The Design Discussion We Need To Have
There is a conversation taking place within the design disciplines about relevance, value, impact, purpose, and role. It is a conversation that is part existential angst; part healthy debate; part natural renewal; part toxic. It is happening right across the design disciplines and related communities of practice. It is taking place in other ‘creative’ pursuits, like journalism and the Arts. I’ve seen it in libraries and museums; with architects; industrial designers; graphic designers; experience designers; interaction designers; service designers; urban planners.
Unfortunately, it is not the same conversation, but many disparate and disconnected conversations, taking place in boardrooms and at conferences; in articles and discussion papers. And yet, it is the same conversation.
At the International Design Congress in Gwangju, South Korea, last October, a number of speakers addressed the question of the role and value of design, and designers. That distinction — between the practice and the practitioner — was a crucial one. “Design will always exist”, they said, “but the designers will all disappear.”
Similar themes were explored at the recent Interaction conference in Helsinki in March. At the 2012 World Design Capitol, attendees questioned the value of interaction design and it’s boundaries. In the coming age of algorithms and AI, what value does the designer bring?
I believe we need to have one conversation, not many. That conversation should be about the value and role of critical thinking in a world that makes a carnival of government, watched on and actively encouraged by an oligarchy who controls our media; controls our telecommunications; invades our privacy; subjugates our rights; incites fear, suspicion, hatred; and pursues an unapologetic agenda of capitalist domination and control. What value can we offer, with our human-centred philosophy? With our empathy and our sensitivity to the needs of others? The mindset of the designer is not just useful, in this context, it is crucial!
I believe we should be discussing the value of intuition and abductive thinking as strategies for a dynamic, non-linear, unpredictable world. We should look to do away with the unsophisticated, simplistic, linear models that have driven our economic rationalism for the past 100 years. Taylorism has no place outside the factory, if it ever had a place within. We need to embrace the challenges ambiguity brings, and use the tools at our disposal to navigate those shifting seas. To withhold our judgement and separate our egos from our ideas. To put forth our intellect in an authentic attempt to find new paths. What role can design and designers play? Can we not help solve issues of inequality? Health and wellbeing? Access? Sustainability?
I believe we should be discussing the value of participation in the process of design. In co-designing our products and services; our built environment; our social structures; our government services and policies. Of designing *with* instead of *at* or *for*. We should be discussing the democratic power of design practice, to engage and involve. We should be discussing the transformative potential of design-driven models of engagement, for businesses; for governments. Then perhaps we might see an end to the scandals and corruption that seem to run rife throughout our 24-hour news cycles.
I believe we should be discussing the value of craft, and the sense of connection that comes through hand-made objects. We should be questioning the economic imperative of scale and cost-reduction. Of mass-production. Of supply-chain logistics.
I believe we should be discussing the value of design in realising human potential, instead of economic production. Of providing new capabilities, new opportunities, new challenges, and new ideas. Let us not abdicate our decisions to ‘the Market’, as though that were not simply a vehicle for manipulation and distortion and control.
I believe we should be discussing the ability of design to transcend boundaries and operate across scales. To move seamlessly from the global, down to the microscopic. To understand the systems, rather than getting bogged down with the components. To understand flows and connections and feedback.
We have accepted, for far too long, the misconceptions about appearance over substance. In our defence of aesthetic, we have allowed others to control purpose. And we know it. Right across the design disciplines there exists frustration at the way in which our contribution is misunderstood and underestimated.
Scanning the tweets and articles on design and from designers, we repeatedly see phrases like ‘earning a seat at the table’ thrown around. When did we need permission to have an impact? When, exactly, did creativity become so polite and controlled as to require assigned seating?
I don’t believe this is a conversation about architecture or the built environment. I don’t believe it’s about service design or interaction design; services or technology. I don’t believe it’s about industrial design or graphic design; things or images.
I believe this is a conversation about the ways in which we make sense of our world and each other. About the ways we deal with the challenges of that world — of the environment, inequality, intolerance, ignorance, technology, justice. And yes, out of that will come new philosophies of the design of *things* and *systems*, but for now we have a more important discussion to undertake.