Taking the “Designed in Lebanon” Model into Action

Regardless of the trials and tribulations encountering the Italian model at this time, there is no denying the potency of the “Made in Italy” label. These three words hold in them enough value, heritage and credibility to have long shaped buyer behaviour and entire economies. Having studied in Italy, this was always illustrated as a successful model that has not been replicated in quite the same drive, and for many reasons. However, it always made me think of Lebanon, while we do not have the infrastructure, government support, farsight or the raw materials to rise as a manufacturing or industrial empire, I find that “the Made in Italy” model was only facilitated by the Italians’ manufacturing capacity. At its core the model was driven by design and continues to do so.

The shift from the Industrial production powered economy into our current knowledge economy has opened new doors for us, we are no longer limited by our industrial production capability but by our own willingness to produce and create value into this new economy. Design can play an integral role in the current economy, the onslaught of startups, tech products, novel services and products needs designers to step out of the sidelines and into the ring.
Without going into a detailed anatomy of the professional landscape, the Lebanese have gravitated towards the service and hospitality sector in large numbers as an instinctive reaction to the challenges faced by our manufacturing system, or lack thereof. Design as service has become prevalent and abundant, variable modes of it strewn amongst several players on the scene. In its most basic form it will range from advertising, branding, fashion, web products and more.

I am quite apprehensive of the common rhetoric my fellow Lebanese subscribe to, which claims that we have a certain “je ne sais quoi” that allows us to do brilliantly anywhere on the globe and of course linking it all to our Phoenician roots. I think it is all fluff, we have always been a populace burdened with instability and have been long hurled into perpetual political tensions, education was our only resource and we capitalised on it. The cultural diversity of our people and the fact that our universities where one of the first in the region to develop and recognise the arts and design as free standing professions has a lot to do with the fact that design has been and remains to be one of our prime exports.

Expanding the Definition of Design

In order for us to move center stage and claim this “designed in Lebanon” model let’s say, we need, as a community, to cultivate awareness on what value we can bring and refresh our idea and definition of “design”. Stop polarising ourselves into either craft or business, we have a fluid quality that allows us to be both and we should assume it.

For design to be a central economic player, designers need to take on more empirical approaches to their craft without sacrificing the essence of it, think of it as augmentation as opposed to change. The “sell out” jargon will come up, but no one cares, if you are good at what you do there is no reason for you to not grow it beyond your clique.

design ladder model
Fig 1. Design Orders model by Richard Buchanan

This “Design Ladder Model” illustrates the transition and growth of the field far beyond operation and execution. To give our design work a broader audience and amplify its role across industry we need to translate this into quality that showcases design informing strategies and catalysing innovation.

 

”Designers can readily provide critical strategic insights in every stage of the product development process.” – Alan Cooper

 

Understanding and educating the market on the wider definition of design which now spans business, technology, engineering, experiences, systems and services…to name a few, is essential if we are ever to grow the field into an economic power engine. The work needs to be done in a twofold manner, on the level of the design practitioners themselves and on a more macro level (in the form of a supporting entity) in order to raise awareness and expand markets.

Design’s contribution to the economy can and should be measured

This macro level work will require an entity to act as both support and, in a way, keeping the industry transparent and quality focused, rudimentary to alleviate the design space into an industry and propel its economic value globally. I would imagine an entity close in structure but not necessarily in function to the “UK design council” and I think the “Beirut Creative Cluster” has the inherent structure to do so. (open to debate, however cluster models have shown great success in other countries)

Overall this entity will open new markets, establish prominence and work on a cross-country level to really propagate a “designed in Lebanon” model. For this to work, we would need to be able to quantify the value produced, exports of goods/ services and the impact of design on businesses, as well as its value across multiple industrial sectors.

For now design agencies/studios in Lebanon have been known (not all but a good number) to produce quality work, by providing clients and business with design for execution, often visual and interface work in partnership with their client’s efforts and team. This is the typical design service transaction, which has worked for now. However, if you are a designpreneur with some sensibility you know you have greater value to offer to any product, enterprise and business and you know that you can cash in on it shamelessly.

This is not to mention the other forms of design that are already being successfully exported but on a more single name basis and majorly in fashion.

To demonstrate lightly I would like to point out that firms like Accenture have acquired Fjord while leading Banks such as Capital one went for UX pioneers Adaptive Path, and other giants such McKinsey acquired Lunar Design early last year at a time where Deloitte is investing heavily in Deloitte digital.

Similar acquisitions will only grow with time, this is to imply that business incumbents who never cared for design are seeing its business value and are seeing it translate into actual profit. However, there is a considerable downside to bringing in your design efforts in-house. In many cases it is a wise decision however and in the words of father of Visual Basic and UX veteran Alan Cooper:

 

“Bringing a troupe of independent practitioners in-house likely will not dull their practice, but it certainly ends their independence, and it is precisely that independence that allows us to work our magic.” – Alan Cooper

 

Mapping current potential will be a research effort to be conducted by previously “suggested” entity. A clear definition of space in between services would help in presenting the model to broader markets and give the entity the power and value of recommending and referring the right agency or set of complementary studios to do a job. This can open up a whole new dynamic of collaboration.

 

What do we need in order to assume our role as economic power engine?

Internal management and organisational structure overhaul

I know and have seen several organisation structures employed in Lebanese design scene, in almost every field. I have to say this is one of the major setbacks, in most cases there is really no deployment of any proper managerial code which kind of leaves things to naturally morph into a flat organisation. Flat org is great if you are aware you are within one and can master the many difficulties that arise operating one, then awesome go for it. In most cases you can probably combine several managerial codes to custom fit your organisation and I cannot stress how important it is for a designpreneur (I know I don’t like the word either but it does the job)  you should really invest in this.

I am very keen on this point as it will show you dividends on the long run, look at your organisation at the moment, what are the chances that you are almost at the same size, head count and profit margins as you were say 3 to 5 years ago. If you have not experienced quality growth, i.e not at the expense of your work and your talent’s well being then this is strictly defunct management at play.

As design practitioners, we have always understood and probably judged the advertising performance pipeline. I think we all either experienced or have heard of countless bottlenecks in the process that eventually sap out creatives’ souls, loosely called “client servicing”. However, the principle behind the process is sound, it is the wrong HR application that creates bottlenecks. Hiring fresh business, economics and poli sci grads to manage creatives & present their ideas is a joke, especially in a siloed organisation. However if we look at our own design talent as a rich and diverse bank of skill, will allow you to hire talent that understands design opportunities, can sell design and can actually design. It is up to you to differentiate and invest in each of your employees’ strongest skillset, if you cannot do so then you should not be leading a set of people with dreams and ambition, you are probably ruining their lives.

Lastly, I have rarely seen proper investment in business development in our sector. We rely heavily on our relations and cliques, as well as “events” and “parties” but truth is there is a science to how you can expand your roster and if you invest in a quality business development department it is sure to pay off.

Thought leadership, Collaborating Culture and Academia

Without thought leadership we will constantly be regurgitating and translating other contexts in an attempt to form our own, while we can create our own. This problem is actually common to all sectors in Lebanon, we lack thought leadership, we base our best practices on foreign imported scenarios and from worldwide “thought leaders” and somehow we do not produce ourselves, which I think we all agree is super important to grow a sustainable and relevant model and validate our work as well or at least be critical of it. What is funny is that we are producing quality research at universities, albeit in English but many of it is quite valuable contextual research and information that can heavily benefit the field but it goes un-noticed because again we do not have an entity that links academia to practice. Which is also the fault of academia.

Lebanese American University
Fig 2. The Lebanese American University Campus in Byblos. Image © Nadim Asfar (Source: Archdaily)

Speaking of which, ours is riddled in red tape and inflated egos which are getting in the way of the field catching up to market requirements. A much needed cornerstone to develop a “designed in Lebanon” model would be revisiting curriculums and shaking up the long and agonising processes that fester in academia. We have yet to see UX and UI programs rolling out, we have very strong talent coming out of leading universities with obsolete skillsets. I know that the Lebanese American University (disclaimer: I teach design thinking & innovation at said university) is rolling out pilot courses (such as mine) and studying an entire revision of its program, it is not easy however it must be a top priority, we need to be producing design leaders and not little lost souls with little to no clarity and decision making skills.

I think as opposed to saying model what we really need to build is a culture, design is the only thing remaining in Lebanon that has not “relocated” even though it is very challenging to operate any design operation in the country with the dismal internet, electricity and smothering regulations. A huge upside to this can be if we can come together and foster a culture of collaboration, sharing resources, research and ensuring an overall quality growth of our standards and our knowledge. Again I do not expect this to happen on a singular basis, but with the support of a fair and supportive entity that has a larger and long term vision in place. I find this particular talk by Doreen Toutakian founder of MENA design research center to be quite on point on this front, I also believe DRC can play a very active role in cultivating this culture as well as complementing the work of said entity, whatever it eventually takes shape to be.

Market(s)

With a few exceptions, especially those who are in fashion or expanded into Dubai and the Gulf, the majority is not pursuing regional markets and not realising that they can be the cultural hinge for global brands wishing to enter regional markets. We are the trend reporters and strategists that said brands can build their market strategy with, having the versatile tool kit of a social observer and the power of a visual commentator are precious skills that can morph into bigger business for the sector.

Common story told is that businesses and brands do not appreciate the value of design, which is not true. I think evidence based design is what has been missing, I feel we have constantly been squirming to get through from brief to deliverable. When in fact if we understand what a business values most and can translate our work into some kind of metric which relieves their stress of dealing with the invisible value of design, and it can be done, then a huge point of friction and time loss can be circumvented.

 

“Evidence-based design is a key component in developing better things.
It’s a philosophy that’s critical for ensuring the team have a common objective and rationale
for decision making when working in large multidisciplinary teams. Measurement is a critical
part of this.” –
Design Council

 

For the most part an entity representing the Lebanese design model and scene, in a fair manner with a legitimate board to ensure diversity and representation while having access to the resources which can empower the community to produce quality work will also be the arm that extends the model to the world.

A solid representation is key, in short and since this contribution has gone a bit longer than expected, expanding to our geographic vicinity is happening but attracting big names and brands that are looking for strategic ways to enter the market will also play a major role in building a “designed in Lebanon Model”.

While geographic expansion can carry on to be cultivated by presence at global events coupled with thought leadership and knowledge dissemination. Needless to say amping our presence on the local startup scene where many up and coming businesses can use our insight and lack design founders to shape their products and launches in a user-centered manner, I barely saw any designers at this year’s BDL accelerate and that right there is missed opportunity.

Another missed opportunity where design has actually played a major role for years past is the social development scene, Lebanon has seen some of the most interesting design/NGO collaborations and actually now with more business interest in CSR and with annual events like CSR Lebanon there is more to be done that can actually have impact and pay well if sold properly. Most of these NGOs, well the ones that matter, are considering shifts into social enterprise models and that is a very interesting space here designers can collaborate and play a role.

This was a little riff, I feel there are many spaces where the design sector can really make an impact, having a fair representative entity that is iterative and not so bureaucratic with a solid vision for a sector to take on global and local markets alike while empowering Lebanese designpreneurs, all together (ambitious as it may) can really cultivate a “designed in Lebanon” model that can definitely have the same if not more potency than the “Made in Italy” one. well we can hope.


Lilian Abouzeki

Business designer/ Creative strategist focused on using design as a medium to drive business innovation. Her background is in graphic design which she practiced over the past years in various fields especially that of luxury fashion retail.Currently she works with businesses/ start-ups/ Social enterprises on creating & monetizing value through design thinking methods while leveraging consumer centric culture. . She also gives the course "Design thinking & innovation" at the Lebanese American University. You can find her on: https://medium.com/@lilianabouzeki