product. I’m really dubious about corporations being able to resist control. And we’ve seen with Google Glass what happens when a technology has the ability to invade people’s privacy.” Plot is currently working on wearable devices that can nudge people from a distance, in a more socially savvy way than a Facebook poke, without broadcasting your position.

Gill thinks that design consultancies like BERG have got the right idea. “They’re a small agency that works with large corporates and has the ability to articulate new ideas really fast.” Check out #Flock, a cuckoo clock designed by BERG for Twitter, which sings when you get a tweet.

“We’ve been really lucky, very blessed,” concludes Gill. “We’ve done some really interesting work over the last ten years. You just have to be curious and inventive and engage your imagination and pragmatism – and not just do the same old thing. For me, being a designer is a process of learning. That’s why I love it.”