Can design make a difference?

Dave Gravina

Design is one of those words, it means many things to many people. It’s been defined, deconstructed, damned and deified. Architect William McDonough famously stated that design is the first signal of human intention but for most people it is decoration, mere window dressing on the engineering below. Ask a random person in the street and they might describe a sign writer or if you’re lucky a graphic designer slaving over a Macintosh in a black skivvy and Jonathon Ivvy buzz cut.

So to answer the question: ‘Can Design make a difference?’ requires first a definition from the author of what design IS in the context of this question.

For the purposes of this article I refer to Design as a mode of strategic thinking and problem solving. The over-used and over-analysed term ‘design thinking’ (do a search, you get 2.23 million results) comes close to articulating the point so for short hand that is the definition of Design I’m referring to. This mode of thinking and the tools that are deployed in its service are very effective at engaging with complex problems that are ill defined and feature the interactions of multiple, complex systems with multiple human beings (complex systems too, each and every one of them).

The resultant problems – from public transport to global food distribution – are inherently difficult to analyse and even harder to solve through purely logical or analytical methods. Problems so difficult to fix the experts call them “wicked”  as if they had a sentient evil mind of their own. Their cause and effect factors are hidden by layers of complexity and exhibit seemingly random behaviour patterns. That’s why the trains don’t run on time and the buses aren’t there when you expect them despite the best efforts of those involved to fix public transport.

An approach that weaves a mix of abductive (generating new ideas), integrative (systems thinking) and interpretive thinking (framing problems and solutions in new ways) is needed when the problems are this “wicked”. You can’t do it alone either so we need a way to collaborate effectively, breaking down hierarchy and fear of failure for instance. And because there’s no easy fix to complex problems you need to experiment – a lot.

Finally we need to balance the systems thinking with a deeply personal understanding of how these systems affect people within them, the all important “human factors”. That’s a serious set of skills, methods and thinking strategies. All of these are familiar territory to strategic design thinkers however. Our toolbag of tricks includes ways to afford all of these modes of thinking. No wonder it’s a great way to tackle complex problems then!

Design at work at Digital Eskimo

Design at work at Digital Eskimo

Can Design make a difference to the big issues of our times? Absolutely it can – in fact, I doubt we’ll have a hope in hell of responding quickly enough to the impending collision of climate change, resource scarcity and population growth without it. There are a few challenges to overcome however, before Design can massively impact (to borrow a Bruce Mauism) the way humanity organises itself and relates to the planet on which we live.

Firstly, there aren’t that many strategic designers about. There aren’t even that many designers of any persuasian in the world – as Sir Ken Robinson so eloquently expressed in his famous TED Talk back in 2006, we’ve been strip mining the minds of our children for so long, creating analytical thinkers strong in maths and science, we’re a little short on professional creative people. The number that have taken the leap to use their capabilities to tackle broader more strategic problems is a fraction of this. You can list the companies that have successfully done this globally on one hand.

Which brings us to our second problem. Overcoming the scepticism senior people in organisations have about Design’s usefulness in tackling big complex problems. It’s notoriously difficult for people who are used to traditional analytical approaches to devising strategy to understand the incredible power of Design-led strategic approaches. Understandably people often have to experience the process before they believe that it is indeed a quantum shift from traditional methods.

I fear this scepticism will only be completely overcome with a fully fledged effort to teach design literacy in schools around the globe. If we can teach people the basics of design thinking, the way we teach everyone the basics of maths now, then we may see people doing a good job of solving their own complex problems. And they would most likely understand the value of bringing in the professionals to tackle the wicked problems – the way we now bring in accountants and actuarial to do the heavy lifting in our financial problem solving.

I recently met with a designer who had returned from Scandinavia and I asked how the Swedish design scene was compared to Australia.  He told me it’s much smaller, with few  agencies of substantial size. Everyone is designing inside the organisations themselves. Companies and government bodies have entire design departments, design is infused in all that they do. That’s what decades of design education and practical application across society can do.

Looking across the Powerhouse Museum’s archive it’s breathtaking to see the depth and diversity of human ingenuity. Not everything in that collection is the product of a rigorous design process, but clearly the creation of things that change our world is at the core of what it means to be human. Kenya Hara said that perhaps Design was born when the first homo sapiens began to change their environment. We began to Design when we began to think.

If that is true then its not a matter of whether design can make a difference, its only a matter of will it make enough of a difference in time to ensure the creative side of our nature is victorious over our destructive side.

Time is ticking, lets hope its on a Dieter Rams watch.

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