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Designing for “what we don’t know”

The tangible impact of design, Pt 1

Fanny Carlsson
Dec 2, 2019 · 11 min read

Everyone wants to know what the future will have in store for them. The common practice is using what was right in the past to get facts about the future. Safe. Or is it? As this article will cover, there are other ways to place that budget. It is by considering both soft values and hard facts that we can get hints for creating outstanding alternative future scenarios. The impacts of design.

The strength in design and designers is that we can bring clarity to possible futures by using what we have and raise awareness of what we [the collective] don’t know yet. Facilitate the change. We do it by combining scientific and artistic approaches.

In October, I attended the Service Design Global Conference 2019 in Toronto on the theme “Building Bridges”, together with contributors from 44 countries. What is the state of service design going into 2020?

Design and specifically Service Design, is today an established approach that has many continuous positive outcomes. What we see is the result of design practices growing in and up to established C-level assets and reaching a width like never before. Design is more widely distributed both people-wise and outcome-wise in organizations. Humanity-based strategies and bridging cross-silo collaboration are some examples. From the stale understanding of the expert designer that produces shiny objects, this is a well-needed development. However, this width and growth entails an ambiguity of what creates the ripple-effect and making change happen. Proving what design does and measuring the impact of it is upon everyone’s wall at the moment. If it’s not the who / “the one expert” anymore — WHAT IS IT? We seek answers, and in many practices, answers mean hard facts. Metrics. Numbers. Undoubted figures stating my case. Where UX designers somewhat embarrassed laugh to the saying, “There is an app for that!” I silently hope that in finance — the same saying goes for KPIs.

Hearing the latest and greatest from doers and thinkers at the conference, even my camera launch button could feel the need for clear direction, metrics, and tangibility. After all, the one workshop named “Meters, Kilos, NPS… and Other Success Metrics” had a line of curious participants reaching out to the stairs… Though, there was one distinction to this. Hidden between the lines was a message and a calling, which I will elaborate on, but first a note on metrics and numbers.

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Photo: Fanny Carlsson

Soft values + Hard facts

Everything we know today is about the past. Still, all of our decisions are about the future, as famously quoted by scenario planner Ian Wilson. Evidence is powerful. What decision-makers crave is evidence for how the unknown future will roll out, for how the change will roll out, and how it can benefit them. Commonly, numbers are used to make evidence for one’s case, using hard facts about past behaviors to make assumptions about future ones. Despite pure seasonal variations, we assume people will buy the same amount of kg wheat flour on this next year — the same as this year.

However, it is by considering both soft values and hard facts that we can get hints for creating outstanding alternative future scenarios. We do it by combining what we know of the past, the hard facts, with the current motivations in people and their surrounding context that are presently influencing their behavior, the soft values. In the wheat flour example, the consumer might realize their dream is becoming the next Master Baker. They need more wheat flour → also more salt. Or, they get diagnosed with celiac (gluten-intolerance). They require less wheat flour → more non-gluten alternatives.

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The Futures Cone (above) visualizes how we can examine many different futures to understand how to make better decisions in the present. By making ourselves aware that there is more to find that we don’t know of (possible futures), we are intentionally considering the impact that the current state might have in the future. And from that, start to prototype our desired futures for people and the planet.

Embracing the motivation of local citizens for revitalizing a place

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Source: fogoislandinn.ca

“We must disturb the present in order to sustain the future — because our present situation is not sustainable”

— Zita Cobb

This talk was probably the most engaging at the conference and is an excellent example of how soft values and hard facts co-operate to create a more responsible place and operation. Goosebumps! In her talk, Zita Cobb (Social entrepreneur and founder of Fogo Island Inn and Shorefast Foundation) pointed to the “plague of sameness” and that it’s killing the human joy of making the most out of our lives and surroundings.

Fogo Island is located outside of the Newfoundland coast and is the home to a community of about 2000 people. Here architecture manifests this heritage and transitions through the old meeting the new.

Cobb founded Fogo Island Inn, the local hotel filled with furniture designs that prolific designers have created in collaboration with local craftspeople. This led up to Fogo Island Shop, a retail platform to sell the designs where the profits from the shop help sustaining the community.

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Source: fogoislandinn.ca & dezeen.com

Each piece of furniture gets marked with an economic label, intended to bring transparency to where the money from the purchase goes — how it is invested in the local community and how it impacts the broader economy.

“We’re excited about the potential this practice holds, not only for our business, but for others around the world looking to build a new economic system that offers a better balance between the return on economic capital and the health of diminishing sacred natural, cultural, social, human, and physical capital”
- Shorefast Foundation

Imagine the worldwide effect if this was scaled up! Not only does this story highlight the value of design as service in place, but most importantly, the need for resilient tools.

Progress milestones over Fixed processes

What we need is resilient tools and clear milestones to bring people together to discuss, reflect, and reveal what is really going on. A roadmap of milestones for aligning on the next steps is of much higher value than a fixed process-for-all.

“The road to success and the road to failure are almost exactly the same.”

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Source: Unknown

There is an urge for recipes. We seek the step-by-step guide, the scripts, and the processes — our silver bullets to solve every possible situation. A blueprint of how to get our bread. Let’s linger on the bread allegory for a bit. Bread is one of the oldest made foods, having been of significant importance since the dawn of agriculture. The necessary ingredients for a loaf, a baguette, and a pita are pretty much the same (bakers, don’t hate me) — a pile of dough made of flour water and salt. Though the results are entirely different.

As far as organizations go, when we align the forces on a shared vision, we often talk about the bread — the result and the steps to get there — but we miss talking about the milestones to ensure progress. There is no silver bullet to solve every possible situation. If I were presented to one, I wouldn’t believe it. Simply because from personal experience working with people, the only thing you do know is that you don’t know shit about what will happen. Instead, we need a safety net there for support when (yes, when!) the pan burns a black crust on the dough. BEEEP. Smoke alarm. In these cases, going about business as usual, following the process, has rarely proven any benefit.

We often talk about the positive outcomes of processes and how unintended consequences from prototyping, co-creation, or pure accident, can have unexpected positive results. This is the way many new handy products and services have come about. The bubble wrap, in an attempt to create a trendy new textured wallpaper in the ’60s. Walt Disney, who in his twenties was fired from a Missouri newspaper for “not being creative enough”. These examples have been game-changers to our culture and way of living. However, we should also acknowledge the risks and potential negative impact that design and innovation might have on people and not least — the planet. And use design for readjusting them in how to do good instead.

Outcomes over outputs: physical objects as disruptors of current social structures

In her talk, Josina Vink (Ph.D. and Associate professor at Oslo School of Architecture and Design) shared her standpoint that the strength of service design is in its approach — a process with continuous outcomes rather than the only end output. Change lives in the minds of people and the social interactions between people, which is what we should use to track for revealing how change is happening.

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Photo: Fanny Carlsson

Vink told the story of the Double stethoscope (by Felicia Nilsson), which gives crucial fuel to the discussion of the power of physical objects in disrupting social structures by design. The stethoscope brilliantly disrupts the social play during a health examination session, allowing for a more even-leveled dialogue between caregiver and caretaker. Progress! This is a fantastic example of how product and systems design can be used to do good, for equality and inclusiveness. Look around you. What structures need disruption?

Before moving on from the bread reference (and potentially for lunch), let’s reconnect to the recipe. The saying is that baking is a science, and cooking is an art. When baking, if you miss the salt or vinegar, your finished creation most likely won’t end up as Pinterest promised. What is my point here? Designers use both scientific and artistic approaches. To empower decision-makers in their strategy work to reach desired futures, we have to mind and track the milestones that reveal progress. What baking and cooking have in common are, among other things, determined by:

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What if we could make visible all of the operating parameters together pitching into how we reach our desirable futures?

People. Who is baking, and for who? For one, a “bread for soup” means a toast. Another imagines it as more of a pile of croutons. The bakers’ aligned expectations on the shared vision are evident. As we know, shit input = shit output. Their shared experience (and bias…), determine the rhythm and timing of when to add ingredients to the mixture.

Context. What’s in the surroundings? The things inside and outside of our control. A step-by-step recipe rarely regards if the yeast is out or if the oven is momentarily low and slow, so will the baking time be. Or worse yet, if the power is out.

Progress. How are we doing? We mix the dough and keep track of its pH value, indicating the right acid needed to rise. We have followed our dough rising, something we could only ensure happened by haptically interpreting the texture of its fibers — by seeing it, by feeling it’s density.

As we have seen, the dough allegory is quite connected to how business work. As a way to safeguard a successful outcome for the (unknown) future, we keep a holistic eye on the people, the context, and the progress. Look around you. What real-time hints can you spot?

“99% of the things we buy, we don’t want to own”

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Photo: loopstore.com

Speaking of keeping a holistic perspective and the importance of considering the state of the context. Tom Szaky (founder of TerraCycle and Loop US) showed the circular system Loop, enabled by taking into consideration people’s everyday routines in their homes.

Loop is a system and driver of the movement from single-use plastic packaging and waste by bringing back “the Milkman” *. Way back when, consumers would purchase milk in durable glass bottles, which were then collected and refilled when empty. This eliminated the need for new energy and resources to manufacture another bottle for our next purchase of milk. The glass milk bottles were considered assets of the company that later, in the coming era of plastic-is-fantastic, went from deemed an asset to a COGS. From quality to quantity.

Loop redesigns packagings of ice cream, shampoo, and other everyday goods to “counter worthy” while serving a circular service model of reuse and refill. The new, more durable packaging brings into play aspects such as Design for Aging. For a product in this system, aging becomes a virtue, and it can even increase the level of adoption for the consumer.

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How the price model works

In addition to the regular cost of the item, customers must put down a fully refundable deposit for each package. The deposit varies from about 25 cents for a bottle of Coca-Cola to $47 for a Pampers diaper bin (which TerraCycle said eliminates the need for a Diaper Genie). Shipping is free after the customer buys about five to seven items, depending on the size and bulk.
Source: CNN

Having global leaders such as P&G and Unilever already onboard the eco-system, owning some of the world’s most used brands, I’m curious to follow the up-scale of the Loop logic.

Thank you to Dell Technologies, IBM Watson Health, Lufthansa, Bridgeable, Hypergiant, University of Victoria, Capital One, Koos Design, Credit Suisse AG, livework, Kyvo, & all others that contributed to SDGC2019.

This year’s conference showed several examples of initiatives where the initiators have given deliberate care to turn negative habits into positive actions. Not only do these examples show the incredible strength of design, but they also show the scalability and 10x effect of positive action. This gives me great hope for the future of what we can manage if we start with what we have, raise awareness of our own biases, to acknowledge what we don’t know yet.

In the upcoming Part 2 of this read, we go into the building blocks, and examples of how intentionally working with unintended consequences can drive the positive impact of business, people, and the planet.

Written by
Fanny Carlsson, Senior Service Designer

Graphics by
David Kwon

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Photos: Fanny Carlsson

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