The expanding definition of design

There’s a growing sense of urgency and renewed purpose in the design community.

Climate change, social injustice, shifting patterns of work and wealth—the world is shifting, and designers are expanding their focus areas to tackle these complex and interconnected issues.

This year’s International Design Conference put that momentum in context. From case studies to calls for action, the slate of speakers all posed possible answers to the question: What new frontiers would benefit most from good design?

Thought leaders at IDC identified many emerging areas. To me, four stood out the most. 

Ethics and Activism

Big tech, AI, gig work, racial and gender disparity, economies of attention and information—forces behind these buzzwords are driving fundamental change in how we live and who comes out on top.

In the same way that science fiction literature can help us picture alternative versions of the future, designers have the capacity to forecast the consequences of new technology and steer clients toward solutions motivated by people and planet as much as profit.

The designer’s responsibility to create the best outcomes for users essentially positions us as “practical ethicists,” IDC presenter Afshin Mehin said as he shared his work on Neuralink, a product that facilitates communication and control of electronic devices using brain implants.

This type of technology raises thorny questions, such as ownership and sale of brain data. These futures can quickly veer to the dystopian, but the technology still offers incredible potential if executed correctly—from prosthetic control for people with physical disabilities, to vastly increased productivity in controlling computer systems. This is why Mehin believes design is critical in shaping the product towards an ideal use experience.

Ethics is no longer work reserved for futurists. As designers, we must involve ourselves, too. The tools of our trade can lead to serious oversights if used improperly.

Take the "how might we" statement. A familiar and foundational tool, it can have consequences if the outcome isn’t scrutinized, said Danielle Chen, a senior UX designer at Huge. Chen cited the case of e-cigarettes: a greatly successful solution to the statement “how might we reduce the harm of smoking” has also resulted in attracting a new wave of nicotine users, including young teens, to a product that still poses certain health risks.

Mandy Drew, UX Research Manager at Capital One, spotlighted the conundrums surrounding social media platforms. The design behind these products (think of algorithmic content selection or the infinite scroll feature) has played a role in some disturbing societal developments.

Drew said that the unintended consequences of product design underscore the need for a product’s creators to prioritize truly diverse design research.

Think of the product, service, or company you’re building right now. What might be some unintended consequences? 

If you’re interested in thinking more critically about product ethics, take a look at my colleague Amy Lee’s article: “How to stop your innovation from inspiring a Black Mirror episode.”

Education and Access

The next emerging area for design is equity of education and access to career mentorship. Diversity of experience is essential for diversity of thought, and diversity of thought is a proven key to success when designing for a complex world. 

Unfortunately, most studies find that the design industry does not reflect the makeup of general population with regards to gender, race, and other identities.

Design skills are superpowers, but often students in minority communities don’t have access to education about design. The MOLD-IT approach by Cameron White adapts design education for high school curriculums at under-represented districts.

For his pilot program, White led students in a Texas school through the design process to create fashion and occupational footwear. The topic led the students to exceptional engagement and learning from the experience.

The interest generated by White’s short program is a testament to the potential of early design education, as well as the need to solve how to share that superpower with everyone.

Gaining entry to the field of design is one challenge, but once there, other obstacles can still undermine full inclusion in the design process. Professor Bryan Howell became keenly aware of this while teaching a design studio at Brigham Young University some years ago.

A female student approached him and expressed how tired she was of having to conform to a masculine-dominated design culture. She had contemplated leaving the field entirely.

Howell was spurred to research the dynamics within his own design classrooms. Did the way he grouped students onto project teams impact the experience of female designers? 

Because his class was majority men, he initially assumed the most inclusive grouping was to place one woman on each project team. However, his research showed clustering women together actually resulted in a greater potential for success.

What happened when the women were distributed one per team is known as stereotype threat—the women changed their behavior to avoid confirming negative stereotypes associated with women in design. In a group of all women, the designers felt less pressure and more opportunity to express themselves, lead, and offer support. Research findings exist around the power of stereotypes, but relatively few have focused on the design process and design education.

These kinds of research and outreach are indicative of necessary shifts across the industry. To meet the needs of a heterogeneous future, we must continually evolve our own processes. 

We must ask hard questions about how everyone can thrive and be open to changing the way we do our work.

Life-Centered Design

Good design puts the user's needs at the center. But as more companies embrace and benefit from this practice, a tension is emerging between the pursuit of filling human wants and the impact that fulfilling them can have on the natural world.

Some are starting to suggest that it is not only possible, but essential to develop business in a way that benefits all stakeholders—not only the producer and consumer, but society, local communities, ecosystems, and living organisms, too.

Giuliana Mazzetta shared a business design case study that provides practical vision for balancing these demands. She worked with Totomoxtle, a business that revives endangered varieties of corn by creating high-end interior design veneers out of their husks, to help them scale up production to meet demands of an international buyer.

With local responsibility at the very core of the operation, Mazzetta had to find a solution that prioritized the well-being of the production employees and the farming communities while still meeting customer demand.

To do this, she interviewed and co-ideated with the stakeholders, spending the majority of her design time in the research phase. With real knowledge of all parties’ backgrounds and aspirations (including the corn!), she was able to map out value exchanges in the system in a way that mimicked the flow of natural ecosystems.

These insights inspired a decentralized scaling solution: A clever kit of tools enabled small farmers across Mexico to contribute partially assembled blocks of corn husks in exchange for income, incentivizing the preservation of the corn varieties and providing the volume Totomoxtle required without creating more harmful monocultures in any one place.

Finding synergistic solutions like that of Totomoxtle is possible, but only if all the inputs are truly understood and considered during the creation process. By expanding the focus of design efforts to include all life, we can ensure the choices we make will lead to better living far into the future, not only in the moment.

Look into Mazzetta’s Craft Business Design Toolkit for a draft of practical guides to this emerging design approach.

Systems Change for Climate Solutions (and Beyond)

Big systems are at work in the climate crisis. Although it may feel like our daily actions and even our professional work are not positioned to impact them, individuals have more power than we realize.

Designers can affect change through our employers, our activism, and new ways of using design skills.

"Waste and pollution are not accidents—they are consequences of decisions made at the design stage," Yvonne Qian of Covestro said in her talk on design for circularity.

Designers often equate this to material selection only, losing hope when the powers that be deem it un-economical. But this is the very point where designers can spark change by harnessing our role of providing creative solutions to ensure product-level circular design is backed up by innovative business-level strategies.

As Qian notes, “A circular solution is always a combination of an appropriately designed product and a specific business model.”

Neither aspect can be successful in isolation, which is why contemporary designers benefit increasingly from being proficient in the language of business.

Speaking up can be scary, but it can be effective. Linsey Nancarrow, a senior creative strategist at Indigo Slate, raised climate impact concerns with her superior during a consulting project. Leadership at Indigo Slate ended up inviting her to suggest more sustainable approaches to their future work.

What if every designer were a climate designer? “Every job is a climate job,” Nancarrow said.

My own experience in design consulting projects has shown that injecting something as simple as a quick lifecycle mapping brainstorm can serve as a catalyst for design teams and product owners to learn, sometimes for the first time, what impacts their choices will make on communities around the world.

If we all speak up together – as stakeholders in the creation of products and services, as employees at the companies that produce them, and as the end consumers for the same – we can “push the curve” of huge organizations and systems so that climate action becomes the norm.

The old proverb holds true: A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. What might happen if, by the end of 2021, you read a book on circular design, followed an environmental justice podcast, or ran a 1-hour sustainability brainstorm on a real design project?

The collective actions of the current decade will have seismic ramifications for the future of life on Earth. Some solutions are clear while others need work, but we have the good fortune of accessing the latest critical ideas from around the world. 

As the boundaries of design continue to expand in these four directions, each of us has an opportunity to take on different roles and push for greater thoughtfulness in the creation of our future.

I challenge you to listen to these voices, form your own opinions, and get down to designing in new ways.

Let’s talk about how we can help move your business forward.

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