Strategic Design For What’s Now, Next and Beyond

“Set it and forget it” might be a phrase that works with late-night infomercial products, but it’s not fitting for modern design. Next is now and that requires a new way to seeing, thinking, and making.

Let me start by saying that this article ends with practical options for action and suggestions, but I need to frame the context first and that’s far less positive. Stay with me.

The future is not what it used to be. It’s feeling more present than ever.

That’s a paraphrase of what I’ve been hearing (from my own voice, too) in conversations with colleagues, clients, and collaborators. Two issues exemplify this. The high visibility and ability to see Generative AI tools evolve before our eyes is contributing to it. So are the extreme swings in weather from record wildfires in Alberta to drought + floods in Emilia-Romagna. What was once relegated to talks of future possibilities is now shifting to present tense.

These are just two examples. We could add healthcare human resourcing and service, international diplomacy (and threats of war), mass human migration, and global housing crises to these polycrises.

This is a ‘live-fire’ test for futures, foresight, and strategic design.

I say this because what was once futures thinking is becoming present issues far faster than we’ve expected. Just listen to how those involved at the forefront of AI development and climate change speak of what they are seeing.

What is Next?

And you can see the coming battle
You pray the drums will never cease
And you may win this war that’s coming
But would you tolerate the peace?

Sting, This War

War analogies can be crude, but they work well in speaking of mass mobilizations toward a common cause. It’s why people leaned on military language like the use of “front lines” when speaking of the COVID-19 pandemic. This language doesn’t fit the same way for what we’re facing. There is no clear opponent (none of the issues above have a clear cause, consequence, time horizon, or outcome range associated with them). There is a need to address them, except without a battle plan.

Furthermore, some of us are fighting against the rest of us. Sometimes, the enemy is us.

What do we do? As designers, we bring answers even if there is no single one of them that will address everything. Bruce Mau describes design as an empowering methodology that helps us to figure out what to do.

Designers seek to shape the future by creating things that address needs, desires, and circumstances that we want changed. If you want some kind of outcome and are prepared to act in order to achieve that outcome, you’re a designer.

Strategic Design is about working with others to achieve a goal beyond ourselves.

Which brings us to now, next and beyond. What is next — as in, what does next mean in the context of what we are looking to achieve together? What does next mean now?

Reframing Design and Strategy For Present Futures

Strategic Foresight bring together ideas about what might happen based on data, imaginative exercises, and a connection with existing circumstances. Together, we might see what could happen, how it might happen, and envision ways to get from here to there. When used diligently with real strategy (not just wishful planning), strategic foresight can be a powerful means to anticipate problems and guide innovation (and change).

How do we do this for the present times? I offer six suggestions, some have been borrowed and remixed from Bruce Mau.

  1. Active Briefs. The traditional design brief sets out a problem or situation and designers react by creating a proposal. The wide scope and rapid pace of connected changes means our contexts are adapting quickly. We run a real risk of designing solutions for problems that no longer work because things have changed between the design of the brief and the final generation of a response and its implementation and evaluation. Keep asking: what’s changed in our context or assumptions since we started? How can we modify or evolve the project to reflect these changes?
  2. Foresight Conversations: Rather than create foresight reports, generate foresight conversations. Create a space for dialogue between those involved in the project to keep talking, gathering more evidence, creating new artifacts, and sensemaking. Ask what is changing, where have initial scenarios been modified, and what new insights are emerging. This dialogic approach means we’re continually engaging in conversations about an emerging future, not just a model of one. Keep an active vision on where things are and where things are going. “Don’t take our eye off the ball.”
  3. Fact Based Optimism: Lead with evidence. Know the situation, gather the research, and understand what others have done and are doing. With this data we can bring things together in way that offers possibility. Viewing our data with an eye toward possibility informs our optimism. If we are not moving ahead with optimism, there’s no way we will inspire or engage people. Strategic design involves coming together and optimism and hope are what draw people together.
  4. Life Design Orientation: Create for living systems. Recognize growth, change, connections, and relationships that influence the context of what we do, the output, and the influence we have. When we design for living systems, we avoid language, models, and expectations of tight control and embrace principles of complexity. Life design recognizes our place in the natural and designed world and creates for it, not against it. Learning and adaptation are embedded properties of our work.
  5. Influence, Not Impact: Limit our use of language and models tied to linear thinking like “impact”. Our work will have influence – more or less – and the effects and consequences of our designs will change over time. Evaluate for dynamic, learning systems not causal outcomes. Impact is static, influence is dynamic.
  6. Live, Dream: Support present action — live (real time) and live (to survive) — that works in service from a vision from our emerging future that we are creating as we live. To live and dream means supporting well-being and health because without these, the ability to do either is limited or impossible.

This process challenges designers to be as attune to process as outcomes and approach their work in a more evaluative, responsive manner. It pushes those soliciting design to open themselves up to a dynamic approach to creating briefs and to serving as partners in creating projects. This means everyone needs to engage in conversations that build trust, foster collaboration and dialogue, and support the kind of visionary strategy and evaluation.

So no more traditional logic models, 5-year plans, and rigid schedule of deliverables. This new model is dynamic, flexible and designed to be fit for purpose for a world that is changing faster than our foresight can guide us.

Set it and forget it is done lest we want our next to be our past.

Setting yourselves up to do this is a design task in itself – so let’s chat about how to make it happen.

Image Credit: Cameron Norman

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