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The Crisis of Success in Design/Innovation.

Posted by: Bruce Nussbaum on October 25, 2007

I gave speech at the most amazing design conference I’ve ever attended last week in San Francisco, the Connecting ‘07 World Design Congress. Some of the top designers in the world were there. Many of the top innovation thinkers were there. Maybe a thousand of top students in design and design thinking were there.

Organized by the brilliant Bill Moggridge, IDEO co-founder and pioneer in interaction design, it had nearly 2000 people attending (15 from P&G alone), 144 presentations and workshops and well-spring of optimism. The Industrial Society of America put it all together and it did a brilliant job.

It’s not every day that you have Dieter Ram, the great designer of Braun products, Yves Behar, Roger Martin, Hans Rosling, Tim Brown, Patrick Whitney and Cat Chow in one conference.

I’ll be blogging over the next couple of days on the major themes and trends that I saw there. For the day-to-day, check out the Core77 site.

The IDSA gave out its annual Industrial Design Excellence Awards on Saturday night. I gave an opening talk, which draws on the excellent work being done on design thinking by Chris Conley at Gravity Tank, Diego Rodriguez at IDEO, Dick Bolland and Fred Collopy at Case Western and others.

Here is the speech. You can substitute the word “innovate” for “design” or “design thinking.” Or call it a banana, I don’t care what the methodology and philosophy is called. Let me know your thoughts please.

The Crisis of Success
10/20/07 IDSA Speech

I’d like to speak tonight about a crisis—a crisis in design. Of course, design has had many crises. There was the crisis of acceptance. Business just wouldn’t give respect to design. There was the crisis of money. Designers were paid miserably for their work. Then there was the bubble crisis. Tech collapsed and work disappeared.

Today, we have a another crisis—the Crisis of Success. Everywhere in every sphere, people are asking the question, Can Design Help? Why is the answer to so many problems today design?

It’s simple really In a society of little change, the answer to most problems is efficiency. Doing the same things, only better, makes them better. Maximizing efficiency creates values.

But in a society undergoing huge change—like ours now—the answer to most problems is possibility, not efficiency. New solutions makes things better. Maximizing possibilities of what could be creates value. This is what design can do. Design sees around corners. And that is why this is design’s moment.

Just look around. What do you see? Our business models are melting. Our healthcare models are collapsing. Our education models are failing. And efficiency, such as testing kids again and again, is not the answer.

So what is the power of design to provide answers? Why are people embracing it?

1- Design is the curator of conversations. To solve problems, design begins with people and cultures in communities, from rural villages at the bottom of the pyramid to social networks at the top of the pyramid. It observes, integrates, imagines and proposes.

2- Because of this approach, design is authentic and real in business and civic societies awash in fake and hype.

3- Design can abstract, deconstruct and recombine. It can reposition small, narrow problems in new broader contexts.

4- Design can visualize many possible outcomes and solutions using limited knowledge and speed decision-making.

5- Design can both reduce risk and manage higher risk in the process of developing new products, services and experiences. And it can do this within many spheres: business, health, education, transportation and others.

Wow. So powerful is this methodology that society is reaching out to embrace it. We are seeing the field of design go from simple design to design thinking to just thinking as it is embraced and embedded in corporate and civic cultures.

And this is setting off a crisis of success. Plug into my blog, NussbaumOnDesign, or the blogs of Core77, BplusD, Design Observer, Design Thinking and others and you see a huge conversation—or battle—underway.

Should designers become managers? Is design innovation? Will managers take over design? Does beauty trump strategy? Are blondes better than smarty-pants design thinkers? Should industrial design become international design? Is design education failing? Are B-Schools taking over the field of design? What the heck is design thinking anyway? Is the media hyping design or reflecting its growing influence in business and society? Is design and innovation just a fad? Is a backlash underway?

Oh, the passion, the name-calling, the worry, the fights. And oh, the incredible vibrancy of this conversation. Design is alive with debate because it has grown so very much. The swirling intellectual eddies reflect its growing depth and sophistication as a method for maximizing options and promoting change.

Most important, the debate highlights the choice now facing design. Will the success of design generate a backlash and cause it to retreat or can it continue to move forward? Will society’s embrace of the field of design force a return to the insular, the familiar and the narrow or will design move to embrace society? Will design choose to be on the periphery or the center of the big challenges of our day?

If you are a young designer today, you are blessed by success. And you are truly challenged by it. You have the tools to make cool, hip objects that also pollute the planet. Or you can design cradle-to-cradle things that save the planet. You can design for your friends or you can journey to the communities of the aging, the sick and the poor. You can stay in San Francisco, Palo Alto, the Lower East Side or Brooklyn or you can go to Century Village in Florida or the HIV-ridden villages of Swaziland.

These are your choices in this moment of success for design. I implore you, I beg you to make a difference. Design has always been a calling. Now it has a chance of becoming a mission.

Thank you.

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Reader Comments


October 25, 2007 07:45 PM

Beautifully stated, as always, Bruce. I am particularly moved by the connection you make between design’s ability to systematically apply creativity to generate an array of solutions. To think both inside and outside the box at once. The best designers don’t just see the object, they see the system in which it functions and, as noted by Richard Seymour at the World Design Congress, they consider that system as part of the design brief, even if it comes as a surprise to the client. This kind of thinking, this reorientation away from the object to the complete system in which it is developed, contributes and cycles around, is going to be key to any progress in mitigating (we are past solving) the environmental crisis. So design has a choice: it can wallow in the sheer joy of designing cool things that win awards; or it can harness its real talent to see “possibilities,” and deliver substance that truly fulfills design’s mantra to improve the quality of life. You wonder if design is about designers, per se, any longer? I say, let designers move out of the studio and into the world of business, politics and public policy. What if another designer moved into the White House?


October 28, 2007 09:09 PM

Letting designers move into other areas of the workplace or even further afield into other projects is a great idea. But how long will it take the people already within these areas to realise and understand how they might be able to utilise designers and allow them to flourish in these environments?

Arvind Lodaya

October 29, 2007 03:38 AM

Very provocative piece. However, I would like to suggest that "design" (or "banana") as you put it is quite different from the way design schools and its products see it. Here are five crises of design today, aggravated by our awareness of its true potential and relevance as you put it:

1. Design education is trapped in its modernist past. It remains stuck in the knowledge versus craft debate, its reference points have not kept up with the times. Ask any design institute or alumnus about the ideal designer, and you will hear an echo from the past, not a vision of the future.

2. Designers remain insecure about their career. This is because they do not see "success" in their individual capacity. Spoilt by their alma maters that massage and inflate their egos, they become unable to assimilate, adapt and re-invent themselves (and "design") to flow with the currents of change.

3. Designers become pompous about their success. Rather than distilling their success into knowledge and revitalization, successful designers seek to further mystify their achievements. In doing this, they do their discipline multiple kinds of damage.

4. Business is unable to re-invent itself. The environmental crisis is upon us, and affluent people around the world are wearying of more and more luxury. The time is ripe for a new paradigm of production and comsumption of something non-material, and something that is ethically and environmentally integrated with profit. However, business continues to behave like an ostrich and not invest in massive change.

5. Design seeks its cues from business, which is inherently anti-risk and conservative. In hitching its wagon to this reluctant horse, design is losing precious energy and creativity. It needs to find more patrons, or better still, build the spirit of enterprise within itself.

Last of all, like many professions, design too refuses to open its eyes to politics - of identity, of image, of trade - that it is an intrinsic part of. Ultimately, design is a modern evolution of our tool-making impulse, and knives and guns are tools just as much as rakes and ploughs.

Brian Frank

October 30, 2007 02:07 AM

I don't think we need to bother asking, "Can design help?" Of course it can help -- it must, by definition -- or else it wouldn't really be design. We should focus the discussion on *how* design can help. The worst thing that could happen to design would be to forget that it is itself a work in progress: "design" is itself a design project, a prototype, an experiment, an adventure that needs to continue stretching out (and in) to new domains. The "design" that people in different fields are embracing is not something given, but something they themselves make. That's the "power of design": it's the power grow and adapt to new circumstances.

Warren Smith

November 14, 2007 06:25 AM

I was fortunate to stumble upon your blog with the speech on design. I come from a particular arena that seeks to design experiences to accompany products, so that they might be more relevant to users. And I encounter many who doubt that experiences make a difference. And in fact, they don't, unless they are "designed" experiences. And so, I greatly enjoyed your blog and speech.

June 6, 2008 06:57 PM

Art Center College of Design in Crisis (Administration ousts Chief Academic Officer, no replacement named)
Important events at Art Center College of Design (ACCD) threaten the continued functioning as a top-notch design school. To summarize, a current student at Art Center Nathan Cooke ( questioned the direction that Art Center was taking with expensive conferences and plans for an expansion plan headed by Gehry Partners. Questions around finances; Gehry has been paid an undisclosed total sum to do no work as of yet, for a building that was to be completed in 2005. This has raised questions around development plans and the use of funds. The student body, faculty, and alumni would like answers.

On June 19 the ACCD board of directors is meeting to decide amongst other things, whether to extend ACCD President and CEO Richard Koshalek's expiring 10 year contract for another 5 years.

Since these events the student Nathan Cooke has received (unconfirmed?) threats, first to remove the blog, and second that he might lose his scholarship.

Associated with these events the VP / Chief Academic Officer, Nate Young, a distinguished Art Center alumni, was essentially forced to resign by Richard Koshalek. Nate has not commented, however his assistant Rachel Tiede confirmed she was forced to resign after she attended a student rally. She did not sign a confidentiality or severance agreement it seems, and has posted this confirmation that the ACCD administration gave her no other means but to resign. The Koshalek administration kept to its story that Nate Young resigned on his own, and amicably. Yet on June 1 they managed to airbrush/ photoshop Nate out of a photograph on the Art Center home page. Upon realizing their lack of judgement they reposted the original photograph. (see link below).

The administration has handled this recklessly, believing they can force those that speak up to resign, and deny any such thing. At Art Center we have no tenure, only "at will" contracts, a faculty organization that has little power, no union, etc. So it becomes very hard for the people in the classroom to speak freely, and without fear of retribution. So please, if you can, read the blog comments below, and also the Petition site to the Board of Directors.

For more information contact Art Center:
Iris Gelt Senior Vice President, Marketing and Communications t: +1 626 396 2403

thank you.

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Want to stop talking about innovation and learn how to make it work for you? Bruce Nussbaum takes you deep into the latest thinking about innovation and design with daily scoops, provocative perspectives and case studies. Nussbaum is at the center of a global conversation on the growing discipline of innovation and the deepening field of design thinking. Read him to discover what social networking works—and what doesn’t. Discover where service innovation is going and how experience design is shaping up. Learn which schools are graduating the most creative talent and which consulting firms are the hottest. And get his take on what the smartest companies are doing in the U.S., Asia and Europe, far ahead of the pack.

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