Is anyone practicing meaningful design?

In recent weeks, I’ve been asked by practicing designers, eager beginners, and those looking for a career change, a rather simple question: “Which companies and design teams are implementing a positive design methodology”.

After much consideration, I realised that this question opened up a much bigger issue regarding the role of design, organisations, and participants in creating meaningful and sustainable outcomes for both customers and for businesses.

I don’t believe that design in Australia (and, in my experience, much of the world) has lived up to its potential in a meaningful way. But I don’t feel that this is necessarily the fault of designers, or even organisations. I believe the main constraint is our ability to successfully manage ambiguity. Design works in a space that is, by its nature, uncertain. Uncertainty creates anxiety, and as normal human beings, we will work hard at trying to reduce our anxiety. In short, the reason design hasn’t lived up to it’s promise is tied closely to the very nature of human behaviour itself.


But let me take a step back.

Both clients and organisations want innovation, improved experiences, and better products and services. But few are ready to invest what it takes to obtain these outcomes–namely living with anxiety and uncertainty, and working outside of “what is”.

It doesn’t take much to undermine an effort to really understand the needs of customers. In fact, an organisation’s culture of managing to cost pressures alone can torpedo good design intent. If you’ve ever experienced the argy-bargy of developing a design brief, you’ll be familiar with the first thing to be cut to accommodate cost–research. Without strong research, any solutions are guaranteed to be clichés that are neither relevant to customers or difficult for competition to mimic. Yet, these two traits are the hallmarks of meaningful solutions for businesses.

And then there is the self-limiting dynamic within organisational culture. Management, as a rule, have earned their place by being strong at maintaining a current value. When the needs of customers change, organisations are ill-prepared for developing new value. When business demands innovation and without alternatives on how to proceed, management have no option but to try what they are already doing, just with more effort. If you’ve ever worked within a large organisation, you will be all too familiar with rallying behind the same activities, but now with demands to work longer and harder to achieve more innovative outcomes. I have never seen this approach work well. Typically, this cycle with finalise in an organisational restructure which will lead to across the board reductions in fixed costs. The imminent danger is over, and the cycle will start again. Australian financial institution are particularly adept at this strategy where restructures occur about once every 18 months. The message seems to be “If we can only figure out how to structure ourselves, we’ll figure out how to be relevant to our customers.”

So what is the alternative? How might designers, design consultancies, and organisations move towards a model that actually achieves meaningful outcomes?

My experience shows that it comes down to making a clear distinction between working in the world of “what is” and the world of “what could be”.

Every organisation is well supported by professionals who are extremely effective at maintaining an existing value proposition. When any organisation comes into being, it’s because it had something that was relevant to customers. This was their initial “innovation”. Microsoft had Windows and BP had a powerful oil and gas distribution network.

As soon as an organisation has something of value, the growth of the organisation is dependant on bringing on professionals who can scale. Lower costs, increase efficiencies, finding new markets, and supporting the internal dynamics of the organisation itself. But what happens when the current value proposition is no longer relevant to customers? The tool for maintaining a business is analysis. Sales trends, market trends, industry trends, etc. Analysis sits squarely in the world of “what is”. It is an inherently reflective activity that attempts to divine the future by looking at what has already happened. As a trending tool, it has merit. As a way to understand what people find relevant, it creates powerful, but false narratives.

When used to understand customer needs, analysis alone fails in ways that are insidiously difficult to catch. Analysis demands that we ask our customer what they want. And these same customers will be happy to tell you–but their answers will be misleading. They aren’t being malicious, in fact they are being absolutely truthful. But what people say, what they do, and what they say they do are not correlated in any way. At best, asking anyone to predict their own future will result in a response that looks a lot like an improved version of “now”. So analysis, when applied well, helps us understand what has happened. If your value proposition is still relevant, analysis can help you maximise your market, features, and costs.

What happens when your organisation’s value proposition is not longer relevant, or quickly waning?

If you are like most organisations, the typical response is to discount. This begins a race to the bottom as completion responds in kind, thus changing the organisation’s skill from providing value to one of providing efficiencies. The world of the MBA was created to master this challenge by understanding all the levers that lead to efficient production and cost management. Eventually, this will not provide sufficient returns. The customers will vote with their wallets when they no longer find a compelling reason to patronise an organisation’s products or services.

There is now a need to “innovate” or create new value based on what people need. Yet most organisations are highly tuned to maximising a current value proposition. They are the masters of providing “what is”. And here lies the problem. The tool for maximising relevance is becoming fluent in the understanding of “what could be”.

This is where design (done right) comes in. Design is (or should be) about understanding complex human issues such that one can see and hear what people find relevant and create a value exchange based on that relevance. Design, by its nature, is built upon a broad array of disciplines, philosophies, and methods. There is no specific design approach that can be applied to a problem and there is no way to anticipate outcomes before doing the work. There is no shortcut to proper understanding and there is no shortcut to synthesising insight and there is no shortcut to creating meaningful solutions that are relevant to people and strong business platforms.

But if you were to look at the Design industry and organisations as a whole, the pressure to shortcut understanding, synthesis, and meaningful solutions is overwhelming. Design as it is most often practiced today is an effort to appease the “what is” nature of business while trying to explore the “what could be” of customer needs.

In theory, design consultancies should be masterful at providing these services to organisations. In practice, design as an industry has adopted a management consulting approach–selling organisations on a clear outcome and a well-defined timeline of activities. This is terribly attractive to organisations which work best on budgeted projects with very defined outcomes. It appeals to the very nature of how organisations are run.

However we’ve just explored the notion that design is about exploring “what could be”. There is no clear outcome at the beginning. And because we don’t have any sense of understanding when we begin, there can be no defined timeline for activities. And any design agency that is guaranteeing a outcome or a specific timeline is ultimately leaving something very important on the table.

I have a lot of empathy for design consultancies. I’ve worked within them and I’ve hired them as an executive. They are between a rock and a hard place when it come to providing their services. If they are honest about the nature of problem solving, they’d never get past the first meeting for any project (especially when management consulting firms are promising innovation without the drama of ambiguity). If they try to manage a design effort within the framework that organisations manage day-to-day activities, they’ll effectively undermine their own success.

The approach for every design firm I’ve work at, worked with, or seen the output of, has been to try and do their best with what little they have. Project timelines are negotiated. Costs are challenged and lowered, and outcomes are explicitly stated based on an organisations problem framing (not a customer problem frame). The hope is that the design firm will impress and the next phase, or the next project, will be framed and funded properly. The design firm comes into each project at a disadvantage, and frankly a chip on their shoulder. They want to be treated as equals, but they bring little change to the outcomes organisations would achieve without their influence.

This unbalanced relationship between design and business rarely resolves well. Each time a design firm under-prices a project, they establish the real cost of design. Each time they capitulate on their rigour, they establish the acceptable approach to problem solving. Each time they entertain a pre-defined outcome, they undermine the ability to explore “what could be”. The reality is that the tend in design consulting has led to clichéd and mediocre outcomes and many organisations are reaffirming their belief that design is an approach best applied to journey maps and design thinking workshops. If design’s promise was to lead to meaningful and sustainable change for organisations, I have not personally seen that happen.

In practice, we often debate the methods of design versus business, but ultimately, I think the challenge in creating value is one of management. I feel that design firms need to reframe their business models around providing real value and ensuring integrity in championing customer needs. And I think that reframe is the role of management. In addition, organisations need to reframe their role as specialist in maintaining value to one where they champion an environment where great outcomes can happen within both contexts.

So how might we get there? The short answer is, I’m not sure. It is a wicked problem. What I do know is that the solution will look very different to the effort that is currently practiced within the field of design and the world of organisations. It will be transformative. It will be ambiguous. It will require enough of us to be comfortable in the world of “what could be”. The skills and structures that are so good at maintaining a value proposition can become a liability as customer needs evolve. Organisations need to be fluent in connecting to customers and in maintaining the rigour in developing real and sustainable platforms, products, and services.

In my own work, I’ve explored new approaches to design that focus on the rigour of understanding at each stage and the ability to help all stakeholders (designers, clients, management, and participants) to be able to cope, even if just barely, with the ambiguity that change brings with it. This has been extremely successful when practiced within a strong intent for change. Good problem solving will never feel comfortable for anyone involved, as by nature it is inherently ambiguous. But strong organisations are able to withstand the uncertainty long enough to explore its potential. Supporting this change while ensuring integrity, rigour, and meaningful outcomes is the new role for management and what I feel design should champion. I have seen great promise in championing this change and mentoring participants during their own transformation.

The next phase of industry will necessitate a change in how organisations are run, how managers see their roles, and how all participants in a workplace see their efforts in service of something meaningful. This change starts with all of us, in small ways. It is up to all of us to be the change we want to see.

So, in response to my opening paragraph, I don't have a suggestion or recommendation for an organisation or team that is implementing a positive design methodology. I am hopeful that will not be the case much longer. However, that doesn't mean that we all can’t have a positive impact within our current situations. It's a fools game to wait until both organisations and the design industry “get it”. I urge everyone to use their time to start leading, in their own way, and begin to integrate more rigour, critical thinking, and a culture of progressing projects only after your understanding is robust enough to confidently move to the next phase. Work on the skills of helping people deal with the anxiety working in "what could be" provokes. 

We're at the beginning of a big shift in what it means to design well. You, the reader, and your peers are the ones who will ultimately progress this change as we go forward.