Design Leadership for Problem Systems

The design industry grew rapidly in the 20th century, by satisfying the massive and growing needs of consumer products, industrial systems, and a business ethos of growth, fueled by advertising. I observe a significant change occurring in the language and outlook of people in the design fields, especially apparent in my adopted home city of Toronto. A new ethos is emerging in this new century, one that stands on the shoulders of many who have long argued for systemic change.

Citizen designers and interdisciplinary leaders are guiding clients and peers toward sustainable design and progressively toward a social transformation agenda. And this shift in values, or perhaps the predominance of actions consistent with values, co-occurs with the devastating upheaval in economic fortunes among those heavily invested in the previous century’s perspective and commitments to growth.

Yet in the gritty reality of everyday work, the vast majority of working designers and design educators are training for, skilled for, and planning on a future led by corporate projects. Many of us owe our livings in a creative, dynamic profession to the overabundance of producing new things and marketing those things and services via every channel of media available.  We might accept this reality as yet another dichotomy among those of our modern values systems, which indeed it is. Many of us love and enjoy the constructive and skillful work we do, but may not love some of the outcomes we are making happen.  Yet I say we can find new ways to motivate and lead by asking questions, presenting alternatives, and designing social opportunities as we might create artifacts.

Must design management continue to follow the lead of technology and the markets forming around technological innovation and capital? Can we start leading our prospects toward the innovation of social opportunities and serve to enhance our clients’ awareness of long-term possibilities? Can we lead effectively without being ‘thought leaders” and acknowledged iconoclasts? Can we, as conductor Benjamin Zander encourages his orchestral players to do, lead from any chair, the chair we are given to play from?

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