Design as a vessel of change
Everything changes, nothing remains without change. All things are connected so if one things changes, other things change. Organizations are constantly changing. Sometimes small changes, sometimes big ones. Most organizations today are going through some form of digitization, servitization, decentralization, defragmentation, and expansion. These organizations need help with that. Advice. Guidance. Coaching. Design is also changing. Design is expanding from its core of making beautiful things to helping organizations in their transformations. We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them. The complexity of transformations is urging organizations to seek help in new places. Design is one of those places.
Form follows function
We all know this modernist phrase “form follows function”. At the time, this was a counter movement against too much form. In the beginning of the last century, Adolf Loos gave his radical lecture Ornament and Crime. In it, he criticized ornament, useless form. Later, in the 70s, Dieter Rams popularized this notion in his 10 Principles of Good Design. One of the most known of these principles is maybe “Good design is as little design as possible”, which is a direct translation of Adolf Loos’ message in his lecture. The second industrial revolution was under way and Fredrick Taylor unfolded his Scientific Management ideas that built on top of Descartes’ concept of the mechanical universe. Design changed from decoration to functionality. Design was playing a large role in the changes at the time. All the products the industrial revolution was creating needed design. All the tools and machines needed to be embraced by the people and design had a big role to play in that. Technology needed to be humanized. Designers like Dieter Rams and later Jony Ive helped to make technology an integral part of our lives. Maybe the iPhone is the apex of this era. The full integration of technology into being a human in this world. Form and function are one. The iPhone is basically a piece of glass that lets us touch the functions. We are as close to technology as possible. Both physically and mentally. Maybe the only next step is the disappearance of the interface, the integration of technology into our bodies. Voice interfaces are a step in that direction. Next step is to think about bananas and have them delivered to your door in 10 minutes. Then, the role of design in the tradition of form follows function is over. There is no more form.
Change follows form
Okay. That is a little dramatic. As long as we operate in a physical reality, there will always be form, there will always be design. I’m just saying that in the previous era of design, the form-follows-function-era, the main role of form, of design, was to integrate technology into our lives. Another big one was marketing because the products of the industrial revolution needed to be sold. Design also played a big role in that. Form to sell a story is a second powerful application of the past era. These things still continue. We still need form to help us with functions and we still need form to help us sell. There is also still a place for the ornamentation that the modernists fought against. Useless form, just because it is pleasing to the eye is still valuable. But now, a fourth power of design is on the rise. Next to beauty, embrace of technology and sales, design can help with the internal mental shifts that are needed for organizations embrace the changes of this era. These changes need to manifest and therefore they need form.
The five big challenges of this era
Maybe its is good to have a look at the changes of this era for a minute.
This one is pretty obvious. The invention of the computer and the Internet changed the world dramatically. Big changes take time. Typically around 30 years, one generation. The first browser was invented in 1990. We are now at a time when the majority of organizations are on a path to fully embrace the potential of digital technology. The pandemic might just have given it its last push.
The digitization has empowered the user. Because it is much easier to compare prices and service levels and because you can go to a competitor with one click, the user is in control. The customer has been more right than ever. Demand is still created by marketing but tuning in to the exact needs of the customer or user has become the crucial competitive advantage. The organization that is best aligned to user needs, wins. People are more empowered and organizations need to find ways to listen and open up to what users need.
We are also moving away from products towards services, from ownership to usage. The increased need for flexibility and the outsourcing of the worries and burdens of ownership are pushing us towards Everything As A Service (XaaS). Renting or leasing products has been around for a while but the frictionless convenience mindset that was brought about by digitization and the user centeredness it brought about is now spreading rapidly to all kinds of products. The majority of organizations need to change their thinking from product-centered to service-centered: what service are we providing with our products? A good product alone is no longer enough.
Digitization, decentralization and servitization are no longer possible in the fragmented way organizations have been organized in the previous era. The second industrial revolution and scientific management thinking has created boxed organizations: departments with managers. Red tape. Walls. Power play. All these things don’t work anymore. Holistic thinking is needed to fully embrace the power of digital technology to provide excellent services that are in tune with what users need. The walls between departmental silos need to be torn down. Managers need to put the decision making where the people are with the most expertise. The whole Agile movement is about this.
Expanding to other geographic areas has never been easier. Easy and cheap systems are in place to transport your products and services anywhere. The Internet allows you to sell and collaborate without the boundaries of geography. But it’s not just about geography, it’s also about the expansion of the type of needs that can be fulfilled with your products, services, and skills. Companies are expanding easier and easier into other industries. Amazon started selling books and is now hosting the web and opening up space travel. Apple started making computers and is now offering payment services.
The expansion of design
Expansion is exactly what I want to talk about in this essay. The expansion of design. The products, services and skills of design are a perfect match for the big five challenges of this era. I have written an essay about the ways in which design can help with change management 2 years ago. In it, I discussed how I was discovering how design can help with making things user centered, making things concrete, being bold and combining BHAGs with MVP thinking. This still holds true. Now I see that a lot of projects that clients approach us with are strategic change projects in disguise. A client approaches a design agency with a traditional design question. We need a new website, app, corporate identity, campaign. These are an operational questions. But 9 out of 10 times, there is a strategic question underneath that is about one or more of the 5 big challenges of this era. And the cool thing is that working on a design project can be about working on these complex challenges if you frame, see it, can do it like that. To design is to devise courses of action aimed at changing existing situations into preferred ones. This big definition of design by Herbert Simon from 1988 is also around 30 years old and approaching full embrace. To change, we need to see the future. Designing is per definition, visualizing a future. If a company wants to update their corporate identity, they need to see what that future identity looks like to chose it and to move towards it. If a company wants to embrace the possibilities of digital technology, they have to see and feel how that looks. The same goes for all the changes. Seeing is believing. The visual realm that designers work in is so much more powerful than the verbal or mathematic realm of traditional change managers and organization consultants. Sure, designers like to make beautiful stuff and that is wonderful and will not change. But when designers discover that they can impact how organizations deal with the changes they are faced with and help the people in these organizations flourish by inspiring them and bringing them together, they will unlock a new desire to see design as business consultancy and the impact of design will expand into new territory.
Thank you for taking the time to read this article. I hope you enjoyed it. If you clap for this essay, I will know I connected with you. I will dive deeper into the topics around Design Leadership in upcoming articles. If you follow me here on Medium, you will see them pop up on your Medium homepage. You can also subscribe to an email service here on Medium which will drop new essays right into your inbox. You can also connect with me on LinkedIn to see new articles in your timeline or talk to my bot at dennishambeukers.com :) You can also find me on Instagram. When I am not blogging about Design Leadership, I work as a design strategist and project manager at Zuiderlicht.