Who will we be when Design grows up?

Peter JonesWu Wei

The new year often finds blogs and commentators concerned with the memes and themes of the oncoming era hurtling toward us. Participating as I do in the more “abstract” design communities (e.g., experience, anthro, service design, strategic innovation, interaction, information architecture) I observe a lot of unproductive self-definition.  This takes the form of pronouncements about what a certain field is or is becoming, and why we we ought to care. To be charitable, we might view these discussions as a socially-adapted process of guiding disciplinary evolution. To be less charitable, when I compare design’s disciplinary development with the mature fields I work closely with (in my design research), I have to wonder whether we’re up to the job.

Take a strategic view of Design (and I don’t mean business or competitively strategic, or strategic as in winning).  Strategic also means the capacity to imagine the broader unfolding of the consequences of interventions and emergence toward a desired horizon of some, but not all, possibilities. Let’s ask, who do we really desire to be when we grow up? Because grow up we must – reality is different in 2010. It requires informed action.

Taking a step back and viewing the longer-term evolution of cultural and economic practices, most of these disciplinary definition concerns appear trivial and defensive. Scanning the online community responses to the new year/decade, reflective responses show how seriously we treat things that have little impact, and how we likewise may miss things that we (designers and human systems researchers) should be taking seriously. Rather than waxing normative, let me pick on a couple of examples.

Last year’s (2009) New Year’s posts by Business Week commentator Bruce Nussbaum reflected on the shift in design thinking from innovation to Transformation. I responded to this by suggesting innovation was not dead yet. Hundred of other commentators responded online or by linking, and so it had impact, whether or not we agreed with the proposition. (So it has been a year since then – was 2009 the year of Transformation or not?)

Nussbaum’s latest New Year’s posts aimed toward social impact at globalization, the decline of America, and massive social shifts between generations and countries. He took a more serious position than the aforementioned broadside on innovation, yet it found far less commentary from the “glimmerati.” Not that this comment fell flat, but by comparison, far more heat was generated by his taking on Don Norman’s suggestions that design research is a follower, not leader.

We protest too much. Don has a well-regarded perspective on things, and has a serious publishing history to back it up. After you get past the differentiation and definitions among commentaries, Don is mostly right. So what. It is just what’s so, it doesn’t mean design research fails to innovate.

Don Norman’s (by now) infamous piece Technology First – Needs Last (Dec 2009) was taken as provocation, which design “thinkers” rushed in to disagree with. As a scholar, I could take issue with some of the points as well, but the intent of the article was just to express an observation. It was not a peer-reviewed publication.

Don’s laconic response to Bruce Nussbaum’s huffing about the implications of the piece represented the turning point. (“Sorry folks, but I think you miss the point. I too bristled at Norman’s conclusion — and I happen to be Norman.”) The meta-message I’m reading is that we are behaving as insecure representatives of what should be creative, engaging and developing disciplines. We are focusing far too much attention on differentiating and justifying ourselves. If we miss the big picture, we will find design left out of the very meaningful contributions we say we need to make.

We take ourselves and our definitions of design, design research, transformation, impact, and influence way too seriously. I look at it this way – established professions do not find themselves questioning the public understanding of their identity and perceived value at every turn. Designers, especially the newer design disciplines that have grown up online, appear to thrive on inward-facing identity crises. Let’s get over it and start helping people, working cooperatively, and helping each other build credibility and trust toward an authentic and valued profession.

I acknowledge that the diverse disciplines involved in innovation may adopt meaningfully different definitions. For those still wondering what sensemaking really means, it means (at least) a process of resolving situations where gaps occur in understanding that enable meaning to resolve and recover “sense.” Brenda Dervin, who has struggled with transdisciplinary communication breakdown longer than most of us have been in disciplines, recommends a practice of “verbing.” When we transform the nouns we objectify (and then fight over) into verbs that describe activity that we can agree upon, we recover sense and meaning.

So rather than taking sides, we might starting taking cites. We might become more convivial, not in the social sense, but in the sense of caring for more than just our own tribes. In a recent panel session (OCAD Health Summit), with other designers in healthcare, we resolved to  cite each other more often and share the credit. Designers (and artists) are notorious for ignoring influences, unless they are French postmodernists. We will help the larger field grow if we have some confidence and listen more. If we look up and reference those whose work we admire, even if we don’t happen to love the commentator (see references to spat, above).

We gain nothing by pretending, especially to a designerly audience that does not know the literature, that we invented the concepts we favor. We might learn about the deeper currents that inform our work (like Dervin) and give substantive credit to our influences, and not glossing over them. From a cultural point of view, we are all in the same field. We all play in “design and innovation” as opposed to basic science, arts, or engineering. There’s enough leadership to go around. There’s room for everyone, and we gain more by cooperating than by competing with each other.

Who are our real customers? Is it the evolving progressive society and enlightened commerce? Do they understand what we really do and offer? We could start helping our field recover from its self-inflicted pettiness, and offer something of real value to the society we envision bringing forth. This was the perspective of the 2009 Global Forum, Business as Agent of World Benefit.

This is Part I, the problem statement.  Part II will serve up the obligatory New Year’s foresight and requisite design recommendations.