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The Future of Design Stanford Conference

Posted by: Bruce Nussbaum on March 19, 2010

I’m going to give a 5 minute talk on the future of design on Friday to spark conversation within a terrific group of design thinkers from around the world. Banny Banerjee, director of the Stanford Design Program is putting it on. I first met Banny at a conference in India put on by the National Institutes of Design.

Here are my thoughts on where Design/Thinking is going and should be going—and what is needed to get there. They are designed to provoke. Let me know what you think.

Point of View: Designing A Post-Liberal Arts Paradigm—Innovation Arts

The creation of a new belief system—Innovation Arts—to replace the prevailing Liberal Arts paradigm should be the next stage in the evolution of Design/Thinking. A world of constant, cascading change and the failure of existing social organizations requires a shift from the prevailing Liberal Arts paradigm that trains individuals how to make sense of an existing world based on past knowledge and reifying society to a new paradigm that trains people how to build new social systems based on deep knowledge of current cultural rituals and behaviors while embedding action in social, economic and political context. An Innovation Arts paradigm would also form the foundation of a post-Neo-Liberal economic theory that reconnects elites to real business context rather than the quantified financialization of business functions, focuses on value in network relationships and group social behavior and educates people to make rather than consume.

Three Future Directions for the Advancement of Design

1—Develop a mature culture of criticism. If it is to evolve into a mature intellectual system of thought, Design has to create a critical, self-reflexive literature. Design’s public discourse remains aspirational, narrow and secretive. Despite an emphasis on the importance of failure in prototyping and learning, little actual discussion of failure exists. Despite a focus on practice, very little is revealed of what really occurs in consultancy or corporate design practice. The RCA and SVA have just started MFAs in Design Criticism. We need more challenging conversations on both Practice and Theory. And we desperately need a powerful HBR of Design Thinking, anchored in an academic institution. Suggestions? Business or Design School?

2- Build Human Centered Design Tool Kits for Political Policy Makers. Design has focused recently on creating how-to design kits for NGOs to operate at the Bottom-of-the-Pyramid level in Asia and Africa. Building how-to kits for policy-makers at the Top-of-the-Pyramid level in the US, Europe, Latin America and Asia is equally important and challenging. The First World is the new Third World and needs Design Thinking to redesign itself. Design’s venue is expanding from product to experience to systems to policy. Policy is the new edge in Design and it speaks to domestic as well as foreign human needs.

3- The “as if….” perspective of ritual, serious play and the making of the new embodied in the Innovation Arts paradigm is already dominant in much of Generation Y culture. Gen Y has much to teach and much to do. In an effort to understand and activate the Gen Y demographic, Parsons is launching a Gen Y Research Institute. It will focus on deep understandings of Gen Y culture as represented by the global student body at Parsons and provide a public stage and financing for the products and services created by these students. A global collaborative of Gen Y research efforts would be hugely productive.

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Reader Comments

Haven Tyler

March 19, 2010 10:14 PM

Dear Bruce,

Thank you so much for your article and thoughts. Your point to develop an Innovation Arts curriculum is really well placed, but I question the realistic possibility or even necessity to have that replace a traditional liberal arts degree. In my mind I can see Innovation Arts being a parallel offering to Liberal Arts. The two different courses are fairly wide apart, there could be some over lap, but I still see the merit in having both offerings.

In terms of your point of view on discussing failure - I love it. It's so true. As product innovators, we fail on a daily basis. But we learn from these failures. And frankly, often times really enjoy the failure! Some of them are really hysterical. These are however never really discussed in the "real world" or in our case studies. These failures are truly an integral part of our natural progression towards solutions for our clients.

My final point is regarding researching Gen Y. I think this is essential. I believe, as a middle aged professional, that I have so much to learn from my younger colleagues, I think the antiquated mentor process is broken. Learning should be a life long process, and my feeling is that there is so much going on with this generation that is fascinating.

I appreciate the article Bruce.

All the best,

Haven Tyler

Brian Matt

March 19, 2010 10:20 PM

What have we done to design? We need to [re]think about Design Thinking. How many of you are nodding your heads in the affirmative, realizing that you too have been misunderstood too many times? Who wants to yell, “Design Thinking solves all?” The word, design, has been abused, misconstrued, and overused. I am not sure the there is even consensus about a true definition among insiders; supposedly those people in-the-know. I am sure that I cannot give an all-encompassing, perfect elevator pitch either. So, if there is no accord on the designation of design, then how do we describe and defend the notion of Design Thinking?

I am always in a quandary when this comes up even though I have been in the design profession for 25 years. If all of us are using a term based on flawed underpinnings of design, then how is anyone to grasp the bigger concept attached to thinking? When we cram them together, as in Design Thinking, do we have a house of cards, a seemingly familiar structure with no clear intent and lots of room for interpretation? Is that all right? Should we be comfortable with this notion? Is there cause to modify the phrase to “Creative Thinking,” ‘Hybrid Thinking,” or “Critical Thinking?” When designers want a seat at the adult table, what do they claim to bring to the corporate purpose?

Corporate leaders need clear rationale backed up by tangible evidence to change behavior. Some may be swayed by the latest business fad, but the really great leaders will only have a meaningful relationship with Design Thinking when they understand it. I propose that they will more readily understand it when either: 1) everyone in the world knows what Design Thinking is because sheer repetition of a long period of time inks in; or 2), designers can effectively articulate their purpose to the cause and back it up with success.

There! I got that off my chest. I am hoping this sparks some dialogue and a modification in my [design] thinking. I eagerly await the exchange of ideas.


March 19, 2010 11:32 PM

"creation of a new belief system"

Where have I read that language before?
Oh, God.

Gregg Gullickson

March 20, 2010 12:48 PM

Maslow "It is tempting, if the only tool you have is a hammer, to treat everything as if it were a nail"

Is DT today's hammer today as the Learning Organization was in the 1990s?

DT and Policy - What's new?

I'm intrigued by DT - something about it just feels right - but the DT process is so obvious. What's new?

anne leemans

March 22, 2010 08:19 AM

It is a must, design has been too often and to much considered as stand alone, as an instrument to increase the status of the object or service. Design also makes sense if community oriented, if sustainable. Design in the very large sense of the word (arts, look&feel, sound, touch and taste) influences our perception and from there behaviour. But indeed we need to be willing to question why things are the way they are to be able to improve. isn't that the basic of innovation?


March 23, 2010 05:41 PM

happy to read the comments here. Unless we take into consideration a radical change in design thinking, we will not solve any problems with real value added and sustainable solutions.

People kept talking about different types of thinking and even morph into thinking hybrids when we may well possibly need just one - sanity and ethical thinking.

Too much problems arise because we don't think in the right direction for different problems.

Best wishes !

Kristina Goodrich

March 25, 2010 09:31 PM


You are articulating some very interesting ideas for the future. The point about design criticism is clearly an issue: For 20+ years I've tried to publish case studies that covered what missteps were taken before the right path emerged--but with no success. Designers have finely tuned the critique as part of the education and professional process, but they appear to close ranks when it comes to open critique, which is boo bad. There's no shame in a wrong turn so long as you made a u-turn.

I very much appreciate the concept of "innovation thinking" because it admits of a larger group of contributors than those with design degrees per se. This may be heresy, but it's important. Design contributes best when it contributes in alignment and cohesion with the unique knowledge base of other experts. Arguably design is ideal at synthesizing/integrating that contribution and that may be what you designate as "design thinking". If so, the umbrella of innovation is still more suitable. Why not both?

Many views and generations will be needed to meet tomorrow's challenges without repeating past blunders. The Generation after Y is the one that will really feel the pain of global warming.

Perhaps the best future for design is to instigate collaboration with other professions and processes on an equal footing, providing value to advance life experience. And consider that we all carry the responsibility for engaging in the process of "citizen thinking" (aka citizenship) and "consumer thinking".

Thanks to Bruce and the other commentators. You all stimulated my thinking, just when I thought another discussion about "what is design" could not possibly bear fruit.

Christy Stadelmaier

March 27, 2010 01:20 AM

The recent discussions and crossover of "design thinking" are endlessly fascinating to those of us who have lived in the design world. Words, words and more words - they do mean something but as a culture, we obviously no longer understand the meaning of the single word THINK. I vote selfishly for keeping the word DESIGN for ourselves, it may be a broad but it is a specific task. (And we know that we do more than “make pretty.”)

We "do" design but often engage in "creative thinking" Are we as designers doing ourselves any favors by letting the business world co-opt design and how we think? Business and political thinking are, for the most part, about being told exactly "WHAT to think" Yes, there are “creative thinkers” in business. (Not so much in politics) One needs only to look at a list of the world’s wealthiest individuals to find them.

Like many other acronyms, the scientists within the business world are itching to systematize “design thinking,” this will neuter it just like all the other jargon-filled phrases that pass for communication in business meetings. (DT training available soon!) Speaking of science, was Einstein a “design thinker” – no he was a “creative thinker” of the highest order. There are “creative thinkers” in every walk of life; the world would not function nearly as well as it does were it not for the “creative thinkers” in the trades, for example.

Much needed…so good luck on moving towards a “culture of criticism”…there is a reason that the only real "culture of criticism" that exists in the design world is in architecture - architects don't buy media. Manufacturers of product buy media and media – understandably - will allow no criticism of their bread and butter.

So to Brian Matt, I am with you, and vote for leaving the word “design” to designers and the all-important phrase “creative thinking” to all who choose to or have the talent to engage in it. Our future depends on them, no matter where they come from, what their expertise, whether they have an Ivy League education, MBA or simply a high school diploma.

To Bruce: I vote “Design School.”

anne leemans

April 9, 2010 01:39 PM

Design is visual and linked to the senses. It is what we observe - see, hear smell and touch - in daily life. If a design can emotionally interact with us, have an influence on how we walk about, possibly make us smile and make our lives easier then it is successful. If not it is meaningless.

Anand Aurora

April 21, 2010 02:58 PM

Let me put in my two bits...I've been a kind of Robinson Crusoe of design in India since the last...24 years..I trained as a product designer at NID,India.

I have worked on anything that needed design,moving almost seamlessly from design strategy to design to details and on to execution.

In my own experience there is Design "thinking" to design and then some design "doing"..

Design without the thinking would be merely variations on a tried and tested theme.The most cleverest and innovative of design goes nowhere without a bit of multidisciplinary research,creative,analytical and insightful thinking.

As a young designer, it took a lot of restraint to give myself time and space to do the "design thinking",before i could get my hands on "real design work".

The "Design thinking" part to me today, looks like a real fun ,fuzzy,innovative zone,which seems to move in several directions at the same time, bringing in insights,ideas,possibilities,new knowledge,doodles,failed prototypes a project..
This in turn begins to spark off some new ideas and solutions.Finally, "integrative" concepts , a holistic picture and design directions emerge from the team working on the project.

It seems like one morphs subtly from the "design thinking" to the design doing in the design process!

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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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