Deemphasizing the Designer in the Golden Age of Design

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“So how does a company like Nest, creator of the mundane thermostat, earn accolades like ‘beautiful’ and ‘revolutionary’ and a $3.2 billion Google buyout? What did Nest do differently to create a household product that people speak of with love?” – Jon Kolko, Well-Designed


20th Century was the century of pragmatic disciplines like engineering, science or business administration. Technology was the most important tool for innovation at the center of economies led by USA. Designer John Maeda claims that MIT rose up as a symbol of this. However, need that were transformed and lives that were mobilized by technology made our expectations more complex. Millions of people hit to the streets in the pursuit of these new expectations. In the 21st Century, we need a new point of view that’ll create a harmony between complex problems and new technologies in order to understand these people on the streets. Pragmatic disciplines that we used in creating many products and services in the last century usually neglect human-beings, their behaviors and emotions. For this, we need a new lens that looks at the problems from a human perspective. This is the design lens. It’s a lens that can look at problems from a perspective of human needs and emotions and redefine them for pragmatic disciplines. In the words of the New York Times, design is in its “golden age.”

However, is the design world ready for its new role and golden age?

360° People and Our Changing Questions

People now know that they cannot consume endlessly, world’s resources are limited, and problems like climate change and pollution are affecting our lives. “These people are aware of the ecological, societal, and financial impact of their actions, and who want to connect to one another,” says Sarah Horowitz, the founder of Freelancers Union, and calls them “360° People.” Millions who hit the streets in Occupy movements around the world were chanting not only for financial demands, but also for the social and ecological needs of the world they are going to hand down to the next generations. 

The New Role of Design

While technology is changing our lives in such a great extent, design is not as agile in helping technology penetrate human life. As a matter of fact, according to the Cincinatti-based research firm Acupoll, the failure rate of technology startups is 95% on the product level. Similarly, according to a research by Shikhar Ghosh from Harvard Business School, 3 out of 4 technology startups fail to return investments. Although there are many parameters about investment success, the biggest factor of this failure is technology entrepreneurs’ lack of understanding for human needs.

The design world is not entirely aware of being able to present design as a human-centered tool for solving complex problems as well as the needs to use it as such. More importantly, there is no such designers trained for this.

Roberto Verganti, Professor of Management of Innovation at Politecnico di Milano, claims in his book “Design-Driven Innovation” that design is a very important tool for radical innovation. Although we mostly associate innovation with technology, Eric Quint, Chief Design Officer of 3M, said in a conversation: “It’s not good enough just to have a great technology to drive the innovation process. We have to be able to identify insights and understand future context that can be translated through design to achieve relevance and impact. It’s about making smart combinations of available knowledge and technologies to create something new. When done successfully, we deliver customer value that translates to business value.”

Designer Deemphasized

The topic of “who is a designer” is commonly discussed in both academy and industry. While there are some important designers who claim that anyone can be a designer, some others argue that the title “designer” is exclusive to those who has received a design education. Independent of these on-going discussions, the needs of economy are the ultimate determinants. Consequently, design is shifting from a hegemony of “star designers” to a more collaborative understanding of design primarily led by design firms like IDEO and frog. It is not a coincidence that these firms serve Silicon Valley or the technology world in general. The democratizing effect of technology necessarily transforms the ways its collaborators do business.

The said companies design products and services using design thinking to look at problems. In doing this, they run their processes in teams made up of designers as well as people from many other disciplines. The emphasis is on the team, but not the “designer.”

Airbnb CEO Brian Chesky and Design Director Alex Schleifer called this “deemphasizing the designer” in an interview in the Wired Magazine. In other words, the good customer experience, that was aimed to be facilitated by design, should be the task of everyone but not just those who received design training. “The point isn’t to create a “design-led culture,” because that tends to tell anyone who isn’t a designer that their insights take a backseat,” says Schleifer. This brings about a change in culture and ways of doing business in the design world. To say the least, in the fields that interact with technology, the era of star designers is coming to an end and a culture that works hand-in-hand with other disciplined is emerging.

The Designer of the Future

In the past century, as the power of technology increased, so did the need for people qualified in the field. When the schools could not account for the need, many self-educated programmers began working in important positions in companies and it almost became a norm.

Design may follow the same trajectory as design schools focus on product design and cannot respond to the expectations of the industry. Therefore we’ll be seeing more self-educated designers.

Companies’ Design Investments

Recently, McKinsey, a consultancy firm, bought out Lunar, a design company with important clients. In 2012, Accenture made a similar strategic move by buying out the design firm Fjord.

These buyouts are based on a very important reason. According to the Design Value Index, conducted last year by Design Management Institute (of which I am a board member of) and the design firm Motiv, “over the last 10 years design-led companies have maintained significant stock market advantage, outperforming the S&P by an extraordinary 228%.” Among them are Apple, Coca-Cola, Ford, Herman-Miller, IBM, Intuit, Newell-Rubbermaid, Nike, Procter & Gamble, Starbucks, Starwood, Steelcase, Target, Walt Disney and Whirlpool.

Of course, this success is very attractive for other big brands. Upon observing this, consultancy firms execute these buyouts in order to provide design consultancy services to these brands.

Such buyouts or the giant in-house design teams of IBM and GE are way beyond the speed and scale that design world is used to, and it doesn’t seem ready for it.


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