Designers are the best change agents out there. They are catalysts for meaningful innovation, and their impact is already apparent throughout many sectors: Health care, infrastructure, high-tech industries, banking, retail… you name it. That being the case, how come design is still subject to so much confusion and misunderstanding? Let me break it down for you.
The (brutally simplified) Evolution of Design
A long time ago, design and designers were primarily associated with form and craft. Solving simple problems perhaps, but always leaving the aesthetic qualities as the key takeaway.
But design expertise has taken some radical turns since then. As products became more complex, designers developed more methodical skills. They started gathering relevant insights to fuel their solution-based creative processes. Empathetically observing people of course, but also adopting models for understanding business, and even flirting with technology. This approach to problem-solving was so successful that even non-designers embraced it; giving it a fancy name to boot: “Design Thinking”.
Being rooted in form and craft, all designers have the power to visualize. This is an underestimated quality for problem-solving. Combining visualization with more recent capabilities for insight and dot-connection, designers became powerful agents. Able to handle increasingly complex challenges and wicked problems.
Designers - already equipped to create meaning out of complexity - are natural born transformationalists. That’s right, transformation - not just problem solving. Transformation is the latest stage of design impact.
Meanwhile the rate of change was gathering pace, and disruption became the new flavour of business development. New technologies and trends were pushing most organizations out of their comfort zones, whilst feeding designers with exciting, new design material.
The evolution of design doesn’t just leap from primitive to advanced. Instead, it shows the development of design impact; where each level remains relevant. Let’s turn the timeline 90 degrees, and see the dimensions in the form of a pyramid:
You could say the design impacts represent the emotional, rational and strategic dimensions of your objectives. To maximize the effect of your innovation efforts, you should work on all dimensions of design impact simultaneously.
I am not saying that all you need is designers. Both transformational and conceptual developments will always require multidisciplinary teams: Technologists, anthropologists or business developers for example. However, designers are the best glue you can apply to make strategic, rational, and emotional dimensions fuse well together. Designers are navigators between vision and implementation. They are the perceptive, dot-connecting facilitators of holistic impacts. And if you include all the dimensions, the results have a greater chance to be implemented, rather than just being filed away and forgotten about.
The Simple Articulation
So, back to any confusion or misunderstanding. When you think about the journey from craftsmen to transformationalists, it’s not surprising that people sometimes have a rather muddled perception of what design truly represents.
Can we avoid confusion if we get better at articulating which levels of the pyramid we are aiming for? I propose a simple hand-drawn sketch:
Then the next time you’re planning a design or innovation project, you can perhaps spend five extra minutes by a whiteboard, testing this pyramid out with your stakeholders.
After all, it was only 10 years ago that we were debating how to convince business influencers to open their eyes to the value of design. Nowadays designers are far more influential, and design awareness has become a major trend; way beyond design circles.
When you buy design correctly, there’s a good chance it will impact not only on your products and organisation, but perhaps even society too. Nevertheless please be aware that just hiring a “Design Thinker” is not enough. It is crucial that you secure a team that can deliver on all levels of the pyramid. A message for all you potential design buyers out there
So… hats off to all designers out there who contributed to this - I salute you. Enjoy your breakthrough, and use your powers to keep striving towards being forever innovative. Be aware of your impacts, but also your dependencies to both your clients and partners. Your most important role now is to genuinely explain and sell design in such a way that our common efforts maximize positive change.