Design Publics

Design is far too important not to be shared and made as accessible as possible as our future literally depends on it.

Design is not a luxury. Design is what will shape our world to come. Our ‘next’ will be designed by us and those design choices will shape who benefits, how, and what influence we have on the world (and how prepared we are to respond to what the world throws at us).

The age of Anthropocene is literally defined by human intervention. Our use of heavy carbon-producing fuel sources, natural resources, treatment of ecosystems, and development of industrial economies of global production has meant that, for the first time in our history, we humans are shaping the ecology of the planet, not something else. One might say our actions have designed the present situation (maybe with little consciousness, agreement, or intent), but still, we did it.

Once we became aware that our activities were shaping the world and there was something we could do to change things, we started designing.

Accessible Language

The concept of Design Thinking has greatly opened up design to the world. The language of design as communicated through design thinking and its variants such as the idea of creative confidence has allowed people to see themselves as creative, active agents in shaping services and products around them. Speaking firsthand, the benefit to lay-persons and those who never saw themselves as ‘designers’ or ‘creative’ can’t be over-stated.

However, the parameters posed by the language of design are still too narrow. Concepts like ‘ideation‘ are too nebulous while prototyping sounds far too technological and scientific and can serve to separate people’s ideas from the making part of design. As I’ve written before, the fear of making things and trying something out is still enormously high for many would-be innovators. Making the language of design more accessible and, wherever possible, using terms that reflect the more universal qualities that attract people to design in the first place (e.g., making, creating, planning, learning, beauty, utility) can make a difference, too.

Design can escape the trap that other disciplines or fields have fallen into (e.g., Evaluation) by keeping a focus on accessibility in its language and its practice. Psychology famously became popular in part because George Miller, as the president of the American Psychological Association, argued that the field should give itself away. In doing so, it brought psychology out of the laboratory, hospital and therapists offices into the public square.

The more accessible our language, the more inclusive our practice.

Accessible Methods

Design’s practical focus means that the means of creating things can’t be excluded from our discussion. Methods matter.

Until recently, much of what was part of practical design was left to people’s imagination. Models of design thinking abound, yet little detail on how this is to be done in practice has surfaced beyond aphorisms like “generate wild ideas”, “go for volume”, or “fail fast to succeed sooner”. While these might have merit, they assume people can abstract from one scenario to another easily. My experience is that this is not the case for many people.

Tools, methods, and strategies are helpful for those who have no idea what design practice actually looks like. For years, aside from facilitated group ‘co-design’ sessions that featured an abundance of sticky notes, whiteboards, and markers most people rarely saw what design looked like. Publishing toolkits, method briefs, and case studies changes this.

Access to design tools will not make anyone a great designer as a much as access to a pipe wrench will make a great plumber. But having these tools and the chance to try them, ‘play’ with them, and use them as means to anchor design theory to is useful. For those designers who are worried that giving away our tools will unleash a wave of unqualified, ineffective design work consider that anyone can go to their local hardware store to buy tools, watch a home renovation program on TV, and seek to renovate their house. They will soon appreciate what is needed because the poor quality design and build can not stand the test of practice. What might come from this is an understanding of what they are capable of and become better at growing, learning, and procuring design services down the road. Greater exposure increases appreciation and overall use.

Besides, we don’t have enough designers to tackle the problems we face or meet the opportunities we have before us. We need wider design literacy and practice with people who will ask better questions of design and ensure the best design is done. That’s done through design education and public literacy.

Design Literacy

Greater design literacy equals more appreciation for what design is, what it can do, and what it can contribute to.

Design’s role in public life can fuel the innovation — learning transformed into value with creativity, craft, research, and implementation. Design literacy is about bringing together the language of design with an understanding of methods, tools, and strategies for realizing design in practice.

As designers — and innovators – one of the greatest gifts we can give is to share what we know about making, creativity, sharing, and learning with others so that they can do more of it, do it better, for greater effect and benefit. We provoked The Anthropocene Age with our actions and how we live with it and through it will depend on what we do with design across our policies, services, products, organizations and communities.

There is no greater challenge for humanity and the living world that I can think of for our success in designing for what’s next is now dependent upon making design public for all of us.

Note: At Cense we’ve developed a resource page that highlights methods, tools, and approaches that is open, freely available, and continually updated. If you require any help in using these tools and methods, contact us and we can help.

Photo by Jace & Afsoon on Unsplash

Cameron D. Norman

I am a designer, psychologist, educator, evaluator, and strategist focused on innovation in human systems. I'm curious about the world around me and use my role as Principal and President of Cense Ltd. as a means of channeling that curiosity into ideas, questions, and projects that contribute to a better world.

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