(This article summarises a few reflections on design that I shared at Fjord’s Equinox conference in March 2019.)
The relevance of design has been increasing exponentially in the past 10 years, as its influence has stretched from a perceived focus on aesthetics to encompass complex systems and ethics. As a passionate advocate of design’s yet untapped potential, I have been trying all along this trajectory to trace its past, present and possible future areas of growth.
At the heart of my reflections lies a personal belief that design’s higher relevance and impact has also similarly increased the responsibilities of its practitioners.
As futurist and philosopher Marshall McLuhan allegedly said, “We shape our tools and thereafter our tools shape us”. In other words the tools we engineer and design heavily influence our culture, and that in turn shapes the world we live in and its value systems. For instance, right now we live in a physical world heavily influenced by our four-wheeled transportation tools, and we’re in the heyday of a culture dependent on digital connectivity and pocketable, personal computing.
As the creators of tools, designers have the unique opportunity and the responsibility to help influence the cultures of our future. This requires us to ask harder “why”- type questions: not just what people may want or need, but what they choose, believe and aspire to be, and the impact their decisions have on society and on the planet we share with many other species.
From purpose to relevance
In business, the big “why” question at the core of every organisation is often framed as that business’s purpose. Why does it exist? What does it set out to achieve? What are its values? In our current landscape there’s never been more choice for customers, and hence purpose is steadily expanding into something even more fundamental: relevance. Without ultimately making their own customers feel relevant, brands will simply see them disconnect and choose other, more empowering partners and service providers.
Organisations also need to refresh their attitude toward initiatives that help to address the many issues that affect our complex, interconnected society. Historically, such initiatives have been delegated to Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) units, but they were mostly seen as separate or even in opposition to profit margins and business value creation. This view has been changing, and “doing good” is increasingly becoming fundamental to business success.
Designing for inclusivity will for example enable more people to access the products and services they want to use, increasing business impact by serving the largest possible customer base.
Making a positive social impact isn’t merely a moral imperative: there are sound economic reasons to explore solutions that do good. Designers can and should ensure that these “shared value” conversations inform strategic business decisions, and guarantee that nobody gets left behind.
Not just one future, but many
When technology no longer feels like the limit, imagination might actually become one. Are we being bold and generous enough when shaping the tools and services that will influence our culture, and hence our possible futures in return? Such an ambition requires foresight and ethics to fuel imagination, but also an optimist mindset coupled with grit and determination.
Relevance, inclusivity, shared value, foresight and ethics: these are some of the boundaries that design is exploring. This expansion of our playing field is forcing designers to ask harder questions, and to take responsibility over the strategic role we increasingly play.
Design will continue to grow in relevance and influence only if it will contribute to tackle the complex, systemic problems that affect our societies, economies and the planet we all call home.