We have all seen the magazine covers and I imagine that we have all read the articles. Business gurus everywhere, from Tom Peters to Roger Martin, are bragging about the “new design economy” we are living in. One of my favorite quotes (by Martin) in the bevy of articles is this: “I think we are at the start of a design revolution in which a lot of companies learn to think like designers throughout their organizations as they provide complete consumer experiences with products and services.”
So it was with a mixture of excitement (what will I learn? what will I learn?) and dread (please, not another case study by IDEO, please!) that I attended GK VanPatter’s focused session Who Will Lead Design In the 21st Century? at the AIGA Conference on Saturday afternoon.
It was a choice I made carefully: Paola Antonelli and Jeff Scher were presenting at the very same time, and I admire them both. But I was particularly intrigued by this leadership session from the moment I read the description on the conference website:
How will the transformation of business management impact the future of design leadership? What happens when the MBAs become masters of the innovation process? Where does that leave designers? What happens when designers have to compete for innovation leadership roles? Is that a vision on the distant horizon or already a reality of today’s marketplace? Many graduate design schools are still not teaching cross-disciplinary innovation skills. What will that mean for the future of design? Is the writing on the wall, or is the future still ours to create?
Hmmmmm, I thought. I pondered two questions in particular: What will that mean for the future of design? and, Is the writing on the wall? I was aching to know the answers. So with a “this better be good” scowl, I skeptically walked into VanPatter’s session, pen poised and pistol proud.
Well. My pistol never went off, and frankly, my pen ran out of ink. The session was smart, thrilling, provocative—and somewhat frightening. VanPatter answers his own question, “Who will lead design in the 21st century?” almost immediately and this is his response, folks:
“It might not be designers.”
And he means it. VanPatter believes that “there is a realization emerging at the front edge of the marketplace regarding a simple, if not somewhat hidden truth about design today. As much as we would like it to be otherwise, the simple truth is that design is increasingly being left out of the up-front thinking and strategic portion of complex problem solving situations. While the size and complexity of problems facing clients, facing the world is expanding, the reality is that the scale of problem solving skills among designers has not kept pace. Although design has been slow to recognize, slow to acknowledge the implications, other professions are already adapting to the new terrain. At the leading edge of the marketplace, the reality is that other professionals are moving in to fill the void as problem solving leaders.”
His case in point: when the business magazines refer to “design innovation,” they are describing breakthroughs in industrial design, not graphic design, or even brand design. I heartily agree. The design leadership that is being extolled today is allowing an approving public to clean a bathroom without bending, to effortlessly and elegantly download and groove to mp3s, and to shave with a razor that has five blades. This country-wide design discussion is not about designing a better election ballot, it is not about improving communication design (has anyone seen the new food pyramid? 1, 2) or the state of brand design in mass supermarkets. When the business and news media refer to design innovation they are primarily referring to technological design. According to VanPatter, this leaves “graphic design as innovation by the wayside” and pushes those of us that practice graphic design further into the annals of obscurity.
VanPatter does believe that if positioned more appropriately graphic design can have, as Moira Cullen would say, “a seat at the table.” In his session, Van Patter described the following polarities:
Traditional Design vs. Design for the Next Century
Design as Form Giving vs. Design as Leadership
Exclusive vs. Inclusive
Asking a big “what?” with a small “how?” vs. Building a big “how?” into an existing “what?”
Hidden, internal, magic visual process (aka magic wand) vs. Transparent, externalized, visual process
Critical/Judgement thinking process vs. Protector/Orchestrator of all thinking styles
Tribal, complex coded communication vs. Cross-tribal, clear, decoded communication
The size of a matchbook vs. The size of the world
Fixing problems vs. Fixing problems and generating opportunities
One of the most interesting parts of VanPatter’s presentation was his criticism of our standard initiation into a design challenge: the development of a creative brief. He challenges the notion of what a creative brief should be—moving away from framing existing issues (or “problems that need a solution”) to actually re-framing the problems, allowing true transformation by design. We can then leap-frog the more traditional graphic design of the past and the current adaptive design innovation of the present to what he believes will be the design of the next century: designing innovative behavior.
However, VanPatter believes that we are “way behind schedule on this” and that our current process of design engagement is too narrow. He believes the role, the reputation and the deliverable of the designer must change. And like Tom Peters, he suggests that if we don’t like change, we are going to like irrelevance even less.