This is for anyone who has ever felt that design isn’t being used to its full potential. By “design” I mean the disciplined practice that underlies all intentionally creative work whether you call it design thinking, UX/UI, industrial design, architecture or graphics design. This is for all the times you’ve sat through a project briefing thinking “this is really dumb!” Or a review that goes south after you’ve delivered some of your best work and you note quietly to yourself “In a sane world, this would be criminal”.
There are reasons why every design team has found themselves frustrated by factors that are much bigger than themselves, embedded in “that’s just the way it is” rationalization. They aren’t worth railing at (though we often do) because, well, it is just the way it is, there’s little we can do about it in the short-run and we’ve got work to do that we’re being paid for. Like the times that funding dries up for the project that is most important to people’s well-being. Or the VP of something or other has an entirely different frame for the project than what the creative team knows is right. Or at the most basic level, the design solutions to world hunger, global warming, malaria in Africa or urban sprawl that you know would work if we only gave them a try are not even a starter for consideration by serious people with their feet firmly planted in “the real world”.
Having asked myself these questions countless times, done my share of railing, and explored a good number of paths to find satisfactory answers, I’ve decided to take a step back from the problem; I’m taking a look at what the longer-run issues underlying what it is that stops us from designing the most wonderful possible so that we can attend to the cultural, political and technological changes that take much longer than a single product cycle, or even a single generation of designers. I figure that it’s taken decades, centuries, even millennia for design discipline to get where it is today. In the spirit of the Long Now Foundation’s 10,000 year clock, we may as well take a longer view to the way we go about shaping the world of day to day experience.
From my student days till now I’ve been encouraged by all kinds of novel approaches meant to make design more relevant, more rigorous and better able to take n the monumental adaptive challenges that are thrown at it – appropriate technology, participatory design, socially responsible design, public interest design, universal design, sustainability design, human-centered design and more. I have found that re-framing is essential to the building, product or service innovation that I’ve contributed to and so I reckoned that if we want to use design to its full potential it would be helpful to put a bit of effort into reframing design practice itself so that we can get on with designing the truly magnificent world of plenty, safety, health, dignity and beauty that we are surely capable of.
This may be the mother of all design challenges. I have no illusions. There is no quick fix. Obstacles abound that are political, economic, cultural – and deeply rooted in the human psyche that millennia’s worth of wisdom traditions and science have been trying to fathom. I’m not going to attempt finding “the” solution, or even “a” solution. That would be fool-hardy and ridiculous. I’m not going to offer advice about how to design better, do better user-research or use design more strategically. That’s what I’ve been doing for the past 40 years and I’m still frustrated by the same structural challenges now as I was when I began. Rather I’m putting all my attention and energy into understanding the context that design exists in so that we can begin to frame solutions that we can work on – creatively, wisely, inclusively and with all the resources that we can muster.
For the past few years I’ve been exploring where design comes from and why we do it at all. I’ve taken a deep dive into archaeology, anthropology, evolutionary sciences, neuroscience and art history and I’ve come up with some ideas that I’m turning into a book that I’m writing and created a talk called “Design. A Creation Story for the Anthropocene” so I can engage others – possibly you – in this conversation.
If you’re still reading this it means you’re interested in this project. I’d like to hear from you – your stories, your thoughts and your questions. There’s a place below to leave comments and to sign up to receive updates that I plan to send out every three to six months.