Defining the New Designer

Who is the real designer?

It’s been suggested that anyone who shapes the world intentionally is a designer, however those who train and practice as professional designers question whether such definition obscures the skill, craft, and ethics that come from formal disciplinary affiliation. Further complicating things is the notion that design thinking can be taught and that the practice of design can be applied far beyond its original traditional bounds. Who is right and what does it mean to define the new designer?

Everyone designs who devises courses of action aimed at changing existing situations into preferred ones. – Herbert Simon, Scientist and Nobel Laureate

By Herb Simon’s definition anyone who is intentionally directing their energy towards shaping their world is a designer. Renowned design scholar Don Norman (no relation) has said that we are all designers [1]. Defined this way, the term design becomes something more accessible and commonplace removing it from a sense elitism that it has often been associated with. That sounds attractive to most, but is something that has raised significant concerns from those who identify as professional designers and opens the question up about what defines the new designer as we move into an age of designing systems, not just products.

Designer qualities

Design is what links creativity and innovation. It shapes ideas to become practical and attractive propositions for users or customers. Design may be described as creativity deployed to a specific end – Sir George Cox

Sir George Cox, the former head of the UK Design Council, wrote the above statement in the seminal Cox Review of Creativity in Business in the UK in 2005 sees design as a strategic deployment of creative energy to accomplish something. This can be done mindfully, skilfully and ethically with a sense of style and fit or it can be done haphazardly, unethically, incompetently and foolishly. It would seem that designers must put their practice of design thinking into use which includes holding multiple contradictory ideas at the same time in one’s head. Contractions of this sort are a key quality of complexity and abductive reasoning, a means of thinking through such contradictions, is considered a central feature of design thinking.

Indeed, this ‘thinking’ part of design is considered a seminal feature of what makes a designer what they are. Writing on Cox’s definition of design, Mat Hunter, the Design Council’s Chief Design Officer, argues that a designer embodies a particular way of thinking about the subject matter and weaving this through active practice:

Perhaps the most obvious attribute of design is that it makes ideas tangible, it takes abstract thoughts and inspirations and makes something concrete. In fact, it’s often said that designers don’t just think and then translate those thoughts into tangible form, they actually think through making things.

Hunter might be getting closer to distinguishing what makes a designer so. His perspective might assert that people are reflective, abductive and employ design thinking actively, which is an assumption that I’ve found to be often incorrect. Even with professionals, you can instill design thinking but you can’t make them apply it (why this is the case is something for another day).

This invites the question: how do we know people are doing this kind of thinking when they design? The answer isn’t trivial if certain thinking is what defines a designer. And if they are applying design thinking through making does that qualify them as a designer whether they have accreditation or formal training degree in design or not?

Designers recognize that their training and professional development confers specific advantages and requires skill, discipline, craft and a code of ethics. Discipline is a cultural code of identity. For the public or consumers of designed products it can also provide some sense of quality assurance to have credentialed designers working with them.

Yet, those who practice what Herb Simon speaks of also are designers of something. They are shaping their world, doing with intent, and many are doing it with a level of skill and attention that is parallel to that of professional designers. So what does it mean to be a designer and how do we define this in light of the new spaces where design is needed?

Designing a disciplinary identity

Writing in Design Issues, Bremner & Rodgers (2013) [2] argue that design’s disciplinary heritage has always been complicated and that its current situation is being affected by three crisis domains: 1) professionalism, 2) economic, and 3) technological. The first is partly a product of the latter two as the shaping and manufacture of objects becomes transformed. Materials, production methods, knowledge, social context and the means of transporting – whether physically or digitally — the objects of design have transformed the market for products, services and ideas in ways that have necessarily shaped the process (and profession) of design itself. They conclude that design is not disciplinary, interdisciplinary or even transdisciplinary, but largely alterdisciplinary — boundless of time and space.

Legendary German designer Dieter Rams is among the most strident critics of the everyone-is-a-designer label and believes this wide use of the term designer takes away the seriousness of what design is all about. Certainly, if one believes John Thackara’s assertion that 80 per cent of the impact of any product is determined at the design stage the case for serious design is clear. Our ecological wellbeing, social services, healthcare, and industries are all designed and have enormous impact on our collective lives so it makes sense that we approach designing seriously. But is reserving the term design(er) for an elite group the answer?

Some have argued that elitism in design is not a bad idea and that this democratization of design has led to poorly crafted, unusable products. Andrew Heaton, writing about User Experience (UX) design, suggests that this elitist view is less about moral superiority and more about better products and greater skill:

I prefer this definition: elitism is the belief that some individuals who form an elite — a select group with a certain intrinsic quality, specialised training, experience and other distinctive attributes — are those whose views on a matter are to be taken the most seriously or carry the most weight. By that definition, Elitist UX is simply an insightful and skilled designer creating an experience for an elevated class of user.

Designing through and away from discipline

Designers recognize that their training and professional development confers specific advantages and requires skill, discipline, craft and a code of ethics, but there is little concrete evidence that it produced better designed outcomes. Design thinking has enabled journalists like Helen Walters, healthcare providers like those at the Mayo Clinic, and business leaders to take design and apply it to their fields and beyond. Indeed, it was business-journalist-cum-design-professor Bruce Nussbaum who is widely credited with contributing to the cross-disciplinary appeal of design thinking (and its critique) from his work at Newsweek.

Design thinking is now something that has traversed whatever discipline it was originally rooted in — which seems to be science, design, architecture, and marketing all at the same time. Perhaps unlocking it from discipline and the practices (and trappings) of such structure is a positive step.

Discipline is a cultural code of identity and for the public it can be a measure of quality. Quality is a matter of perspective and in complex situations we may not even know what quality means until products are developmentally evaluated after being used. For example, what should a 3-D printed t-shirt feel like? I don’t know whether it should be like silk, cotton, polyester, or nylon mesh or something else entirely because I have never worn one and if I was to compare such a shirt to my current wardrobe I might be using the wrong metric. We will soon be testing this theory with 3-D printed footwear already being developed.

Evaluating good design

The problem of metrics is the domain of evaluation. What is the appropriate measurement for good design? Much has been written on the concept of good design, but part of the issue is that what constitutes good design for a bike and chair might be quite different for a poverty reduction policy or perhaps a program to support mothers and their children escaping family violence. The idea of delight (a commonly used goal or marker of good design) as an outcome might be problematic in the latter context. Should mothers be delighted at such a program to support them in time of crisis? That’s a worthy goal, but I think if those involved feel safe, secure, cared for, and supported in dealing with their challenges that is still a worthwhile design. Focusing on delight as a criteria for good design in this case is using the wrong metric. And what about the designers who bring about such programs?

Or should such a program be based on designer’s ability to empathize with users and create adaptive, responsive programs that build on evidence and need simultaneously without delight being the sole goal? Just as healthy food is not always as delightful for children as ice cream or candy, there is still a responsibility to ensure that design outcomes are appropriate. The new designer needs to know when to delight, when and how to incorporate evidence, and how to bring all of the needs and constraints together to generate appropriate value.

Perhaps that ability is the criteria for which we should judge the new designer, encouraging our training programs, our clients (and their asks and expectations), our funders and our professional associations to consider what good design means in this age of complexity and then figure out who fits that criteria. Rather than build from discipline, consider creating the quality from the outcomes and processes used in design itself.

[1] Norman, D. (2004) Emotional design: why we love (or hate) everyday things. New York, NY: Basic Books.

[2] Bremner, C. & Rodgers, P. (2013). Design without discipline. Design Issues, 29 (3), 4-13.

3 Comments on “Defining the New Designer

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