The Outer Boundaries of Design

Specialist --> Integrative

One could argue that somewhere in the 20th century we went from design thinking to design "thinging". Tim Brown at IDEO has written about the inherent design thinking of Isambard Brunel, the early 19th century engineer. Brunel famously build the railroad system in the UK and the overly ambitious steamship the Great Eastern. Brunel didn't just focus on designing railroads and steamships, however. He concerned himself with designing the entire experience of getting travellers from London's Kings Cross Station to New York City. To Brunel, travellers weren't looking to be on a train or a boat, they were looking to get to a destination in comfort and enjoyment.

In contrast, 20th Century design was all about specialisation. In the process of becoming masters of the different areas of design, we seem to have swept design, as a way of bringing integrative thinking and skills to human problems, under the carpet.

We are now living with this legacy of design that has evolved into a world of masters of specific aspects of problem solving. Those who work on form. Those who work on function. Those who work on experience. We've lost a lot of the connections. Contemporary designers need to be more adaptive, because the design problems they are trying to solve are changing every day, and the environments they are part of are becoming more complex. Communications are multichannel. Products and services blend. Branding is tied to digital strategy. Touchpoints and experiences cross real and virtual boundaries. Internal stakeholders are customers.

And so on.

'Service design' has promised to bring everything together once again. No longer do we only worry about the artefact, rather we consider and design to it's context. We are moving away from celebrating the inspired genius and instead demanding cross-functional empathy with collaborative groups.

But, we are in danger of losing our clients in the shuffle. We've been busy training for a sprint, but the race is a triathlon. We're not fully in the game, because we still promote narrow areas of expertise. We make it hard for our clients to find us and know what we can do for them.

Servant --> Master

Design been looking for their clients or organisations to guide their efforts. I think we're past the stage where we can wait for permission to do great work.

So how can it be different?

There are a handful of design firms, such as Hyphen in the UK and BallyDesign in the US, that have created their own products and IP to either sell to third-parties or bring to market themselves.

There's the opportunity to grow and train designers within design firms and then embed design talent within organisations and even government agencies. Leveraging the hands-on training of the traditional design studio to accommodate the talent needs of organisations. Jump Associates in California does this with a few of their clients.

Design firms just can't afford to be reactive only. They have to set the agenda and let their clients know what they can do. Go and ask a customer what they need. And you know why that’s a problem? They'll tell you. And it will be limited and unhelpful. The infamous Pontiac Aztec in the U.S. was a car designed by focus group. It's exactly what was asked for. And it's an abomination. It's the designer's role to discover the unmet needs of their customers and imagine an aspiration outcome the meets those needs.

Design firms have the same opportunity with their clients. Do we understand our clients unmet needs? Or are we waiting for them to come and tell and tell us what they "need"? If we can anticipate what would be truly valuable to our clients, we can create the aspirational future we know they can achieve. It's hard to imagine beyond one's own experience. We need to do that work for our customers and that includes clients. It's easier to show than to tell. Design firms need to help their clients imagine what their future could be.

Solo --> Cooperative

So, where do design firms go from here?

While the end product of any design effort is important, involving your clients in the journey – as participants, experts, and decision makers, is now equally important. They want to be and should be part of what you do, but it's a very different skill set to involve and utilise your client systematically and well.

I recently heard Jason Furnell, from ThoughtWorks, speak and he had a fantastic insight about the maturity path of designers. His point was, as designers become expert, to use his term, they often become the "hated design princess". They become frustrated with their cohorts and clients who can't understand their genius, sense of style, effort, and intent. Jason's argument is that, as designers mature, they need to become facilitators of design thinking, using the same tools and methodologies of their craft to explore, understand, collaborate, and create.

Design firms are, perhaps, on a similar journey. Having mastery of skill is not enough to answer the complex problems the world is presenting and that people are demanding solutions to.

In my own world, I've been challenged to integrate a design thinking approach across organisations and there are plenty of design firms that would be keen to help me with this task. But the reality is, organisations are in a poor position to understand, adopt, and integrate design methods. How many of us have participated in or promoted a 'train the trainer' approach to design integration? I've been on both sides of this and it never seems to stick. Why, because we have little to no real advocacy within organisations where it's needed.

I chose to put myself at the coal face and advocate for design within financial services. If I'm ever going to make a difference in our corporate world, it will be because the value of design both internal and externally has been reframed. Organisations don't need help in coming up with ideas, they are lousy with them. They need help in developing critical thinking. They need help in seeing empathy as the requisite for understanding. They need help in imagining a way to achieve these things that feels organic and attainable. They need to see design as something they do, not something they have to add on.

So, as a business person, what do I need?

I need partners that I can depend on to support the design journey I'm on.

I need skilled designers that rely on design thinking rather than a trademarked approach.

I need innovation in building the foundational skills necessary for our organisation, such as gaining empathy in both little and big ways; in being divergent in thought rather than jumping to solution; in testing ideas before implementing solutions.

I need to show how design answers the problems of the 21st Century better than the current approach to business administration.

Ultimately design has to sit at the table where decisions are being made, at the corporate level and even within government. Both design education and practice needs to move away from design as craft and more deeply explore design as problem solving.

If design is going to change the world, we have to reframe the conversation.

And at the moment it's happening to designers, not always with designers.