This is the original version of the story of how I came to reframe the work I do from doing design to thinking about, writing about and teaching design consciousness – the internal structures of our mind and soul that compel us to create a layer of reality on top of what nature has managed to do on it’s own. As I prepare this website and blog for a series of essays and a book I plan to write I have rewritten and expanded this story – and put it on the “Who I Am” page to introduce visitors to my project – and me.
In 1977 I arrived in England to study design. I left behind a country embroiled in a civil war I no longer wanted to fight. I imagined a better world – beyond the poverty, degradation, pain, and suffering of Apartheid that I had witnessed in South Africa. I was idealistic and desired to make the world better – by design.
My first industrial design project at Manchester Polytechnic challenged my idealism. ITT, the giant multinational corporation, sponsored the project. An executive came to brief 10 young designers in our 8th floor studio. He wanted us to design a cooker hood built around the fans that ITT made. Standing before us in his crisp business suit, he was clear and concise about the objective of our project: sell more fans. He didn’t believe that forced air vents were very effective, and doubted that we could improve them. Just make them sleek and look like they work, so people will buy them, he argued.
This cynicism launched me on a quest for design that really could be a force for good. Design for the Real World. This was the title of Victor Papenak’s seminal work on socially responsible design that offered a critique of this cynical approach. It set me on an exploration that I continue today. Through design methods and research my journey has led me to examine the underlying processes of design – the workings of the designer’s mind, and approaches for gathering information that address the questions “why?” and “what?” as well as “how?” At the Royal College of Art in London, L. Bruce Archer’s insights about designerly thinking affected me deeply. Appropriate technology, semiotics, product semantics, human factors, participatory design, universal design, user-centered design. All offered ideas about how design could be more humane, but I was still not satisfied.
In the 1990s, the innovation cauldron of Silicon Valley hit on the formula that helped design gain a seat at the boardroom table. Design-thinking is part management theory, part innovation methodology, and part social movement. Based on the realization that everyone is, in some sense, a designer, it stresses the importance of empathy as the source of innovative insight. It puts the customer, the users of the things we invent, at the center of determining what we invent, and how we design it.
Design-thinkers (including myself) view innovation as a collaborative, creative, idea-driven process requiring the questioning of all assumptions. We seek to move ideas quickly to prototypes where shortcomings can be discovered through hands-on experience and a cycle of rapid correction and perfection. The success of design-thinking has shown businesses that design is more than decoration and aesthetics.
This is satisfying, but still not enough.
So I continue on my quest to find ideas, design practices and objects that take me closer to my ideal: invention, innovation and design that actually improve the world.
I seek to connect with innovators who create wonderful things, envision a better world, and give positive expressions to the human spirit. I seek designers who take us closer to living in a balanced and sustainable way on a fragile planet.
Designing Our Future
I have spent my career of over 30 years observing and practicing the ways that design drives, and is driven by the insatiable human impulse to keep changing the form of the world. First at the venerable furniture company Herman Miller that brought the world the furniture of Charles Eames, the office cubicle, ergonomic chairs, and Facility Management. Then at Praxis, my innovation and design agency in Silicon Valley, where I have been honored to serve innovative companies from A to Z: Abbott Labs to Zonare.
This blog is my sketchpad. This is a place where I can ideate and prototype notions of design, have creative fun, and argue for reinventing the world in service of all beings. I will make the case that design is a deeply human pursuit and striking a balance between the natural and the technological is the highest concern of design.
I look forward to engaging with innovators and designers who share my ideals, and connect to organizations that make our world better – by design.