Understanding the Underlying Dynamics of the Design Community

Antonio Starnino
Studio Wé stories
Published in
8 min readMay 7, 2019


An analysis of the different schools of thought within the wider design community. Photo by Rene Vincit on Unsplash

Ever since switching from graphic design to service design five years ago, and more recently focusing my efforts on organizational design, there has been an underlying tension within me. A tension that came about not because of differences of craft but because of differences in world view. The worldview of my bachelor’s in design art was fundamentally different than the one of the service design community. However, until recently, I wasn’t able to properly pinpoint and conceptualize the difference.

It occurred to me that the tension that I faced as a designer, and felt by the community as a whole, stems from clumping ‘design’ into a singular bucket. Recently, thanks to starting a Masters in Human Systems Intervention, I’ve become immersed within the concept of dynamics within social systems. More importantly, how dynamics within human systems (families, organizations, communities, countries) form to produce tensions or outputs.

Within the wider design communities of which I’ve been a part, I witness three schools of thought: the traditionalists, the cultural mediators, and the innovation drivers. These diverging schools of thought are not driven by a type of design; rather, they represent a world view and mental model with regards to the question ‘what is design’ or ‘what does it mean to be a designer’. I recognize that some are frustrated with this constant discourse; however, it is my assumption that this is due to ongoing push and pull with each camp firm in its own worldview. Essentially, it has been a circular argument in which no one listens to one another.

This post is an attempt at a non-partisan analysis of the wider dynamics within the design community. It is not an attempt to say one is better than the other, but rather that all three are valuable in their own right, and that they can co-exist. It focuses on a philosophy independent of craft and also differentiates itself from Maeda’s classifications of design released in his last design in tech report.

Disclaimer: This post is not meant to be a be all and end all classification. It is also not meant to pigeonhole people, but rather expose mental models. I recognize there are many shades of gray in between these different schools of thought. None-the-less there are ways we tend to default when it comes to making sense of what design is. This is an attempt to highlight those defaults.

The scope is large and I anticipate that there are gaps in my knowledge. I encourage and expect members of the community to identify holes in my logic, or dispute my claims. This is the beginning of a living conversation and thus feedback may shape future iterations of this analysis and will build greater awareness and knowledge both in myself and hopefully in the community at large. Also, I tend to suck at grammar; please point that out too so I can fix it.

The 3 Schools of Thought Of Design

As I mentioned above, there are three schools of thought that I have witnessed in my experience as a designer. The names and classifications do not derive from extensive deductive research; but rather, an abductive leap or ‘best guess’. They are differentiated in how they approach the design field.

School Number One: The Traditionalists

‘The Traditionalists’ are the traditional craft-based designers who view design through the lens of artifact-making. Many of the practitioners that work in classic design roles find themselves in this category.

Think: Frank Gehry, Philip Stark, Dieter Rams, Paula Scher, Sagmeister and Walsh, Von Furstenberg, Ilse Crawford (essentially all of the designers in Netflix’s Abstract series) Jony Ive, and 90% of Milan or London Design Week participants.

Traditionalists view design as an embodied tradition driven by the capacity of craftsmanship. The artifact is paramount, and wider societal implications, while important, take a back seat. This has historically been the dominant design ideology and remains so to this day.

School Number Two: The Cultural Mediators

‘The Cultural Mediators’ view the role of designers as influencers and mediators in the society. In her book Design and the Elastic Mind, Paola Antonelli calls on designers to become ‘agents of change’, transitioning from the mentality of the designer as a specialized tool into that of an interdisciplinary mediator (Paola Antonelli, 24). Above and beyond the craft of the artifact, its fundamental meaning to society, and its social, political and environmental impact, are critical. Designers are change agents who leverage their capacities to discover solutions to the world’s wicked problems.

Think: Paola Antonelli, Ezio Manzini , Victor Papenek, Bruno Latour, Jane Bennett (not a designer but a strong influencer), Christopher Alexander, Buckminster Fuller, and Dunne and Raby. Many of Central Saint Martin’s Masters programs such as narrative environments and material futures are steeped in this view, as well as many Design Art programs.

I believe that designers with this worldview are more interested in the intellectual pursuits of design. This is the dominant ‘academic design’ worldview and interestingly tends to be populated with many disenfranchised architects wanting to move past traditionalist views.

In the interest of transparency, but not an endorsement, this is the worldview to which I personally subscribe. (I guess this explains why I am writing this post in the first place!)

School Three: The Innovation Drivers

‘The Innovation Drivers’ are the newest and perhaps most controversial philosophy of design. Innovation drivers view designers as a democratic authority that facilitates amongst various stakeholders, driving innovation for business and society. They adopt a human-centered approach and view themselves as problem-solvers. They are more social and pragmatic than School One, and more open and flexible than School Two.

Think: d.school, IDEO, a large part of the UX, UCD, design thinking, business design and service design communities. Here you would find Roger Martin, Liz Sanders, Tim Brown, Don Norman, and to a certain extent John Maeda. Essentially, the entire crowd that Natasha Jen called out in her infamous talk.

In many respects, working alongside this community, there is an implicit belief that this is the future of design and that designers will increasingly have to become more human-centered. It is also the most democratic of worldviews, deep in its conviction that everyone has the potential to become a designer, thus welcoming people from non-traditional design backgrounds (business, social sciences, etc.), to learn and adopt the title of designer. It is also the most business-minded worldview, leveraging designers’ skills to solve complex business and organizational problems.

Note: In the hopes of assuaging my own ethical dilemma, I want to point out that I am woefully aware that the majority of the examples I provided feature white males. This is, unfortunately, a gap I encountered in an attempt to provide examples that may be ‘household names’ in the wider community. I am also aware that much of this discourse is based on an extremely western perspective of design. This admission does not excuse it, yet I wanted to acknowledge it. I ask members of the community to point me towards more diverse examples that I can include.

Underlying Dynamics of These Schools of Thoughts

Given that these three schools all swim in the same ocean of ‘design’, conflict is inevitable. There is constant friction, thus here I stretch into my Human Systems mindset to analyze why this conflict exists and why it has not evolved. Referencing the Thomas-Kilmann (TKI) Conflict Model, I believe that these three perspectives have distinct strategies in approaching the question “what is the role of a designer”.

An overview of the TKI Model From Psychometrics

School Number One: Conflict Avoidance

The TKI model speaks to conflict avoidance as “unassertive” “pursuing their own concerns over others of others”[1]. Essentially, Traditionalists don’t engage in the discussion. They tend to shield themselves away from the conversation. They are disinterested in wider conflicts and focus on their craft. When called out, they tend not to defend themselves; rather, their discourse tends to be ‘artifact-centered’ around the particularities of their own work instead of the wider discourse about the meaning of design. This would also explain why a Mike Monteiro or even a conflict Competer (explained in the next section) could still be considered a traditionalist. Proponents of this worldview absorb the criticism and speak on behalf of a community that traditionally avoids conflict in favor of craft.

School Number Two: Conflict Competers

“Assertive” and “uncooperative”, Conflict Competers will do anything to win their position. Stimulated by and encultured in contentious academic discourse, they provoke conflict — primarily with innovation drivers, who they view as a threat to design. This conflict is sometimes intended to generate wider conversation; however, often times reinforces the divide. (A common opinion is: “this (design thinking, i.e. innovation drivers) isn’t ‘design’”.) Again, Natasha Jen’s talk comes to mind, as well as Antonelli’s attempt to separate design from its aesthetic traditional roots, and her opinion that design thinking should not be considered “a form of design”. Proponents of this worldview will fight for their position without welcoming cooperation from the other two schools.

School Number Three: Conflict Compromisers

Compromisers tend to not take sides and look for an “expedient, mutually acceptable solution that partially satisfies both parties” [Source[JW1] ]. IDEO’s response to design thinking criticism is a perfect example of this, accepting its problems while reaffirming design’s strength as a vehicle for innovation. Proponents of School Three will try not to take a firm stance; they believe in their position, yet possess a democratic ethos that pushes them to compromise. They will try to smooth away conflict by acknowledging a part of the criticism and embedding it within a solution, rather than engaging in more critical discourse.

Bringing It Together

Considering these conflict strategies explains why service design or design thinking conferences readily adopt talks from School Two, such as speculative design, albeit more superficially, but Paola Antonelli would scoff at the idea of integrating design thinking into her work (even though from their [JW2] worldview it represents a fascinating cultural shift). It also explains why so many renowned traditional designers have been absent from the conversation altogether.

One doesn’t want anything to do with the other two; Two thinks it’s always right and superior, and Three wants to grow and become more established, without burning bridges with the other two. If these schools of thought were siblings, can you imagine how complicated it would be to decide where to go for dinner, let alone figure out what ‘design’ in the 21st century means?

Ok, So What Does This All Mean?

This is where I’m going to disappoint you: I don’t know. This is where my abductive leap ends, and I’m hoping the conversation begins. I also realize that depending on the school of thought I’m going to get one of three responses. One: Crickets… Two: Wrong because of XYZ. Three: This is great! I’m going to go away and think about this some more…

And in this sense what I hope to create here is an awareness of the dynamics behind the design. To borrow a popular concept from School Three, I guess I hope to promote empathy. Design is complicated, and it is not getting any simpler. As a design community with many titles, we are all diverse, and there may not be any right type of designer; but rather, the evolution of the field as it happens. All three world views can live, fight and learn together while building upon one another. What we do need is a greater relationality and reflective discourse together. We need to reach across the schools and talk to each other. I WOULD LOVE to see a panel comprised of Jony Ive, Tim Brown and Paola Antonelli talking about the meaning of design. Without the pretense of coming to an answer, but rather for the richness that such a conversation would bring.

I recognize that this is a bit of a read, and I look forward to broadening the discourse.

Special thanks goes to Jennifer Wieskopf ( @JennSk8s ) for editing and giving me feedback on this text.



Antonio Starnino
Studio Wé stories

Montreal born designer / coach / partner @studio_we_ | Masters graduate @hsi_concordia — Interested in #servicedesign, #orgchange & #designleadership | he/him