To be a designer is to be critical, inquisitive, empathetic, and a facilitator for change. These values (among others) have always existed in our profession, but today more than ever, they need to be amplified to face the various challenges at companies, in society, and in the entire ecosystem. Business challenges are pushing designers to focus obsessively on the technical side of design, so this promotes the abundance of design conferences and learning spaces dedicated almost exclusively to methodologies, processes and case studies.
I have seen an urgency to learn technical skills in the surveys we do after our courses and events at SDMX. Technical skills are undoubtedly indispensable for a young discipline, but the strategic conversations about values can be overshadowed by this interest over tools and technicalities.
Joint Futures is a new conference in Helsinki with an aim to explore design through a holistic perspective: inclusive, strategic, and prospective. It is a unique space in the world, dedicated to address difficult topics around Craft and People — the two tracks of the conference. This event is organized by Angelos Arnis and Yves Florack, and set in motion by an impressive team of international managers and volunteers. It is also an iteration of the previous Design Systems Conference.
A couple of months ago I was marking Joint Futures on my calendar, feeling a little doubtful about going, considering the distance, the fact I was going through important changes at work, and the graduation of the 6th Generation of our educational program at SDMX on the same week; but after looking at the lineup and chatting with Angelos in Slack a couple times, I felt that I wanted not only to go, but join the team as a volunteer. The tradeoff was not easy: on one hand I wanted to go and listen to all the talks, calmly; then the other option was to work the whole week in exchange of learning about organizing such a large international event, with intentions of applying the learnings in our conference.
In recent years I have demanded a lot of myself, trying to balance a full-time job, studying a postgraduate specialty, teaching at some universities, working on the SDMX venture, organizing a conference and multiple community events, and my personal life. This high-paced life led to several health issues that makes me think twice about new projects. But if you know me, you might know that the answer to the tradeoff… was obvious.
Hustle and bustle
For 6 days I walked 73,340 steps and collaborated with a team of 30 designers from 10+ cities, donating their time to build this event for 600 attendees. This gave me a glimpse at some pre-event logistics.
As the website stated: A group of passionate thinkers and doers, with a purpose.
Being able to have conversations about design in a city like Helsinki is a privilege, a city that has been Design Capital of the world, whose government has dedicated design teams creating their visual identity and has service design departments; a city that has a Design District, and an incredible public library designed through service design processes. The conference itself considered various learning formats under two simultaneous tracks, networking spaces and workshops.
I was pleased to see the active and conscious effort on creating an inclusive and diverse event, especially through a lineup with an impressive number of incredible women with so much to say. It is not easy to summarize so many hours of continuous learning but I’ll include some remarks that seemed relevant to me, clearly filtered by what resonates with my current concerns.
With Andrew Godfrey from InVision we explored the foundations of a Design System, beyond the construction of one. It is refreshing to hear about this topic through a systems thinking perspective, and making it human-centered. The most important thing about a design system is not the design system. The creation of a DS depends mostly on the people who are going to use it, on the structures of the organization, on the style of work, decision-making and even the mindset around design. It’s an extremely strategic effort and the complexity lies on reaching agreements between stakeholders on the categorization that will influence the construction of a product for life.
Priya Prakash talked about re-humanizing the HCD and how the focus on collective well-being has been lost due to the focus on business metrics. She argues that the conversation must go beyond technical debt into societal debt, and proposes to add a WHO section to the golden circle. Who do we serve with our design? Emily Campbell spoke of organizational structures that do not allow internal change, and based on their design maturity study done at InVision, she explains that the focus on people (not the process) is what leads a company to grow from level 1 to 5 in design maturity.
Tatiana Mac gave many examples of how to create inclusive design systems, and the difficulties she has experienced in raising her voice on this subject. It is very important that more designers join this fight because the way we use language matters, it influences documentation and supports systemic problems in an eternal loop. Marc Stickdorn invited service designers to prototype more, and get away from the idea that we only do workshops.
Kim Goodwin was the speaker that I was most eager to hear, she brought to the table a very critical vision of what we need as designers to truly impact the user experience. Difficulties in navigating through different decisions taken by various stakeholders that have a negative impact on experience and the need to rethink the use of metrics. The important thing is to determine design principles, and stick to them even when it is difficult; and Kim calls on designers to avoid working for companies that continually seek excuses for not complying with their principles.
The only important thing about design is how it relates to people. —Victor Papanek
I was also excited to hear Mike Monteiro speak, he’s an example of the power of storytelling. His talk Lets destroy Silicon Valley takes up concepts from his most recent book Ruined by Design, that points out how many modern evils happen by design, and reinforcing Kim’s argument to make conscious decisions about which companies do we put our labor as designers. I won’t spoil it, it’s worth reading.
Closing with Dori Tunstall was perfect to take with us the task of making more efforts on being inclusive and respectful through our design, and to rethink the values of the discipline that have historically been colonial, patriarchal and capitalist.
I thank Angelos and Yves for the opportunity, and feel grateful about this point in my career that allows me to work on this kind of projects; which leads me to realize how much I enjoy doing this: promoting the exchange of knowledge, the connection between people, and especially to continue doing it from my space of influence in a country where this is very much needed. There are days when I feel that we are not ready for this over here; when I get tired and frustrated by the lack of interest in certain topics or the speakers that we’ve managed to convince to come under limited conditions, compared to the ones in other countries. But I return with renewed energy and a desire to push a little further. I’m looking forward to apply some learnings at Frontstage 2020.
Read in Spanish here.