Disruptive Design
Published in

Disruptive Design

What is Disruptive Design?

Disruption was asked to be banished in 2012, 2014, and 2015, yet it still is a hot, overused ‘buzzword.’ Just like many aspirational terms before it, (think sustainability and innovation), popularity leads to overuse, dilution, confusion, and fatigue. Frankly, overuse sucks the meaning right out of a concept till it’s just a shell of an idea held together by ink on a page.

Disruption, like so many overused words, is intensely misunderstood. Conceptually, the term means to create an interruption into something that is maintaining a status quo. Colloquially, though, it is much more about making loads of money from the newest, most ‘disruptive’ (read: newer) technology out there. It’s toppling old industries through new smart, young, and agile upstarts. In this context, it’s not about making change; it’s about winning customers, clicks, and clients.

To disrupt is to disturb or intervene. The term came to prominence in the late 90s when Clay Christiansen, an MIT professor, spoke of it in relation to business activity in his book The Innovator’s Dilemma. For Christiansen, his term “Disruptive Innovation” is the very specific act of challenging a mainstream company by creating a new parallel product that activates previously un-activated elements of the economy; thus, it creates a shift toward the new offering, poaching consumers from the main player over to the newer innovation. It has nothing to do with coolness or edginess, or even social change or sustainability. Disruptive Innovation, in this context, simply has to do with new economic activity that challenges the mainstream business establishment.

Christiansen has written about how Uber, often referred to as a major disrupter, is indeed not a disruptive innovator. According to his theory, Uber misses the mark because it did not enter a low-end or new foothold market; instead, it launched in San Francisco, a place where taxi rides were already in high demand and its target audience was already accustomed to using taxis. Furthermore, Christensen points out that the term disruptive is being wrongly used to describe innovation that is simply improving upon a good product that already exists - something Uber did masterfully by offering convenience for hailing a cab and paying for it via a smart app. But, for Christiansen, they missed the mark on being disruptive because the initial consumer base did not reject it and wait for its quality to improve in order to drive down market prices; instead, those already using taxis happily thrust Uber to the top of the market. So yes, Uber is transforming the taxi industry, but, according to Christiansen’s framing of disruption, their business model does not follow the basic principles to qualify it as “disruptive.”

The Case for More Disruptive Design

So, where does Disruptive Design come into play? And can it really be differentiated from Disruptive Innovation? While the concepts have similarities on face value (such as shared a word that describes change), Disruptive Design is very different from the concept of Disruptive Innovation.

Here is how I frame it:

Design is the act of creating something new — sometimes iterative, sometimes innovative, and in rare cases, revolutionary. Designing is an intentional act of creating a product, service, or system that embodies some degree of change. First and foremost, design has to achieve function (purely aesthetic creative productions are not, in my opinion, design; they are more so in the world of art, which is incredible and valuable and all of the adjectives to describe the power of art and yes there is always a need for more of it in the world). But art can exist without function whereas design can’t, so when we talk about Disruptive Design, we are talking about creating intentionally disruptive creative interventions that are functionally imbued with the objective of challenging the status quo and making positive change.

Design is about creating something that adds to or iterates on the existing, and disruption is about creating a disturbance with the intent of changing a system. When combined, the practice of Disruptive Design is to create intentional interventions into a pre-existing system with the specific objective to leverage a different outcome, and more importantly, an outcome that is likely to create positive social change.

When combined, the practice of Disruptive Design is to create intentional interventions into a pre-existing system with the specific objective to leverage a different outcome, and more importantly, an outcome that is likely to create positive social change.

The Disruptive Design approach is about activating sustainability principles through creative practice. It employs a series of thinking and doing tools that anyone can implement in a formulated processes of mining, landscaping, and building; these terms are symbolistic for the processes that we can use to develop a three-dimensional perspective to exploring, understanding, and intervening in complex hyper-local to global problems.

I developed the Disruptive Design Method as a way to fill a gap between knowledge and action; to forge a community of practice that facilitates purpose-driven change makers; to activate systems thinking; to consider sustainability sciences in what we produce; and to enhance creative ideation techniques as platforms for actively participating in the world around us. Really, it’s a remedy for the perpetual frustration that many of us experience, as it provides a set of mental and practical tools to help redesign the world so that it works better for all of us.

We live in a hyper-negativity-fueled media landscape where it is increasingly difficult to escape the perception that everything is fucked. But if we all opt into this restrictive mental model, then we are opting into a self-perpetuating future. In fact, the future is not defined; we co-create it as we participate in the construction of what is relevant now. Our immediate actions actually define the future scenario that we will be in, both individually and as a collective whole (there is so much amazing nerdy stuff out there ATM on this from physicists see here, here and here).

“The best way to predict the future is to design it” — R. Buckminster Fuller

What may be most surprising about Disruptive Design is that it is not limited to designers, engineers, techies, entrepreneurs, or any other profession that’s been unconsciously linked to the word “disrupt.” Anyone can practice Disruptive Design. Here are the general prerequisites:

  • Give a shit about the future of this planet
  • Have a burning desire to participate in designing solutions that address hyper-local to global issues that affect humanity and the sustainability of the life-support systems that sustain the planet
  • Be open to sharing, exchange, and collaboration
  • Be a pioneer who is willing to fail, discover, curiously explore, and change a core part of what they do in the world
  • See problems as opportunities

Are you a producer or a consumer?

Our entire economic structure is based on the idea of producers and consumers. Whilst we know it’s a little more complex than this dichotomic bi-structure, there are very specific differences in these two approaches to living in this world. Modern lifestyles are geared toward a massive shift in production to consumption. Consumption is the act of passively absorbing the products of society, whereas a producer is an agent that forms the artifacts and elements that make up the human world. All elements of an ecosystem designed by nature are both producers and consumers.

Humans are the only species that create closed ecosystems, where one is reliant on the dictatorship of the creator. I can imagine you are reading this on a product that is created as a closed ecosystem, designed to create an addictive need for the specific products of the creator.

How does this relate to being a disruptive change maker? It’s easy; avoid being a passive consumer, activate your agency, and become an active producer. The hard part is that it requires a rewriting of the mental codes we have all become comfortable with and are attached to for convenience and efficiency alike.

Creativity has always been about challenging the status quo. The advent of the industrial revolution came along and really helped shift the role of creativity, industrializing its role in society. When the profession of industrial design was created, it was all about customizing the user experience to overcome the mundanity that mass production had facilitated. Also, companies now needed to find new ways of getting a competitive edge, and creatives started to be the hot commodity in facilitating this need (a trend we are also seeing again on the rise now with the Internet age). Inherently, though, design, in this context, was focused on adding to the aesthetic experiences of the material world and its rapid advancement; it wholeheartedly embraced issues of planned obsolescence and the advent of the throwaway culture (there are troves of old-school reading on this; here are a few great starting points- Vance Packard’s The Waste Makers, Gils Slade’s Made to Break and The Economists Take on Planned Obsolescence).

Now we have experience design (in which many jobs are filled by traditionally trained industrial designers), and it’s really about cognitive experience design (Tristan Harris, who used to be a Design Ethicist at Google, eloquently writes about this in this article). The issue here is that the designed world is often created to serve the interests of corporations as producers, to activate the latent consumer desires. Creative minds are put to work on creating the financial and increasingly neurological dependence of the average human to be addicted to the momentary emotional benefits that consumption has on us. Just take the pure emotional joy that many of us experience the moment we get a new gadget — the bliss that a well-designed UX offers us, versus the pain and frustration we experience when something does not work according to our expectations. But, here’s where the money factor comes in — so much of what is produced is designed to break, to be undesirable as quickly as it was desired! This, my friends, is where the Disruptive Design approach differs from the rest. It means actively seeking out the production of goods, services, and expenses that challenge and change the status quo so that we have more significant contributions to the narratives of where we want to end up as a species, happening from all sides of the debate. And this means corporations must be willing to experiment and create things that go against the “business-as-usual” model of take, make, use, and dispose. This is where movements like the Circular Economy, regenerative business, and product-service system models are so incredibly powerful at reimagining the economic activities that sustain many of our livelihoods, but also have significant costs to the wider social and environmental ecosystems.

After observing the misguided trajectory that creativity is now being forced to take, I knew I wanted to use my own creativity and agency for something greater than short-term economic gain. I also realized that no such framework for complex problem solving, systems thinking, social innovation, sustainability, and activated change making as a result of design existed. And thus, post-PhD into this arena, the Disruptive Design Methodology was born.

Activate your Agency: Learn the Disruptive Design Methodology

The Disruptive Design Methodology is a three-part process of mining, landscaping, and building, embracing an approach to problem solving that helps people develop a three-dimensional perspective of the way the world works and provides a unique way of exploring, identifying, and creating tactical interventions that leverage systems change for positive social and environmental outcomes. Because intervening in the status quo requires a critical and flexible thinking framework (along with a bit of rebellious flare), the Disruptive Design approach initiates change by teaching practitioners to love a problem arena, which essentially is any arena in which you wish to create positive change. Instead of avoiding or ignoring problems, the Disruptive Design method dives right into the sticky center of the issue and then look at the ways in which complex, dynamically evolving systems interact in order to find the opportunities for leveraging change through creative interventions.

Once you learn to be a problem lover, you use systems boundaries to define the spaces you wish to explore, and then find connection points perfect for a tactical intervention (which is often not where you would intuitively think, based on your starting knowledge in the problem arena). Then, because you have all this new knowledge from mining and landscaping, you can rapidly develop divergent solutions and creative approaches for change that build on your unique individual sphere of influence, which is the space we can all curate to affect change on the people or things around us. Any problem from community concerns to massive global crises can be explored and evolved through this method; because it’s a thinking and doing practice, it can be adapted and evolved based on the problem. The core pillars of the approach are always systems, sustainability, and design.

Disruptive Design is a way for creatives and non-creatives alike to develop the mental tools to activate positive change by mining through problems, employing a divergent array of research approaches, moving through systems analysis, and then ideating opportunities for systems interventions that amplify positive impact through a given micro or macro problem arena. It enables you to gain an empowered perspective of your role in the world and get the tools to take on a proactive approach to designing change in day-to-day, local environments and socially-motivated practices.The entire knowledge set equips you to be a more aware and intentional agent for change; due to the high demand for our popular worldwide pop-up programs, we have just started releasing classes online through the UnSchool Online. You can dive into a comprehensive overview of the Disruptive Design Methodology in this introductory class.

— — — — — — — -

Take the full methodology set online here >

Check out the overview course on the Disruptive Design Method >



This curated collection of articles explores the themes of disruptive design, sustainability, cognitive science, systems thinking, social innovation, the circular economy and the systems that connect it all.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store
Leyla Acaroglu

UNEP Champion of the Earth, Designer, Sociologist, Sustainability Provocateur, TED Speaker, Educator, Founder of unschools.co, disrupdesign.co & coproject.co