“It’s an awesome time to be a designer*”

A critical mass is coming to light in Design Thinking’s influence on global change.

…design is achieving a tipping point of influence and changemaking that is unprecedented.

I celebrate that this is an awesome time to be a designer. I was vibrating after the first day I attended the RGD (Registered Graphic Designers) Design Thinkers 2018 conference in Vancouver this week. It was full of aha moments and fantastic insights.

Two years ago, you couldn’t have filled the Vancouver Playhouse to the rafters with folks wanting to know more about Design Thinking.

Overall it was clear that, as a profession, design is achieving a tipping point of influence and changemaking that is unprecedented. And it’s just beginning. Two years ago, you couldn’t have filled the Vancouver Playhouse to the rafters with folks wanting to know more about Design Thinking.

The definition of design is shifting.
Back when I was in design school, learning was focussed on design basics like shape, contrast, scale, repetition, etc.; typography, illustration, photography, colour theory. These are still the tools of the craft of design. That’s mostly what design was back in the 1970s.

Where did design thinking come from?
What I began to see in the 1990s was a shift to using what we do with our “design mind” to break down and analyze problems so that we could solve them with design. We began to help clients define and redefine their problems rather than taking them at face value. Generally speaking (with apologies to any former clients) our clients had a myopic view of their communication problems. They were inward-looking and didn’t account for the context in which their customers saw them. Sometimes, their corporate vision needed a bit of a shakeup. That’s where we came in. And we began to be hired for our expertise in helping clients reach their customers, and their goals, in more meaningful ways.

I subsequently learned about IDEO, design research and community-based research. I spent six months in 2013 at California College of the Arts in their Leading by Design Fellows program. Now, in addition to working at Ion Brand Design, I am interested in community building through behavioural change as well as food-systems design. I’m completing a masters in liberal studies at Simon Fraser University, working on a project to shift perceptions of homelessness among the general population. That’s a LONG way from picking colours.

Design thinking, effectively executed, helps people find the truth.

The truth was everywhere at Design Thinkers
At Design Thinkers 2018, speaker after speaker talked about the deeper skills that exist in design and how design thinking can effect change in everything from client points of view to methods of behaviour modification for smoking cessation. The theme of the conference, Speak the Truth, was woven through every speaker’s talk. Finding the truth — for the people you are trying to communicate with— is more important than your truth as a designer (or anyone else, for that matter). Design thinking, effectively executed, helps people find their collective truth.

Michael Lejeune talks about how design thinking helps get people in Los Angeles out of their cars.

Michael Lejeune of Metro Los Angeles talked about the shift in his department from “taking orders for signage” to analyzing the influences on ridership and shifting behaviours in using public transit. His department is a “main brain” for the Metro that taps into the public zeitgeist, constantly aware of how the public sees Metro. From there, they design responses to help move the public along to accepting transit as a positive option to getting into their cars. Michael observed that, as he looks at Maslo’s hierarcy of needs, people in our privileged society can be motivated by their desire for exploration, productivity, care for the environment and even civic duty.

Michael also talked about failing. Designers feel stigmatized for being wrong. He says it is vital to embrace wrong. Wrong is often right around the corner from eureka.

Stephen Gates was a hugely empowering speaker. He spoke about shifting design in an organization to a critical asset instead of an overlooked commodity. He said that many designers (and most non-designers) still treat design as an “art”. They design for themselves rather than the audience to whom they are speaking. He said, “stop thinking that having a problem is a problem”. We’ve always known that design is about working within limitations to solve a problem. What design strategists like me do nowadays is help uncover the actual problems or limitations that make sense for the situation.To take this further, many organizations now put design at the centre of their decision-making. This is not that design as craft is necessarily driving decisions, but that design thinking —better problem definition through community- or customer-based research —is driving every decision in the organization.

The role of storytelling as a design thinking tool (actually, an outcome) is in translating concepts into everyday language. These might be complex, technical concepts or they can simply be a point of view foreign to the reader/viewer. Ellen Lupton, design educator extraordinaire, spoke at Design Thinkers about storytelling. Her talk was really entertaining, interspersed with wit and and even slapstick humour, it illustrated the common threads that connect our ways of telling stories and how that familiarity with storytelling rhythm creates a way in to new ideas. It’s easy to see why Ellen’s students love her! Her talk drew from her recent book, Design is Storytelling. I bought it on the spot.

In my work, I often lead workshop participants through a process of creating cues and tools to tell stories and then have them tell those stories to the rest of the group. This process is a fantastic tool in helping people to imagine a different world. It allows them the opportunity to develop novel ideas and concepts that are far outside what they would normally think about.

Finally, I really connected with Grace Hwang of Carrot in her talk on Designing for Behaviour Change. Her team uses design and design thinking to help people to stop smoking. The success stories were compelling. Grace talked about “leading with empathy” in design. That’s not something that is normally right at our fingertips. Empathy is something we often have to dig for, because it’s not our experience. It’s someone else’s. We have to climb into it, walk around in it, feel it and allow it to become familiar before we can design for it. Grace observed that “design connects people to what really matters to them”.

“design connects people to what really matters to them”

I believe that design thinking is the tool for the translation of emotions, hunches, biases and inklings. It is a set of methods used to tease out what people often can’t really articulate. Putting people into situations that allow for the freedom to truly imagine and play is the best way to help them to help you — and themselves.

Design Thinkers 2018 Vancouver was a huge success, RGD! Well done. I can’t wait to be there next year.

*A quote from Grace Hwang, VP of Design & Experience at Carrot and former Executive Director of IDEO’s Design for Health practice.

(I also want to mention that, as a part of the Ion Brand Design team, I was partially sponsored to come to this conference, in addition to having the time away from work to attend. I think taking in new information is extremely important for anyone in any field. I truly appreciate that Ion values its team enough to allow this continuing education).