We tend to think design only creates better products and services, but Design has also been responsible for many bad decisions influencing our natural, social and societal environments. How can we make better design decisions that create futures we would like to live in?
When I first started design school I had one wish — I wanted to make the world just a little bit better. Naive? Probably, but I believe this is a motivation I share with most designers. I quickly became aware of the dark side of design. I remember reading Victor Papanek’s Design for the real world from 1972, in which he criticised the designers of his time.
“… by creating whole species of permanent garbage to clutter up the landscape, and by choosing materials and processes that pollute the air we breath, designers have become a dangerous breed.”
Designers in the postmodern western world were responsible for a whole lot of useless products. Products produced in cheap materials, mass produced to be quickly consumed and thrown out. Products more focused on fashion, trends, and aesthetics, than on quality. It was not purely the designers’ fault, many of them were not aware of the impact this would have on the environment. Many of them were just doing what the clients were asking for.
As I was discovering the potential for design to do harm I realized that we have to do better. At the time that meant producing fewer products and more experiences. The year I started studying, the graduating class named their degree show “thing is a dirty word”, which is quite telling of the mentality we all shared. This shift had been going on for a few decades already and had completely changed (some would say evolved) what design was and what it produced. The shift from design as an artistic expression, towards design as a strategic tool meant that the processes themselves also changed. In addition to shape and color, aesthetics and materials, we learned methods borrowed from social studies such as anthropology and psychology. The design process became focused on “discovering, defining, developing and delivering”. This process focused on understanding the need and producing an adequate answer. The outcomes were usually intangible “artifacts” such as service experiences.
My own degree show three years later had the title Confronting Reality. This was a year full of contradictions and big news stories. It was the year where the Britons voted for a Brexit, where right-wing extremist groups started getting traction all around Europe, while thousands of Arabs and Africans were forced by war and poverty into tiny boats trying to cross the mediterranean sea hoping for a better life. It was a year full of struggles: widespread unemployment, a growing consciousness of a changing climate, fake news. The world seemed to have become a big mess, and we had no ways of making it better. In the meantime, we were summing up everything we had learned over the past five years into projects that could present who we were as designers. It might seem strange to use the titles of degree shows as a comparison, but I believe the philosophical exercise students go through to define who they are as designers is a great indicator of what is happening in the design world. Confronting Reality was a response to what we were seeing around us. It was filled with projections of potential futures. I say that in plural because rather than anticipating a future, the projects all set out to define what a preferable alternative to the present could be. More sustainable food systems, teaching ethics in school, developing shared cultures in multicultural areas, welcoming immigrants. They were giving shape to an alternative to the present. And just like Thing is a dirty word had put the focus on how design is becoming less about artifacts and more about experience, Confronting Reality put the focus on design as a way of giving shape to alternative ways of doing society.
This idea is not new. In 2005 Anthony Dunne and Fiona Raby became the heads of the Design Interactions department at the Royal College of Art in London. Dunne and Raby are maybe most known for their development of a speculative design. In their book, Speculative Everything Dunne and Raby propose a taxonomy of futures that shows multiple possible futures where some are more possible, some plausible, some probable and some preferable. This way of thinking about futures in plural changes our understanding of it from something happening to us towards something we shape. This idea has been borrowed from the field of future studies. Future thinkers have often existed on the fringes of other forms of studies because it isn’t an exact science. Rather than looking at the facts and predicting how things are most likely to become, they look at the current and say “but what if?”
In 2015 Terry Irwin, the head of design at The School of Design at Carnegie Mellon University, went on stage at the Service Design Global Conference. She started off her presentation by saying how she remembers when service design was just an idea that a handful of people had, and that she now is seeing a new thing on the horizon — design for transition. Together with Cameron Tonkinwise, director of design studies at the same university, she continued the presentation explaining how they redesigned their study programs and introduced transition design as a new doctoral program. They explained how all design is affecting social, environmental and economic conditions. The problem is that the designers often act without understanding the impact our design might have on society. In his article Transition Design as Postindustrial Interaction Design? Tonkinwise goes further in depth and explains some of the problems in today’s design world.
“Rather than design-as-forethought about what would be best to build, designers are increasingly finding themselves conducting blindly-evolutionary field-trials: build-and-see, fail-fast, iterate, iterate, iterate. Design as deliberative decision-making is being replaced by almost-randomized A-B testing; data makes Theory redundant and Design Studies is just ‘nonsense.”
Transition design, he argues, is using design as a way to consciously lead large societal transitions towards preferable futures. A big part of this is to create a vision for a preferable future that then works as a magnet that pulls the discussion in it’s direction. When this is done services, policies, and systems to make that future possible can be defined and developed. In this way we are actively shaping a future that we would like to live in. To do this designers need to be able to create strong future visions that are both attractive, possible and preferable.
Designing futures might sound like something one hears at an alternative conference. It is however not that strange of a thing. The very craft of design has always been about imagining what does not yet exist and bringing that into existence. It has been done through drawing, graphics, physical products, blueprints for others to produce, experiences both in the physical and digital world and much more. In post-war times design was used to provide products that were affordable to reconstruct the countries across Europe ruined by war. Design that before was about creating physical tangible products has had a natural evolution with society towards the creation of interactions, systems, strategies and processes that do not yet exist.
I started this piece with a story about how thing became a dirty word to many designers. It became negative because of the unforeseen consequences it had on the environment. My fear is that we are still making those same mistakes, that we haven’t learned from the past at all. Though many of today’s designers are not anymore creating useless products that end up in landfills, we are creating mental and systemic noise that is wasting people’s time. Designers are a big part of creating addictive binge behavior. Design that pushes youth into a reputation economy where their worth is defined by small hearts. Services that radically change the way cities and economies work. Services that in short time changes people’s social habits. I can’t count how many design events and conferences I have attended where someone explains how they have used a nudge system that makes users spend 50% more of their time on the service, or algorithms that predicts what people will want to do next. Services that are more focused on digitizing than solving problems. As a colleague of mine said the other day: “we are creating services that are so convenient that people will never have to leave their house.” We are meaning well, but so many of the things we create are affecting society in a negative way. And with digital becoming a part of any experience, our designs are pushed out without any thought of how it is changing the world we live in. We build fast and break things, and many things have been broken. The scariest part of this is that we do it as if blindfolded, only looking at the numbers. Rob Girling, Co-CEO and founder of the innovation firm Artefact wrote an article on this topic in Wired back in 2017 saying;
“As designers and design thinkers, we have been preoccupied with questions like “What if” and “How might we.” They have undoubtedly unleashed our creativity and helped us explore new solutions to problems both big and small. How might we enable people to rent out their homes? What if we could digitize your personal health record? But these questions are fundamentally narrow. They overemphasize the individual user, without taking into account longer-term consequences.”
He argues that designers have a key role to play in this shift as we are the ones giving shape to these experiences. Ultimately, he argues, we need to lead the way from a narrow human-centered design mindset towards a humanity-centered mindset where we focus on what society might need going forward. The future will not let us get away with the argument that we just did what our clients asked for.
I still have a wish to make the world a bit better. But increasingly I see how the things we design end up making it worse. Like before, quantity has trumped quality, and more designs are produced quickly on the go without any vision of where we are headed. In this climate, the design is yet again reduced to cheap styling if we don’t take part in deciding the strategic direction. Increasingly we are stuck in A/B testing of MVPs that someone else has defined without any other success metrics than revenue. If the future is a thing we are crafting, we need to take that responsibility seriously and be aware of it every day. We can not choose not to shape the future, because any design is the materiality of the future. If we are serious about making this world a better place we need to use our seat at the table to ask better questions, not to produce cheap answers. We need to help our clients frame what they set out to do as a part of a future, and then design the transition towards that goal. How will we do this? This is the thing we need to figure out together. But there is no doubt that we again will need to learn from other fields of study, such as future thinkers. And we are running out of time. If designers don’t take the future seriously, we might wake up having created a world we don’t want to live in.
This is the start of a discussion. Please leave me your thoughts, critique or thoughts below ❤