What is design? A tool to build a better world? A great chair? A technical drawing? A profession? A means of boosting profitability? A marketing ploy? Design has fulfilled all of those roles, and many more. It is a complex phenomenon that has meant many different things at different times and in different contexts, making it fiendishly difficult to define, especially as it continues to acquire new meanings. Even its etymology is problematic, as the design theorist John Heskett illustrated with the phrase: ‘Design is to design a design to produce a design.’ Nonsensical though that sounds, it is grammatically correct.
Yet despite all of the muddles and clichés, for me, design has always had one unwavering role. It is an agent of change that can be used to interpret changes of any type – whether they are personal, political, cultural, social, economic, scientific, environmental, or technological – to help to ensure that they will affect us positively, rather than negatively. Design fulfilled this function for the prehistoric communities that turned caves into shelters, just as it does today by identifying constructive uses for artificial intelligence, quantum computing and other dauntingly powerful technologies that have the potential to be both immensely beneficial, and deeply damaging.
Not that interpreting technological advances is the only challenge for contemporary design. At a time when we face tumultuous changes on many fronts, we urgently need design to help us manage them. Tackling the deepening environmental and refugee crises. Fostering economic growth through innovation. Quelling the rise of intolerance and extremism. Reinventing dysfunctional areas of healthcare, social services, education and the justice system. Enabling us to express increasingly fluid personal identities. Design is not a panacea, but if it is applied intelligently, it is a powerful tool with which we can address these issues. And yet design is often dismissed as slick and stylistic, and as a reason why millions of tons of electronic products are abandoned each year in toxic dumps, rather than a means of cleaning them up. Such clichés prevent us from realising its true potential, making it very timely to brainstorm design now.
For centuries, design was deployed instinctively, on the ‘necessity is the mother of invention’ principle that prompted those prehistoric cave dwellers to build shelters. Since the Industrial Revolution, it has been applied knowingly and systematically, becoming formalised and professionalised with the introduction of specialist schools and methodologies amid a blizzard of jargon. Industrialisation also categorised design as a commercial discipline, generally executed under instruction from clients. Some 20th-century designers (including the pioneering environmentalists Richard Buckminster Fuller and Roberto Burle Marx, and industrial designers such as Dieter Rams and Charles and Ray Eames, whose work was so remarkable it transcended the pressure to compromise) escaped those constraints, but they were rare exceptions.
All of that has changed with the arrival of relatively inexpensive but powerful new digital tools. Basic though most of these technologies are, they have transformed the practice of design, enabling designers to operate independently and to pursue their own objectives. Other fields have been affected by them too, but seldom to the same degree. As well as managing huge quantities of complex data, designers can use social media to raise awareness of their work; find suppliers, collaborators and fabricators; or clinch funding. They are also able to raise capital from crowdfunding platforms, and to secure grants from the non-profits that support social and humanitarian design, including the Acumen fund and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Individually, each of these changes would have had a positive impact on design culture. Collectively, they have proved metamorphic.
Take a particularly ambitious independent design project, The Ocean Cleanup, a Dutch non-profit that has developed a gigantic floating structure with which it aims to clear plastic trash from the oceans. It plans to go live in the Pacific this spring after raising over $30m in just four years. The Ocean Cleanup has been beset by criticism from scientists and environmentalists, who claim its system is flawed, yet its success so far shows how compelling a persuasively presented independent design endeavour for an important cause can be.
More and more socially and environmentally conscious designers are following suit, including those in parts of the developing world that previously lacked the resources to forge thriving design cultures. A new generation of African designers has emerged at the forefront of Internet of Things technologies in countries where more people have access to cellular networks than to clean running water. Portable diagnostic devices such as the Cardiopad heart monitor, developed by Arthur Zang in Cameroon, and the Peek Retina ophthalmoscope, devised by a group of doctors and designers in Kenya and the UK, are already improving the quality of healthcare for thousands of people.
In the UK, social scientist Hilary Cottam co-founded the social design group Participle to conduct a decade of experiments in developing more effective solutions for acute problems, like improving the care of the elderly and helping the long-term unemployed return to work. Participle formed multidisciplinary teams led by designers that treated each issue as a design challenge and applied the design process to analyse it. Other social designers have done the same, choosing specialists from different fields as their collaborators. By opening up design to new perspectives, these designers are reinvigorating what was once a seemingly impenetrable white man’s world of specially trained professionals, by making design more diverse in terms of gender, culture and skills, as well as geography.
The same technological changes, combined with growing financial, social and ecological pressures, have had an equally dramatic effect on design’s corporate role. As well as its traditional function of translating technological advances into new or improved products and services, design is increasingly used as a general management tool to improve planning and delivery across businesses, much as Cottam and her co-workers deployed it at Participle. Design thinking, as this phenomenon is called, is almost as fuzzy a concept as design itself, but its underlying principle – that strategic decisions can benefit from being interrogated with the openness, thoughtfulness and rigour of the design process – has proved effective.
Take Nike, which owed its early success in the 1970s to the resourcefulness with which its co-founders, Phil Knight and Bill Bowerman, designed shoes that helped athletes to run faster. Its goals in product design are much the same today, but its resources – including motion-capture studios and high-speed cameras filming the soles of athletes’ feet through transparent floor plates – are much more sophisticated. Nike, one of the very few Fortune 100 companies to be led by a designer – its chairman and CEO, Mark Parker – applies design thinking throughout the business, from human resources to supply chains. It has played a critical part in helping to restructure Nike’s operations to meet higher ethical and environmental standards. The ongoing efforts to eliminate waste and consume less fuel and water, for example, have been planned to cut costs as well as to reduce the risk of a repetition of the 1990s protests against Nike’s ethics, like those that still beset Apple and Canada Goose.
Could a fallen 21st-century corporate star like Uber have avoided its current predicament by adopting as coherent an approach to design? Uber was designed to meet a genuine need with huge commercial potential for an inexpensive, speedily accessible car service. It expanded aggressively, but failed to anticipate its impact on drivers and customers, and is now mired in rows with regulators and law suits, and demonised as the arch-villain of the gig economy. Would a smart and sensitive design thinking strategy have helped to anticipate those problems and encouraged Uber to refine its business model? Possibly. Will other companies avoid making the same mistakes when deciding how to design the driverless cars, robotic nurses, smart cities and any of the other technologies we expect to become ubiquitous in the near future? Let’s hope so.