Design Dice

Design Dice

by Andy Neal

We caught up with Falmouth University lecturer and all round nice guy Andy Neal to hear about his leap into the world of crowdfunding for his new thinking aid, Design Dice

The obvious questions – why this product, why Kickstarter, and why now? 
The dice have been around for a while. There’s the full story on KickStarter, but in essence, I’ve always had an interest in how people work – particularly anything creative (and especially design or music related). I guess there’s always been an acknowledgement that creativity is unique to each individual, and that we all ‘make’ in different ways – even if there are patterns that look similar, and I find that fascinating; a nagging ‘what else can I learn about creativity?’ behind everything I see around me. There was a moment in my work teaching – maybe seven years ago, where I spoke to a number of students across a morning session and ended up giving them all the same advice – they were missing the same key themes, or had blind-spots in the same areas. We all do when we start out. So I started writing some of the advice down, which became more focused over time, and eventually led to the dice as they are today. I then spoke to a number of people about taking them on commercially, but nothing went beyond the initial positive noises. Kate (my wife) had been through the same experiences a year beforehand trying to get a children’s book to market, and eventually decided to self-publish – going with KickStarter as it is really geared around creative projects. Her book was a real learning experience for us both and, having been there before, I figured it would be a good next step with the dice. They were pretty much ready to go a couple of years ago, but the book and the day job was enough to keep us busy at the time!

You’ve always championed the big idea at the heart of design work – do you think that’s in any danger?
To be honest, I think the place of the ‘idea’ (or more broadly of ‘storytelling’) is so central to my experience of design, even if it was totally dead and buried as a principle (as if!), I’d be too set-in-my-ways to change my mind! That said, in the time I’ve been involved, what is possible creatively has increased exponentially and unless there is an idea in there somewhere, the work will have no traction. Car-ads are a great example of this (no pun intended) – with huge budgets and great locations and wonderful cinematography and musical scores and super-slick post-production… but telling them apart or, even harder, to describe them beyond the aesthetic is often impossible. Honda (IMHO) have been one of the few to really challenge the norm with the ‘power of dreams’ series and created something genuinely memorable (esp. the early work) – simply because there was a strong idea behind it all. More than ever, we are culturally smarter and more savvy to the seduction of ‘style’, and are becoming increasingly more interested in the substance behind it all – essentially the ‘idea’. Design is one of the fastest growing sectors because more and more companies are waking up to this, and are prepared to put long-term budget behind it.

In your experience are there similarities with how students and agencies solve design problems? – and is your product aimed at a specific group or person?
From my perspective, the principles are really similar. Lots of our students come back after placements – or even after they graduate, saying ‘it’s just the same as Uni…’ but with a genuine sense of surprise – like they were expecting it to be different somehow.  That may be something to do with our teaching model (which is based around a studio culture), or that we have really good, long-term relationships with industry – who invest heavily in helping us develop students holistically. Things obviously varys from studio-to-studio (or Uni-to-Uni). A big agency with separate accounts, finance & artwork departments isn’t going to have the same needs of a designer as a small boutique set-up, but the backbone to designing is pretty universal. Speed-of-project is the main big difference, education just can’t replicate industry, as they are both operating with different aims in mind (and this is one of the things the dice tries to address). The dice evolved in an educational environment, so have been ‘designed’ in that sense for students. What’s been surprising however, is the number of seasoned veterans who have supported the project. I guess genuine wisdom comes with a equal mix of humility – the more we know, the more we know we have to learn, and we all suffer from creative block. It comes with the territory. The promo material for the dice describes them as ‘…a creative tool to aid design thinking, idea generation & problem-solving…’. If you are involved in any of those areas – at any level, then I’d argue that the dice could help push your process further.

How do you imagine this product will be used on a day-to-day basis? 
So, I imaging them sitting somewhere on your desk if you have a regular place to think, or they’ll live in a backpack if you’re mobile. They are quick to learn, easy to use & versatile, and tend to work best when they compliment your natural way of working – rather than force a structure on you. Students have largely started using them in specific workshops where we look at various processes and methodologies, but then go on to use them in short bursts, in and around particular stages of a project. There are nine dice, and each face has a keyword that can be interpreted in the light of your current project – suggesting a change in direction or lateral jump. The ultimate aim is to build breadth and depth in your thinking. The four red dice are for early research, fact-finding, context building and so on. The green dice help walk around early ideas or propositions, building-on & pushing ‘possibilities’ into working concepts. The blue die covers the craft & translation of the idea into a tangible form, and the black die looks at project management. The yellow die is a ‘timer’ and forces you to think against the clock (the numbers can be seconds, minutes, hours or days – depending on the task-at-hand).


I’ve only ever seen playing card decks of design aids… Do you think its surprising there’s not more ideas generation tools out there? And why dice? the physical presence? The random outcome?
Yeah, I guess it’s been interesting to see how little there is – especially surrounding design. There are the classics; Oblique Strategies, Method Cards, Thinking Hats, and so on – all of which have informed the dice in some way but all exist outside the immediate context of design education, and in my experience needed some translating (certainly at undergraduate level). I’ve done some recent work with a colleague at Falmouth (Dion Star) as we both have similar interests regarding design process, and we talk about there being ‘processes’ rather than a singular ‘process’, and the notion of ‘framing’ creativity rather than being too prescriptive. And therein lies the problem (and the solution) as tools can be very limiting and only work in certain contexts – rightly so, as they are generally designed for a specific purpose. The aim with the dice however, was to create ‘edges’ to work within (there are a finite number of words, and limitations tend to help draw out creative thinking) but the random aspect of dice allowed for surprise and unpredictability. Importantly, there is no real guidance as to the meaning of each word, so you have to interpret them in the light of the project you are working on, which means you have to go ‘off-piste’ and find your way home (that was definitely a nod to Oblique Strategies) – building the breadth and depth on the creative journey.

Any ambition/ideas for other Kickstarter’s or products in future you can tell us about? 
There’s nothing immediately following this project, as it’s taken a while to get this far (in and around the day job). That said, some of the lunchtime conversations I’ve had with Dion over the years have evolved into workshops that we’ve delivered in the UK and in Europe, all with considerable success. I’m writing this from a hotel room in Denmark where we are delivering a lecture about the place of ‘process’ in our teaching – celebrating it as an experiential ‘main-event’ rather than a commercial ‘means-to-an-end’. The next step is to collate some of our broader thinking about process (we’ve gathered quite a body of ideas now through the practical workshops) into the bones of a book – but something that deliberately steps very wide of some of the existing material on design thinking. Imagine a dysfunctional family of creative tools (of which the dice could be one) & left-field contextual references in book form and you might be getting close. We’ve already talked about using KickStarter as a way of ensuring we retain ownership of the book, as the conventional ‘academic’ publishing route is littered with cultural expectations that make us a little nervous, but will see how it goes. This may possibly be classic creative ‘OCD’ kicking in, but we definitely see ourselves as designers rather than academics, and are really interested in how KickStarter serves the design community. Self-publishing has reinvented itself through social media, and exponentially increased the ways of getting a product ‘out there’. I think communities like KickStarter are a really good thing, allowing good ideas to find their way out into the open.


Luke Tonge

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