A design-led bubble?

Peter Jones Wu Wei

Perhaps there is a designerly bubble. David Sless has a remarkable view on this, worth reading. The killer point is found right in the middle, and I’ve pulled it out to elevate my point with his.

It doesn’t really matter when design is primarily concerned with styling, fashion, and the ephemera of life. But when design takes an interest in designing for people, our experiences, and the social, environmental and biological structures we create, then it does matter. Dirty hands can lead to death, or even extinction.

David also suggests that designers have enthused themselves into a design-led bubble of sorts. I think it may be a bit of further design leading the blind to think we even led “our own” bubble.

I’m appalled by the various design gurus, academics and journalists who go on about design, innovation, and transformation; who talk endlessly about the value of design yet offer not a shred of evidence in support of their claims. They speak like investment bankers in a boom market.

There is a social sense of bubble that we have to acknowledge. Designers are human, and most of us are trained to be economic creatures. We follow the bubbles, we don’t lead them. The languaging of some in our community may expose a self-promoting hubris, but this was also evident in the last bubble, the tech-led bubble of the late 90’s. That’s one way I recognize a peak – when good design firms stop delivering and the hype is too high to take.

The difference is that now are we have multiple social networks, myriad voices on the web, and ways of echoing that hubris infinitely around the world. Some of us are collectively more of a pain in the ass than we were capable of being during the last (tech) bubble. We just didn’t have all  the social amplifiers yet.

Socionomic theory would take this even further and say that all professions benefiting from the artificially inflated economy were behaving appropriately for a bubble. And this was a bubble of multiple bubbles, a Mother of All Bubbles. Few of us were really immune, perhaps some academics and a few people in government. Bubbles represent an era of widespread consensus, a cultural and social state of being that requires extraordinary integrity to resist.

I think it may be unrealistic to expect designers to be somehow “better” and more removed from the economic society than our clients. Many of us are beholden to our clients and industry culture, and their bubbling unrealistic projects. And unlike attorneys, most of us do not even serve in advisory capacities. This has been the case since Victor Papanek articulated it in the back-to-nature days of the 1960’s.

A difference may be that online, we can now create a proxy design culture that we don’t actually work within every day. Designers often work in a client-led economic culture, and then may create safe places for ideas to reside. If we are lucky, we can lead some clients into our culture, but we cannot always make it stick. In that space of co-creation we may find some opportunities for transformation in the worlds we share.

But as David suggests, the tools and evidence for transformation work are critical. And designers (practicing designers) are latecomers in the transformation business. Consider that we only see the odd reference here and there to systems thinkers such as Ross Ashby, Stafford Beer, Churchman, and Russell Ackoff, who knew from transformation. There are business transformation thinkers designers tend to ignore (Flores, Christensen, Kotter, Zuboff), and even some our original design thinkers whose work we do not valorize enough in the questions of transformation (e.g., Papanek). Why is this? Is the reinvention of absolutely everything on our terms part of the bubble deal?

But we have no consensus canon or body of knowledge that “we” all consider valid in transformation thinking. This may cost us some credibility.  But these conversations across various social media help us to identify the need and perhaps locate and exchange various perspectives from the canons of contributing disciplines.