CoID People: Peter McGrory

Peter McGory teaches Design Strategy and Entrepreneurship as a part of the Collaborative and Industrial Design program at Aalto University.

I’m Irish, but I’ve been living in Finland for virtually 30 years. My background is in industrial design and at Aalto I’m responsible for the International Design Business Management masters studies program, the minor studies program, and the Masters of European Design, which is an exchange program between different universities in Europe. The Masters of European Design is actually relatively small, we only have about 3 or so students who go on exchange from Helsinki, but we accept six. We have six other universities in Europe in the program, so we take students from each of them. 

I’ve been with Aalto since before it was Aalto, I came here in 1990 and I’ve been here working as a researcher and teaching for the majority of the thirty years. I’ve been the professor of design management, but recently I’ve shifted more towards entrepreneurship because I kind of got tired of the old content, it’s a bit too familiar. Even though there is always something new to learn, Aalto now has an emphasis on entrepreneurship as part of their strategy. I was particularly interested in how we can actually utilize design in that area. 

That’s the core concept of both my courses. The Collaborative and Industrial Design course is called Design Strategy and Entrepreneurship and the other one I teach for IDBM is called Corporate Entrepreneurship and Design. They have a similar logic, but at the same time I expect more design from the students in CoID. I don’t put that burden on the design students in IDBM because they have enough work to do anyway. The IDBM version is more case and analysis based, even though I do ask for a creative part. The emphasis and the duration is also different. It’s only a three week intensive course for IDBM whereas the CoID course is five weeks.

I was here for the merging of the three universities in 2010. It was nothing new to me because I was involved with the IDBM minors studies program for over 25 years as a program. Actually the merging of the three universities was somehow inspired by the IDBM program. Our then rector, Yrjö Kalervo Sotamaa, met with and convinced the deans of the business school and the tech university that, why don’t we create some synergies by integrating our resources? Of course, the bigger number of students were from Otaniemi, they were the majority. I think there was 17,000 or something like that. The next biggest group was the business school and the third was the design school. The merger was initiated, as far as I know, from the arts. 

I discovered design by reading a book on the topic of industrial design and ergonomics. I had a plan to either go into architecture or industrial design. I was actually quite interested in graphic design, but I thought there’s maybe more to learn in the industrial design space because there are more elements. Whereas I arrogantly thought that I’m pretty ok with graphic design, could of course always be better, but I thought this looks interesting, lets see how it goes. 

I’ve worked as an industrial designer both in-house in companies and in design consultancies in different capacities, both designing and managing small teams. I got experience on the design and the leadership side. At one point, I was working for an Irish company that is owned by an American company, Hamilton Beach- it is a large consumer products company. The majority of people with decision making power were people with backgrounds in engineering and/or business, but mostly engineering. This led to a certain degree of frustration because you felt they were making decisions that they didn’t have the basis for making. That’s why I decided to also study the business side of design, rather than purely design. It was actually so that I didn’t end up being frustrated, so I could kind of be a smart ass and do something about it.

“I like designers who have a clear sense of philosophy about their work.”

There’s an array of people who inspire me and whose work I admire. I like designers who have a clear sense of philosophy about their work. So there’s quite a big spectrum. From a more engineering, industrial design point of view I like Dyson, James Dyson. From a more aesthetic, more designerly approach, more traditional way, I like Nowka Fukasawa and Ross Lovegrove, Paul Smith as a fashion designer and things like that. It’s quite broad. Design is quite broad. In that sense, IDEO is an interesting company because it is very process driven in my point of view, even if they say they are not. Basically they are the ones who have this design thinking process and method cards and so on. It was a founding between an industrial designer and engineer, David Kelley’s background is more in engineering while Bill Moggridge and Mike Nuttall have design backgrounds.

I see design as a cross-disciplinary or trans-disciplinary domain, particularly when you talk about design and its relationship to business and entrepreneurship. Of course, ultimately it is about giving shape and form to ideas. That’s why I try to emphasize in my courses that an idea and an insight are not the same thing. For me, it’s about enhancing the innovation process in practice; what is the role and value of design? The course that I teach is very much at the heart of what I am interested in. To be able to articulate and actually convince others that design could be strategic. 

“How things look is strategic. It is something that is getting a bad rap and it is belittling one of the core aspects of design.”

At the same time, the aesthetic is super strategic. People underestimate it now. It’s often like, “Ok, it’s just styling”, but styling is strategic. How things look is strategic. It is something that is getting a bad rap and it is belittling one of the core aspects of design. People make decisions based on aesthetics. It is about aesthetics, about giving shape and form to things. It’s not just about the visual appearance, but also the interactive behavior and how it enables you to do something that you want to do. How it makes something easier to do or more effective to do.  

I hope, after DSE, that students will really be confident about the role and value of design in innovation process and entrepreneurial practices. That’s the key learning objective, but I also want to give some kind of context which is why we do a case analysis. I used to have a course called Design Strategy and Innovation which was the precursor to DSE. I was teaching that for several years and a lot of elements are similar, but now the emphasis is more on entrepreneurship. I’m trying to amplify a different perspective from the entrepreneurship perspective. I’ve been teaching in the Aalto Ventures program. They have a course there called The Startup Experience, but its very much a technology driven, engineering driven mentality, it’s very process driven. That’s why I was interested in seeing how we could collaborate more. 

There is a video I recommend in my classes, Range, which illustrates the benefit of a more generalist perspective- it takes a lot of confidence to do that because people feel, especially in IDBM, that they are losing their depth and specialization. Obviously, there is some need to have a specialization, but at the same time there’s also a need to have somebody who can collaborate and integrate things. For me, the IDBM program was that. Actually, even the CoID program is. It has very similar elements, the diversity in the program is quite crucial. Embracing diversity, not tolerating diversity, is crucial. Tolerating for me is quite negative, it’s like just putting up with something. A necessary evil. Whereas I think embracing diversity is rich, different cultural perspectives and gender differences and age differences, there’s so many. 

I spent a little bit over half a year in California, in Stanford, when I was on sabbatical. First of all, it’s a beautiful campus. But it was nice to see the diverse types of students. Ok, students at Stanford are often either very smart or very wealthy or both. But also, just the faculty were quite different types of people. I enjoyed it. I actually stayed away from the design school because I realized there would be more people with my perspective. I went to the management science and engineering because it was people who think very differently than I do and don’t necessarily buy the idea of design like I do. 

Regarding design, I think it has become much more comprehensive than when I started. It was really industrial design in a traditional product sense, whereas now there are so many specializations. I do know some traditional industrial designers now, especially in Finland, who don’t find it that easy to find work. It’s not as easy, whereas I think the service design sector, the user experience sector is the growth space. So I say, probably 40% of CoID students and IDBM students will get work in that space.


Illustration by Anna Tolonen