Design at a crossroads

by Brian Haven
@ 11:14 PM

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» Design Thinking



Bruce Nussbaum of Business Week had some interesting things to say about design and the role of the CEO several weeks ago. It really starts to touch on a point I've been struggling with in my head for some time now. Bruce makes some great points about the design discipline and the role it is playing (or should be playing) in the commercial world. As a Forrester Analyst, I'm exposed to many business ideas that exhibit how few people really get design. Everyone's focused on marketing products and services that fail to meet their customer's needs.

For me, this comes down to a 'design thinking' issue and it means that the design discipline is at a crossroads. Here's the problem: design doesn't know what it want's to be when it grows up. Most design work over the past several decades has focused on style and form. Now that's fine, we need that, and making an aesthetic connection between a person and that 'thingness' is part of design's DNA. However, in recent years, as Six Sigma dwindles, institutions are looking for a way to differentiate, and for an elite few that differentiation is design. Now I'll be the first to argue that human centered design should be at the root of all new products (when I say products I mean 'that which is produced' which includes artifacts, services, environments, etc.), but let's face it—business just isn't there yet. So, design has an opportunity to take things to the next level.

Design as a discipline needs to come to terms with it's role in the business world. Designers need to start thinking about the business models that surround their creations. They need to help determine what value their work brings both to the person that engages with the product, but also what value it brings to the entity that helped facilitate it's creation. That's a new kind of sustainability—not the green kind, but instead an approach that requires the designer to build into the process the mechanisms that enable an entity to sustain itself, and continue to create great things.

This means that design isn't just about making—it evolves to include the process, strategy, and approach. The new designers skilled in this approach can become the new MBAs. I still believe that we need to train and covet those that can make beautiful things, but making the right thing goes beyond just the craft of manufacture (industrial design, graphic design, interaction design, information design, etc.) to include the process for understanding what needs to be made, the needs of the person it's being made for, the alignment with the institution's core competencies, how that 'thing' will live and die in it's lifetime, and how that institution will survive to make another day.

Some business schools are altering curriculum to try to attempt to train this new designer, but I fear that that approach will be a business person in designer's clothing when what we need is a designer in business person's clothing. On the flip side, some graduate design programs struggle with their curriculum to meet these needs. Either way, it's given that this is a collaborative process and people from all roles should be involved in the definition and creation of products.

Design has an amazing opportunity sitting in front of it—so is it status quo, or carpe diem?


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