Design and society
Design as a discipline has grown a lot over the last few years. For something that was only seen as surface polish it has now earned recognition for the value it brings to organizations on a strategic level. This growth also means that the discipline needs to mature rapidly to fit into its new role and responsibilities.
For the greater part of the last century, Design was mostly concerned with the idea of making beautiful and useful artifacts. For the industry, Design has been something to add at the end of the process, lipstick for the product. For the most part, professional design has conformed to this view and focused on the craft of making.
However, designers have a particular way of looking at problems and as the discipline matured it started to incorporate new perspectives that expanded the possibilities of design.
This meant that design could bring much more to the table than just aesthetics. As designers became conscious of the value they could bring to organizations and society they wanted to become more involved in the decisions, in the ‘why’ behind the things rather than just the ‘how’, the execution of tasks.
The paradigm shift
The paradigm shift happened mostly because of the adoption of a human centered approach to design. Design became about identifying real needs and problems to work on instead of starting from a predefined solution; now it’s part of the designer’s job to identify the underlying problem to be solved.
This was a massive paradigm shift for design that has been happening for the last 20 years (while gestating for even longer) and now it has become mainstream. This journey started with Human Computer Interactions, got massive recognition thanks to IDEO’s push for Design Thinking and it’s now -almost- commonplace. And all thanks to the effectiveness of the process. It turns out that people want products and services designed for them, it turns out that understanding people and having their best interest in mind is actually good business.
By shedding the focus on artifacts, human centeredness opened the doors to a whole new playing field for design. Design now starts with the “why” rather than the “how”.
With this change designers now could challenge the brief, redefine the problem and propose radical new solutions. This also meant that designers needed more say in the decisions and thus have been fighting for “a seat at the table” during the greater part of last decade.
The value of design and the impact the practice has had in organizations has earned the profession recognition, but in the process we lost something. Conceptually Human Centered Design is people focused, including all people involved, but during this transition Human Centered Design became User Centered Design or Consumer Driven Design, not only in name but in practice too, we design for individuals, for an isolated piece of society. That is a subtle but huge difference.
The importance of framing
How we frame problems define how we approach them. Focusing on just users or consumers narrows our approach to problems and solutions, it blinds us to the impact and consequences of our work in the broader social context.
There are many examples of this phenomena. Let’s take Amazon’s free shipping, ease of return and same day delivery. All amazing features from a customer point of view, but no one thought about the impact on traffic, city infrastructure and environment. And what about Uber? The app that redefined how we think about personal transportation. Born out of the best of intentions, it unleashed a system that’s based on a lack of protection for the workers, less security and in many cases terrible working conditions because of unethical practices, in this context workers are just tools to provide an excellent service to their customers and not part of the humans we’re supposed to design for.
As Design grows so does its impact on society and the environment. Our domain is expanding and our responsibilities are lagging behind. We are in dire need of an ethical approach to current issues that takes into account all these consequences. We have to move from a User Centered Design to a Society Centered Design framework in order to act in concordance with the responsibility that our work carries.
This is easier said than done. I’ve been giving this a lot of thought but I have more questions than answers that I want to explore in a series of articles. Some things to ponder:
What tools and knowledge do we need for an approach focused on society?
How can we expand our field of action without increasing complexity to an unmanageable level?
And most importantly. How can we drive adoption of this type of thinking?
Entries in the series
- Part 1: Design and society (you are here)
- Part 2: Design for society