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Design Week: Vancouver

Posted by: Helen Walters on April 28, 2010

I’m in Vancouver for Design Week, an event organized by Icograda, the International Council of Graphic Design Associations. The theme of the event is “Design Currency”; the challenge for participants to come up with some definition of the value of design. It’s a topic I’ve been thinking about for some time, and I was honored to be asked to take part in the opening keynote, alongside Cameron Sinclair, co-founder of Architecture for Humanity (and new advisor to the Obama administration) and the prolific Korean designer, Don Ryun Chang. We each got to present for ten minutes, which led to a decided clash of worlds and views. An edited version of my speech is below:

“It strikes me that this is an amazing time to be a designer. In recent years, the discipline has exploded in influence and importance. The reasons for this are numerous. I know companies like Apple are over-exposed and certainly not perfect, but they have nonetheless done a great job at highlighting the impact that careful, thoughtful, beautiful design of every kind can have on a company’s bottom line. More interestingly, their success has unleashed a wave of other firms, large and small, seeking to have their moment in the sun too. These firms don’t always get it right, of course, but the door has been opened for designers to show executives what they can do.

On the plane journey from New York this morning, I was reading a new book called The Power of Pull, in which the authors outline a world that has already radically transformed and which is only going to change more. It's certainly true for design. As the world fragments and becomes smaller, so too do opportunities proliferate for creative souls with great ideas. For instance, designer as entrepreneur is now a very real phenomenon, and the likes of Yves Behar at fuseproject and Robert Brunner at Ammunition are forging a new paradigm that moves the designer from the edge of the equation right to its heart. The Internet, with the accompanying explosion of digital worlds, networks and new ways of tackling old problems, affords designers in all disciplines a sense of opportunity and ownership that wasn't available even a few years ago.

Yet, with this heightened opportunity comes increased challenges. Because it turns out there's still a marked disconnect between the creative domain and the world of commerce. I've seen firsthand as executives who should know better dismiss design as styling, or as an indulgence that's somehow unrelated to the bottom line. And I've listened to designers who should know better bemoan the fact that another client hasn't understood them or that once again their genius has been diluted or ignored.

The problem, of course, lies in the fact that, often, both are right. And yet this tension isn't going away any time soon. As Roger Martin of the Rotman school of management in Toronto writes, it's time for both business folks and designers to learn the others' language in order to communicate more clearly. It's also time for both sides to adopt a more nuanced approach to design and the potential it affords business to grow and thrive.

I was asked to give my perspective on the state of design and innovation. So I want to highlight four trends that seem to be playing out on various stages throughout the world. I should also confess I'm a little embarrassed to have come to a design conference without beautiful slides to illustrate what I'm saying, but I hope you'll forgive me. In fact, please do me the favor of imagining how the accompanying slides might look and then give me brownie points for my impeccable taste and design prowess.

The crowd
Might as well dive right in with the hot button issue of the rise of the amateur. It's a topic that I'm sure we've all considered, as the spread of the Internet has led to an outpouring of tools and capabilities that have affected many industries, not just design. (I'm a journalist. I know this first hand, too). As the old systems and traditional ways of doing things implode, new, cheap or even free replacements have become very real alternatives. People have railed against this; in fact, many very clever people have made extremely cogent arguments as to why this shouldn't be. But here's the thing. It is—and even as we currently seem to be moving towards more sophisticated and fair systems that appreciate and reward training and professionalism, this ball is rolling, and it's only going to pick up speed.

What's important to remember is this doesn't mean the apocalypse is nigh. Sure, things are going to change even more than they already have, and we all know that change is hard. But it's also not optional. The pressure is on for trained professionals to make their case more loudly, strongly and convincingly than ever before. And that in turn means being able to demonstrate the value of good design in terms that non-designers can understand too. Too often the value of design is discussed in opaque terms that mean very little when picked apart. Too often the real impact of design is left unconsidered, or is a hastily put-together afterthought. But thinking about showing how a design paid off should be central to every project and should be accounted for from its very beginning. A defensive stance in the face of this new challenge helps no one. Designers should take up the crowd's gauntlet and lead both this discussion and the way into the future.

It's been interesting to watch the rise of sustainability as it becomes an accepted metric of good design. At some point in the hopefully not-too-distant future the entire discussion will be moot, as consideration of the environmental impact of every step of the design cycle becomes embedded into every project. But we're far from being there yet. Too often, green becomes greenwash, and too often both clients and designers settle for half measures even in the name of progress. This is a complicated issue, of course, but it seems to me that as designers, it's up to you to educate your clients about the impact and ramifications of their choices. Again, designers need to lead the way and again, designers need to think about how to demonstrate the relevance of sustainable design decisions to business. Clearly showing the savings or favorable impact to the bottom line will likely be more persuasive than any passionate appeal to an executive's green conscience. Don't reject this; embrace it. And know that having verifiable stats of a project's sustainability helps people like me who are looking to document the value of green design but need to know and show more than the latest shiny, untested idea.

Design thinking
My colleague Bruce Nussbaum was instrumental in bringing the topic of design before a business audience, and has done sterling work in discussing the resulting, often-fractious relationship, including the rise to prominence of the concept of "design thinking." I have been really happy to follow in his footsteps and think and write about the topic, too. And here's where I stand right now: design thinking is clearly everywhere. And it is in danger of becoming meaningless. It seems like everywhere I go, everyone has a clear definition of the term – and yet they're all different. For some, design thinking is intricately connected to design for social causes. For others, design thinkers aren't actually designers at all. This confusion is a real problem. Unless concerted efforts are made to stop these conversations-at-cross-purposes, design thinking is in danger of being a fad that fails to live up to its promise and then quietly dies away. For now, the business community seems to have the ball, and it's running with it. But designers can't afford not to be a part of this conversation. If you opt out, the purpose and value of the wider discipline of design is going to get twisted and subverted by well-meaning individuals who don't know what they're talking about. Designers, surely, need to be at the heart of the design thinking discussion.

Right here, in this room, right now, are the world's design leaders. You're the people who are going to lead this profession further into the 21st century. And you know what every good movement needs? Followers. And you know who I mean by followers? CEOs. I once heard Jonathan Ive of Apple give a talk in which he credited Steve Jobs with giving design its prominent place at Apple's boardroom table. This is hardly big news. But remember that Ive had been working in the design department at Apple before Jobs returned to the company in 1997, trucking along, creating perfectly serviceable products that hardly set the world on fire. Having a design evangelist for a CEO was transformational for Apple's business, the design community and, arguably, the world at large. If designers themselves aren't CEOs, and I really wish more were, then it's nonetheless critical that the executive leadership of any company is educated and inculcated with the value of the discipline. Without this, there is precious little chance that your creativity and ideas and talent will have the exposure and success they deserve. You owe this to yourselves and your colleagues. A vibrant, concerted outreach program is not an optional extra. It's critical. Take the spirit and energy of this community and spread it throughout the world at large.

Thanks again for inviting me, for listening, and for not minding that I didn't have any slides."

Reader Comments


April 30, 2010 11:33 AM

"The Power of Pull"? Not having read the book, I can only suggest it's a flawed design concept. Why? Because in physics whether you push or pull something the energy expended is the same.

Not so with 'draw', where you tap common energies between two elements so that natural attractions come into play: energy for free.

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