Dilemmas in design

In recent years, design – often under the label of strategic design, design thinking or service design – has made its entry into board rooms and government offices all over the world. But does that mean that we risk missing out on the full value of what design has to offer?

More than ten years ago, the late and highly respected design researcher John Heskett wrote that much confusion surrounds design practice. This point was excellently illustrated by the latest edition of the American technology magazine ‘Wired’. This annual design issue features articles ranging from a look at the sportswear label Nike’s use of high-tech materials in sneakers to a story on how the time-honoured New York Times designs tomorrow’s digital newspaper. It presents a cool chair, designed and printed in 3D, and describes how the house-sharing firm Airbnb generates its million-dollar turnover through a deliberate effort to design the users’ service experience.

The articles in ‘Wired’, however, not only reflect the wide diversity of forms and expressions that design may take today. They also reflect an artificial distinction in the way design is increasingly presented: as either sophisticated high-tech products or specific development methods, strategies and business models.

Design applies to both domains. Consider the apparent dilemmas that characterise contemporary design as a discipline and a profession:

Craft or mass production? A hundred years ago, designer and producer were one and the same. The local tailor was capable both of creating the clothes and the style and producing them. With the advent of the industrial society and mass production, the design task was separated from production – a design could now be produced in thousands or millions of identical copies. But today it looks as if we are about to come full circle: 3D-printers and the ability to tailor products online, for example sneakers, once again let users act as both designers and producers. But does that mean that mass production is going to stop being the norm within the foreseeable future?

The heroic designer or co-design? In recent years, we have seen a significant shift in design activity, where many organisations and clients who commission design work are not looking for the designer to contribute as an individual creative genius but instead expect designers to act as the neutral facilitators of clients’ and users’ experiences, expertise and ideas. But does that mean that radical, creative and highly individual design expressions are no longer valued? Does the democratisation of design mean that we risk losing the edge and the precision that characterise the most appealing products and services?

Product design or the design of strategies, services and systems? In a slightly condescending tone, it is sometimes said that design is no longer about ‘posters and toasters’ – graphic communication and products – but about ‘thinking’, strategies and services. Consequently, many executive decision-makers and developers have been attracted to the field of design. I recently heard a design researcher at Parsons the New School for Design in New York point out that although design is now on the board room agenda, the designer has not come along. For if design is suddenly about strategy, it follows that it is a matter for executives, not designers. But is it not in fact the case that any strategy must ultimately be assessed by how it is perceived by the customer, and that design – including the design of visual expressions and physical spaces and objects – is crucial for the capacity of abstract visions to generate the changes in behaviour and consumption that the decision-makers had in mind? Is it not also true that some of the most successful entrepreneurs and business executives today (including the founders of Airbnb) are trained designers?

Design for growth or for social change? Should design, and thus designers, focus on creating commercially viable products and services, or should designers instead devote their talent to tackling the challenges facing society, such as health, ageing or sustainability? Many designers that I know have a highly developed social awareness and acknowledge that a vast amount of junk is being designed, mass-produced, sold, consumed and discarded all over the world. It may seem attractive to focus more on social innovation or design in the public sector, even if the pay and the career opportunities are less grand. On the other hand, do jobs that involve designing for the global market not also offer a chance to make a difference for thousands or maybe millions of people? I once heard a design researcher ask whether the Danish Margrethe Bowl (a product found in most kitchens in Denmark) might not be seen as a case of social innovation equal to designing sustainable solutions for poor families in Africa.

My own experience after using design and working with designers in a public sector context for a number of years is that the apparent contrasts in design are typically very fruitful. They help organisations develop visions, concepts and strategies while also working systematically with user experiences, empathy, function, form and meaning. They combine market forces with a social conscience. They help analytically minded and abstractly thinking executives put people centre stage. And they allow designers to have a direct impact on business and organisational development.

In fact, I find that the main strength of many designers is that they are rarely afraid of dilemmas but thrive on them. In a time where rapidly changing and complex challenges face both companies and society at large, we need that ability more than ever. Let designers inspire us to embrace the dilemmas we face.

First published on Mandag Morgen blog