The Evolution of Design

From the physical artifact to living systems

Stephen Bau
Aug 28, 2018 · 9 min read

My years of experience as a designer have been formative. I was able to collaborate with a team of developers to build web applications, introducing me to agile methodology and behaviour-driven development. It was an exciting time to be part of a team of people that was involved in leading the responsive web design and product design revolutions, and I was glad to have the privilege of helping to lead those changes within the organization and with our clients.

At the time, the vision was to “humanize the web.” I think this is still a focus of the work that designers are doing, except that the work centres around the business processes and systems that define an organization. Where the focus of the business was once about creating design artifacts and producing websites, there has been a shift towards design thinking and service design.

Six years ago, I was becoming restless because I had a perception that designers did not have a voice in decision-making. Design appeared to be a commodity within the organization, a service which became a line item in the scope of work. The work was primarily driven by a production-oriented mindset that organized people into silos of job descriptions. The various responsibilities could be proportioned into units of time and value, divided appropriately by managers to fulfill the requirements of the work. The unintended consequence of this approach was to limit the opportunities for designers to collaborate, since that did not factor into the value equation. As a result, I felt that I had fewer opportunities to learn and grow as a designer, since my time was driven by my value as part of the production process, which did not, at least for my part, involve strategy, mentorship or collaboration. At the time, design was considered a decorative function that was able to provide value by raising the aesthetic quality of a product. Design did not have a strategic role in the organization. I felt undervalued and that my career was floundering in an environment in which I no longer had agency. So, I had hoped to take a leave of absence to explore other opportunities, and to return with experiences that I could bring to the team. Unfortunately, I miscalculated and my hopes of rejoining the team were never realized.

While I cannot speak to the intentions of that particular organization, I have wondered about the direction of the design industry as a whole. The dynamics of a competitive corporate culture have tended to overwhelm the innovative culture of design and turned design into a competitive business and marketing advantage, often at the expense of the designers who made it possible, as the work has become commodified and the field of design has become globally more competitive. Securing one’s place in the hierarchy becomes that much more challenging. In the face of the insecurity that constantly evolving expectations and responsibilities place on designers, imposter syndrome can become yet another challenge to overcome.

A Shift

It appears that the current focus of organizations on user experience design, design thinking, product design and service design signals a major shift that has happened over the past five years to recognize design as the primary engine for delivering value to the customer. I regret that I was not able to witness that change from the inside of an organization and to be a part of that cultural evolution.

In the meantime, I have been learning, writing, freelancing, collaborating, exploring entrepreneurial opportunities, teaching and mentoring. I have also been addressing my own deficiencies in self-awareness, emotional intelligence and other mental health challenges that have been limiting factors in my personal and professional growth.

Even though my perspective is of one who exists on the margins, I have a growing awareness of a shift in the culture of design away from the physical artifact and toward the human experience. Our current focus on design systems is a signal of the next step in awakening the collective consciousness of the design world to understand the opportunity and the responsibility to design systems of human connection to address the alarming rate of disconnection that our world is experiencing, separating us from each other and from the natural world. The industrial world was built on divisions of geography, nationality, race, religion, class, income, and sex. Branding and marketing divide people into tribes of consumption. The unintended consequence is that this corporate culture of competition is bleeding into the social, political, economic, and spiritual compartments of our lives, building barriers between the “haves” and the “have-nots,” merely on the basis of habits of consumption.

As a designer who exists on the margins of a global corporate culture, what power do I have to change anything? I still believe that ideas have the power to change the world. We have 100 years of evidence bearing witness to this fact.

A Vision

I started something that I am calling a builders collective. The vision is to build leaders to design a resilient society (BLDRS). We are human beings who are working on the design challenge of our times: the human experience.

The project is to engage humanity in rebuilding our world.

I am not starting anything new. I am merely acknowledging the work that is already being done by people who are recognizing a different role for design than subservience to an economic system that benefits corporations more than it serves human beings and the living systems that they inhabit.

We are now considering our role in the arc of history that has led us to this moment. We have built our digital social infrastructure on the business models of the past, on advertising, marketing and industrialized commerce. This infrastructure is the façade that is falling away to reveal the ways that tools of empathy can be used not to better understand ourselves and to unify us but to manipulate us to build machines and systems for inhuman corporations in service of the modern idol of economic growth. We are addicted to devices that we use to dehumanize each other through social media.

We need a new vision for the future of humanity that celebrates our diversity while reconnecting us to each other and the natural world. Design is a word that we use to describe humans using technology to shape tools that we use to shape ourselves. Yet, we have not collectively considered who we want to be, so we are letting technology make that decision for us. In this way, the dystopian vision of a future where machines rule our world has already taken place. We have willingly surrendered our agency to a system that we ourselves created.

Self-Awareness

Design is about developing self-awareness and empathy to understand what we need. The design process may require that we take things apart to understand how they work. Then again, this may be the wrong way to think about each part of a system. With living systems, if you take them apart, the organism dies. Each part is integral to the function of the whole.

Deconstruction

The deconstruction process can be painful, as we examine the assumptions and values that form the foundation of a living system. This is what we are observing. Humanity is waking up from a long slumber, from an unconsciousness that prevented us from being aware of the technologies and systems that we have built.

  • social systems
  • political systems
  • economic systems
  • industrial systems
  • religious systems

Now that we have the means and the freedom to question everything that came before, we are in a place where the conservative approach of tradition is in conflict with the liberal approach of innovation.

Experience

If we observe what humanity is experiencing at this moment, we can better understand how people are reacting to the way technology is changing us, for better or for worse. Some react in fear. Others are tentative. Others are excited. Still others have been the early adopters who have jumped into the deep end of the pool and are at the frontiers of exploration in this new world of human experience.

Process

This is the experience of being human. We grow up in stages as we mature from infancy to childhood to adulthood:

  • Birth
  • Self-consciousness
  • Language
  • Exploration
  • Experimentation
  • Questioning

This process of becoming involves absorbing the culture that surrounds us as well as rejecting certain features that we decide are not worth assimilating. We adapt to our environment as it changes. We evolve.

Stimulus and Response

We are at the stage in our development as a species that is surfacing questions about our assumptions about old ways of doing things. Our survival as a species depends on these questions. What is different about humans is that this has become a conscious process, whereas this has been an unconscious evolutionary process up until this point. Previously, there was stimulus and response. Now there is stimulus, interpretation, and response.

Interpretation

We have the cognitive ability to interpret stimuli and situations, arriving at conclusions based on our ability to build a mental model of our present reality based on past experience, in order to respond appropriately, given the goals that we have for a particular vision of the future.

It is our ability to conceive of time, our past, present and future, that affords our unique position in the development of life on earth. Humans have the advantage of communication and collaboration to achieve a level of dominance over the physical world to such a degree that our activity is having a pronounced effect on all other forms of life on the planet.

Responsibility

Our growing self-awareness includes the notion of responsibility. With great power comes great responsibility. We are responsible for our actions. Awareness is only the beginning. To make changes, we need to plan. We need an alternative vision to our current reality. Then we need to put into action a different set of habits and behaviours that can significantly alter the situation in which we find ourselves.

Understanding

We have moved beyond the age of tolerance to an age of understanding. It is not enough to peacefully coexist. Our lives are interconnected to such a degree that the actions of each individual affect the whole. Such interdependence demands that we learn to embrace each other.

Religions are fascinating institutions of human behaviour, since they represent our best attempts to understand our past, present and future. However, as with any attempts to innovate, networks of creative innovation that exist to create new ways of thinking and behaving grow into institutional and hierarchical organizations that exist to perpetuate old ways of thinking and behaving.

This moment in time represents the universal phenomenon of human experience to explore, experiment, question and grow. Aging has the effect of diminishing these desires, as habits form as a way to focus on the security and prosperity of the self and the tribe. Each of us embodies these human tendencies.

Culture

Culture is not static. Culture is what happens when humans interact. Culture is the activity that occurs at the intersection of young and old, of exploration and habit, of innovation and tradition, of networks and hierarchies.

Social Architecture

The new role of the designer is that of the social architect, a person who understands living systems and processes and seeks to facilitate and guide the activity of individuals and groups to better align with the health and function of the entire ecosystem.

Social architecture is the art and science of living systems.

Design Education

To understand our new role as designers will require new ways of thinking about design education. This is what I believe will define this moment in history.

We cannot leave to the politicians what we need to do ourselves. The reality star, the wealthy celebrity does not have the empathy to lead a design process. Their training is in the art of distraction, focusing our attention on that which is least important, or worse, self-destructive.

Like cells in a body, we each have a role to play in the function of the whole. It is this model of interconnection and interdependence that must guide our activities and the value that we hold for each other.

So, lets begin by thinking about the way we can learn and grow to become a people whose identity is defined by the level of care that we have for each other and for our world.

Welcome to the design challenge of the human experience.

Stephen Bau

Written by

Designer, writer, educator, social architect, founder, Builders Collective, Leading with Design. https://stephenbau.com

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