Enter the “meta-designer”

Designing design itself, as a strategic, humanistic, and philosophic practice.

What will designers become in a world where the cultures, processes, and systems for enabling design practice to happen become the paramount issue — beyond tactical execution of what will eventually become automated (through algorithmic intelligence or pre-defined libraries & patterns) or prescribed (through formulaic procedures for pre-determined delivery schedules). I wonder if there will be the necessary rise of what I call “meta-designers”, whose functional aspects are strategic, humanistic and — dare I say — philosophic.

We see this starting to happen somewhat with the emergence of “design thinking” inside corporate boardrooms, and newly appointed “customer experience” chiefs charged with defining a holistic model of tying disparate business elements together for delivering customer-based market value. In effect, such trends signal the daunting challenge of, well, designing design itself— the “meta-design” that makes such customer-centric capabilities & sensibilities possible within organizations. The design thinking movement just scratches the surface of this notion of meta-design, with the initial breaking of conventional chains to free up attitudes in support of creativity and iteration, backed with user-driven mindsets. Meanwhile “customer experience” provides a business-friendly governance framework to spin up the value-making machine (i.e., money). Then there’s “user experience” which — as a concept — is a remnant of the initial dot-com boom days of late-90s, that has now evolved to popularly refer to the delivery of digital products & services reflecting best practices drawn from HCI / Cog Psych / Interaction Design, etc. into a compelling interactive encounter (website, application, etc.).

Tying together all these levels of design into an organizational apparatus that lives, breathes, evolves, and amplifies itself into a force-multiplier of sorts — this is the profound challenge of “meta-design”.

How does one (or a distributed multi-disciplinary team, to be realistic) design the essential services, systems, structures, cultural vibe and process models that both operationalize design into something tactical and shippable, and also, spiritualize design into something meaningful, critical, pursuing deep questions about the organization’s value and purpose, which adds to the humanist dimension? Hmm, quite daunting.

In this context, the core principles that guide such a “meta-designer” may be the following:

Reflection in action: Consideration of inferred relationships and potential consequences in the midst of designing.

Strategic forethought: Looking ahead to connections among disparate functions, decisions, attitudes and outcomes.

Intellectual humanism: Lending a nuanced vocabulary informed by critical lenses and depth of analysis around problems.

Creative provocation: Suggesting that which is radical and speculative to spark risky dialogues, enable fresh perspectives.

And the core actions that typify their daily work exude the following:

•Critical thinking, questioning & argumentation of process, system, culture, and values as interrelated and actively impacting elements

•Create, interpret and apply frameworks or models of thought towards such aforesaid issues

•Evolve integrative design systems that are both material and cultural: origin, creation, application, adaptation are matter

•Aptitude for lifecycles, ecosystems, platforms, journeys, with an unapologetically humanist outlook — how are human values championed and supported?

•Pursuit of political and social/ethical aspects of business and technology

A lot of this sounds like organizational behavior & psychology or simply being a “corporate therapist”, of sorts. No doubt about that! Yet the notion of “meta-design” is key here, because of the confluence of both intention and significance with practical consequence — which happens in action, not mere rhapsodizing on a whiteboard with multi-colored stickies and voting dots. There is a deliberate shaping of forces and frameworks to empower and enable pivotal outcomes, which is not a one-size fits all approach at all!

Every organization, from startups to multi-nationals, must be regarded differently on their terms, requiring variations of process and culture to support customer-driven goals. This requires deep questioning of the context and purpose, and of viable outcomes.

Meta-designing in this sense could be the next grand frontier of design practice, imbued with a strategic sense for humanism and intellectualism, which are necessary elements if we are to make design thinking + customer experience + user experience into more than checklist of ingredients for a “successful business”.