For most of design history, designers defined their roles in society by adding the designed object to their titles: furniture designers, fashion designers, industrial designers, graphic designers, and so on. The output of a designer’s work became more abstract when the fields of human-computer interaction, interaction design, and, more recently, design thinking emerged. Today, as products and services become smaller parts in connected networks, the things we design evolved to have an exponential impact that’s not always positive.
Think about the psychological effects of digital validation through social media — do you believe the creators of Instagram’s “like” button could have predicted its adverse outcomes, especially among teenagers or people facing depression? Even if their initial intention was harmless, evidence shows the company knew about the feature’s adverse effects on mental health.
We could argue that Instagram couldn’t avoid or shouldn’t be held accountable for these unintended consequences. Or that the issue doesn’t overcome the product’s original benefits. It’s a keen debate that makes me wonder how designers can help. Designers willing to find positive solutions for complex problems like the one mentioned above must review their scope of work and look beyond the immediate purpose of their design object.
Mental health, racial justice, and sustainability are some of the complex challenges inspiring designers to look at issues more broadly and to apply systems thinking to their practice. Below are six perspectives to help designers design for a positive future. I will explore each of them in more detail in a series of blog posts over the following months.
1. Make the invisible visible
Systems design proposes a shift from what designers usually focus on — the user — to concentrate instead on the whole ecosystem. Visual representations of systems composed of invisible relationships and extended connections are inestimable design objects. It’s something the users may never see. However, it’s a potent output that designers can create to help founders and stakeholders consider different interdependencies and influence a product or service strategy.
Products and services are mere leverage points of larger systems. Their adoption and engagement rates are primary metrics that should scale up to systems-level outcomes. A successful system is one that is resilient, autonomous, and harmonious.
“Thinking in Systems” by Donella H. Meadows is a helpful resource to understand how systems work, and the Systemic Design Toolkit offers excellent frameworks to apply systems thinking to design challenges. At IBM, where I work as a UX designer, these topics spark many conversations in the #ibm-service-design Slack channel and the systems thinking book club, both exclusive for IBMers.
2. Think radical inclusivity
Having a target customer helps businesses thrive faster. Designers should master the customers’ needs, but are they also considering the needs of everyone that could be impacted by the products and services they design?
Think about the impact on the user’s relationship with their neighbors, co-workers, communities, minorities, colleagues, and family members. For example, there’s evidence that an increase of Airbnb listings by ZIP code is also followed by an increase in rent prices, hurting affordable housing. Is there anything the company could do to support local communities?
Designers should expand their view of users to include the adjacent actors to ensure there aren’t groups being negatively affected and to foster win-win relationships. When designing a physical product, designers should consider the needs of suppliers, manufacturers, and retailers, and create value for every player in your broader ecosystem for it to thrive long term.
3. Aim to design for eternity
What would be the potential consequences if the products designers help create lasted forever? Designing for eternity is not about delivering the perfect product that would never change. In an Agile fashion, designers should always strive to provide value frequently. But how often do you reflect on the long-term consequences of what you put out into the world? Just because you can launch something doesn’t always mean that you should.
The idea of designing for eternity prompts designers to consider if there are toxic materials being used, if the product can be easily disassembled, remanufactured, recycled, refurbished, or reused. These considerations are more evident in developing a physical product, but remain valid for digital offerings, too. If an offering lasts forever, would it help drive positive social change? Or would it reinforce historical inequalities?
The “Circular Design Guide”, by IDEO, offers workshop frameworks and activities to help designers discover and envision more sustainable products and services.
4. Analyze how behaviors are born and evolve
Designers are constantly mapping users’ behaviors. Investigating further how those behaviors were historically constructed enables us to build more empathy for users and, more importantly, forces us to reflect on the long-term impact of the technologies we design.
Any innovation should be assessed on how they integrate with the social and material world. Designers must consider the relationships that surround users when they’re using any emergent technology — including finance, morality, ethics, political vision, cultural diversity, emotions, feelings, and spirituality — and how different contexts affect the user’s intent when using a new technology.
The targeted advertising solutions that help brands and interest groups reach their desired audiences is the pillar of the social media revenue model. But the same feature can be used to foster hate. For example, consider if Facebook should pay dividends for political polarization and the rise of hate crimes facilitated by its targeted algorithm.
Human beings evolve with technology. Designers must design for positive evolution and consider how a feature they’re creating can transform users over time and if it’s possible to prevent unintended consequences.
The book “Acting with Technology: Activity Theory and Interaction Design”, by Victor Kaptelinin and Bonnie Nardi, is a great resource to understand how humans can adapt and repurpose technologies.
5. Realize that human beings are not at the center of everything
Most of us grew up in a culture that values human beings over nature. Let’s consider what would happen if designers put life (in all its forms) at the center of their design thinking. Canadian designer Bruce Mau has advocated for the concept of Life-Centered Design. This small change in terminology makes designers responsible for the welfare of life or better — it makes us, humans, responsible for the well-being of life.
The same way products and services act as leverage points in systems, human beings and their values and behaviors are small pieces of something bigger. Imagine if designers stopped seeing customers as users and instead saw them as actors of a better future that wants to emerge. After all, caring for life at large is the safest path to support humanity’s future.
Get more inspiration from Mau from his recent book, “Bruce Mau: MC24: Bruce Mau’s 24 Principles for Designing Massive Change in your Life and Work”.
6. Move from ego-systems to ecosystems
Author Otto Scharmer describes our mainstream economic model as an “ego-system.” An ego-system is structured to satisfy shareholder wants and to privatize decision-making.
For designers to begin to care and act in the interests of the entire ecosystem, they need a deeper shift in consciousness, re-focusing institutions on co-creative stakeholder relationships in ecosystems that can generate well-being for all, not just for ourselves and stakeholders.
Scharmer says, “What’s needed to underpin these renewals are change-makers who are willing to lead from the emerging future: leaders who are willing to open up to, learn about, and practice the journey from ego-system to eco-system thinking.”
View From ego-system to eco-system economies to learn more.
Embracing systems thinking can be daunting and humbling at the same time. It requires great communication skills and a curious drive. It helps designers expand the lenses of their design practice as well as their impact. At a minimum, it encourages designers to identify the potential negative effects of their design objects.
Join me as I explore these concepts in more detail in a series of blog posts, starting with “Making the invisible visible”, and discuss mapping and creating systems visualizations. Follow me here on Medium to be notified when my next post is published.
Edson Soares is a UX designer in CIO Design at IBM, based in New York, NY.
Note to IBMers: This series is based on a presentation featured at the internal 2021 IBM Spark Design Festival. Save the date and learn more about the 2022 IBM Spark Design Festival (accessible only to IBMers) — happening June 7th — 10th, 2022.
Illustrations by Kelly McGowan. Kelly is a visual designer in CIO Design at IBM, based in New York, NY.