Introduction: why these essays?
Notes from a mess
Essays on human-centered design for managers in Japan: why?
The essays in this collection are different than what I would write to the design profession in the US in 2022. I wrote them in 2020, speaking to (my limited understanding of) hierarchical corporate management in Japan. I wrote them from my continual exploration of how to better create things together in These Times.
Late the year before, I received an invitation from my friend Shinohara Toshikazu. He lives in Japan, where he has long been an advocate and influencer for design and creative leadership. “Dear Marc,” he wrote. “I am writing a book about managing human-centered design. May I ask you some questions and publish your answers?” Shinohara-san and I have a history of publishing our correspondence in Japan. There used to be a magazine feature there that was made of nothing but our email correspondence.
So there I sat, writing answers to his questions. Ten years before I had turned my focus from corporate design practice — from products and services, from assuming technology would be part of the answer to any question. I knew from trips and visits with leaders there that I was writing to people who live every day in the world I had left behind.
Well, I had kept a hand in it. I was still doing strategic design research. I was still hosting conversation and co-creation with executives, IT managers, design groups. And also, because I increasingly worked with mission-driven non-profit organizations, activist groups, and people who say things like “decolonization,” I was beginning to see differently.
So I had a foot in each of those worlds. Dinner in my house with fiercely loving activists informed by Black Feminism. Weekday workshops with say, library managers in love with “a digital future.”
The questions came from a man with the heart of a symphony-loving humanist, who chooses to work in the center of techno-business and government. His readers also dream of better ways and better results, but work in the… bowels? gears? swirling forces? …of Japanese management hierarchies. I wasn’t sure I was the right person to be answering these questions. Who am I, I thought, to be opining to them?
I wrote some things. I sent them to Tokyo. Shinohara-san said nice things and put my essays in his book. It felt strange to have them only be available in Japanese, so here they are for English readers. With revisions. I couldn’t help myself.
Each begins with Shinohara-san’s question, followed by my answer.
The discomfort that informed these essays
Shinohara-san’s questions touched a profound discomfort I’ve felt throughout my thirty years in design.
I entered the field of design with excitement in about 1996, after fifteen years in software development and “systems architecture.” I sought more humanity in my work. I was fortunate to fall under the guiding wings of broad-minded pioneers, from whom I drew the belief that this ancient creative process would set the rhythm for the rest of my working life. It was called, after all, “human-centered design.” “Finally!” I thought, “I’ll leave technology-centered projects behind.”
In the years that followed I don’t believe I ever encountered truly human-centered design. And meanwhile — I don’t need to tell you — old structures are failing, new ones are unclear, and the forces of belonging and oppression are both in bloom. Design practice and education are part of all that. Design is full of possibility for better ways for us to live together, or for continuing the harms of the old.
Since I wrote these essays, I’ve found better language. In the halls of practice and craft I pay most attention to, Something is Going On. Many are recognizing how our practices embody reductionist, industrial and colonial mindsets. There is a surge of interest in purposeful work among designers. I see eagerness to shift power and work with emergence at all scales.
In the face of the challenges of the times, we have to engage as best we’re able. We have to show up with more than our resumes and brains. These times ask for our love — a channel from our interior lives out into our communities. This means expanding our processes and tools, conversations and concepts. We have new things to learn and practice together, and old things to let go of.
In 2009 I began to focus on social questions over business and technical challenges. I filled myself with concepts, approaches, methods and skills. As I applied this learning, I found that head knowledge is not enough. New ways of working mean new habits of mind. Adopting new habits of mind comes through experiences, through living new practices together.
That’s what I want to support.
I wrote these pages for an audience of Japanese corporate managers. Despite many visits with people who work in Japanese companies, I know I don’t understand their world. My impression is that they are very interested in “getting it right.” “Doing it right.” Wouldn’t we all like that?
Working at the edge of practice
Design is often seen as a tool for problem-finding and problem-solving. Many of its advocates might say that it is indeed a process for “getting it right,” or at least “making it good.”
But most of the things we would like to change are patterns, not problems. There is no solving those patterns, there is only participating in ways that might shift them. And that takes a long time.
This is a great edge of design — a meeting place between what it has been and what it might become. A conversation between Who Designers Are and the realities of the world. What will it look like for us to become more able to participate in thriving new social patterns?
I’m honored to be in that question with you. I hope there is something in these essays that invites a step from where you are onto the road that beckons you.
Banner image: Marc Rettig in conversation with MidJourney.com.