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AIGA National Conference Focused Session: Who Will Lead Design In The 21st Century?

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.

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PUBLISHED ON Sep.21.2005 BY debbie millman
graham’s comment is:

giving form is leading.

inclusive includes exclusive.

building a big 'how' into a big 'what'.

a hidden, transparent, internal, externalised, magic process.

orchestrating and protecting critical judgement.

tribal cross-tribal storytelling.

an atom and the whole universe.


On Sep.21.2005 at 07:28 PM
feelicks sockwl jr’s comment is:

VanPatter believes that we are “way behind schedule”

all aboard the next rhetoric bus!

listen closely and you'll hear

the pitter van patter of fingers

hitting keys making sales calls-

turning designers into talkers

not thinkers.

giving form is leading


On Sep.21.2005 at 08:21 PM
ostrich’s comment is:

In other words, time to pull our collective heads out of the sand.

On Sep.21.2005 at 08:25 PM
lynda decker’s comment is:

Home tonight suffering from a cold caught probably from flying to and from Boston for the same conference. And out of my boredom turned on the tube and caught the premier of The Apprentice: Martha Stewart. Corporate vs. the Creatives—the assignment, to write a children’s book. And guess what, Corporate won. Watching, like a car wreck (am I really watching this crap?) and unfortunately seeing far too many parallels to the design industry.

The corporate team went out first thing and wrangled up themselves a bunch of kids and tested out their ideas because they didn’t feel confident they would be creative enough and connect well enough to their audience. Mother Martha told everyone that the assignment was to connect with the audience first and foremost—and they followed the objective. Meanwhile the creative team, argued, accused and undermined each other while stroking their own egos. And they came up with a dark tale. An out of control cliche. Did they even think of the audience? They were too busy with other things—like how creative they were.

In a nutshell, a dumb show on television shows us how dumb we are daily. As �creative’ people we think we always know better. We are elevated above mere mortals on another level—and often out of touch with our respective audiences. The irony is we, as designers can contribute in more and better ways, if we get a bit more humble and a lot smarter. Just as the corporate team on Martha had to find a way to be more creative, we need to make the effort to be more strategic and use our skills to be more a powerful sociological force. As long as we think we know everything, we know nothing. When we think we know nothing, we have the opportunity to be knowledgeable.

On Sep.21.2005 at 09:53 PM
sam rector’s comment is:


Milton Glaser's conference speech is on AIGA's VOICE.

It's worth reading.

On Sep.22.2005 at 06:18 AM
feelicks sockwl jr’s comment is:

When one is informed, one is strengthened. Persuasion does not guarantee the same result.

well worth reading... thx for the link.

Corporate vs. the Creatives

could also read Managed vs Unmanagable. Creatives arent all alike. The best managed, most creative creative I know (christoph niemann) is by far the most streamlined worker I've come upon. To assume the lot of us are ego-driven, unfocused meials is not all true.

On Sep.22.2005 at 11:02 AM
Christopher Gee’s comment is:

Well we're certainly not ALL ego-driven, for sure. But when Van Patter makes the claim: "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" it's hard to argue with that assessment.

The world around us has changed and communication has gotten more complex yet the methodologies that designers have been taught remain largely the same as they were 15 - 20 years ago, prior to such seizmic change.

We were good at solving problems for the 20th century. How do we solve the problems of the 21st century and what skills are needed in order to do this? How do they differ from the traditional skills we were tought throughout the 20th century? How do we begin to tackle unframed problems rather than simply tackle framed ones?

I suppose those who look at design as "making pretty pictures" will likely dismiss such questions concluding "just make nice-looking stuff". But I think those of us who are asked by clients to increasingly solve more complex and less framed questions than at this point 10 years ago in our careers will argue that change is needed and that it'd be better if that change came voluntarily and from within.


On Sep.22.2005 at 12:25 PM
Emily Carr’s comment is:

When I interviewed for my current job, our principals told me one thing that always sticks with me: "It's not about us, it's about them. We are about making their lives easier and solving problems."

I try to remember this every day; we are in a service profession, leading clients through business problems. The by-products of these solutions may be design artifacts, but the process is really what we can own.

Since I have been a member of the AIGA, the organization has made huge leaps forward in owning this process: "design thinking" was not a term familiar to many of us 10 years ago. However, Christopher and Lynda Decker's comments are dead-on -- we need to continue to move full-steam ahead before the process is exclusively owned by MBAs, industrial designers, and the mainstream media. Otherwise, as we've all forecasted, we'll be left behind as artifact-makers.

AIGA has had made huge steps in the direction, with such initiatives as "From design to Designing," "What every business needs" and the GAIN conference and publications. In a large part, we already own this innovation process, but we're not heard from enough, especially in the mainstream media.

So maybe what we need is a better public relations campaign. Any volunteers? We can't complain if we don't try to make it happen.

On Sep.22.2005 at 12:58 PM
Rob Bennett’s comment is:

I'll second Emily's comments. And since I'm not a traditionally trained designer, I may be an enigma but I've learned to approach things from a big picture view and then work down.

It's not limiting yourself to just thinking about the look and feel, but expanding beyond that into the realm of what reactions might it create, where will it lead the user, or more importantly, how do you want it to lead your end user?

Design thinking can be quite adept at helping find the solutions and looking beyond what was done before. But it must do that not only for the piece at hand, but for the overall strategy behind whatever is being created.

And if you haven't read Milton's post (thank you Sam) you really should.


On Sep.22.2005 at 01:47 PM
debbie millman’s comment is:

I find it so interesting that once again a discussion about design strategy includes comments like "rhetoric bus" or "turning designers into talkers" and includes a reference to Milton Glaser.

First and foremost, while I do not want to speak for Mr. Glaser, after spending time with him as a student and also interviewing him one on one, I do not think that he is fundamentally against smart design or strategic thinking applied to design. In fact, last month, while participating in his Summer Intensive at the School of Visual Arts, I asked him what he thought of the "new creative economy" we are supposedly living in. He responded by saying that he found it "very superficial,"--i.e.--not smart enough.

Frankly, I am really tired of this "us" vs "them" mentality when it comes to discussions about design and branding or design and planning. Why does there have to be this attitudinal barrier? Why do some designers look down their nose at brand designers/strategists/ethnographers and scoff? What is intrinsically wrong with wanting to more authentically connect with the audience you are providing a service or product for? Why is it wrong to try and understand how the very group of people you are designing for think, live, behave?

Do you mean to tell me that simply being a good designer is enough these days, that you wouldn't consider employing additional value to your clients by trying to understand and accomplish grander goals?

I personally feel that being a good designer these days is simply the equivalent of operational excellence. Everyone I know practicing design considers themselves to be a good designer. To be a great designer, though, you need something more. And whether it be methodological or visceral or intellectual or technological, IMHO, it takes a bit more than just being a "good" designer to make a big difference.

On Sep.22.2005 at 02:35 PM
graham’s comment is:

precisely the point, debbie-it's not anything vs anything, and i can't say i know anyone who thinks it is.

On Sep.22.2005 at 03:02 PM
BlueStreak’s comment is:

"...simply the equivalent of operational excellence."

Did you just call me a tool?

On Sep.22.2005 at 03:08 PM
Emily Carr’s comment is:

I thought what we were talking about is that designers ARE brand designers/strategists/ethnographers. I don't think that this is an us vs. them discussion. We ARE them, or we should be -- design leads to quality process leads to quality product.

On Sep.22.2005 at 03:18 PM
debbie millman’s comment is:

mr. wood said:

>precisely the point, debbie-it's not anything vs anything, and i can't say i know anyone who thinks it is.

you are lucky, graham. i seem to bump into lots of people that do.

blue streak asked:

>Did you just call me a tool?

well...no actually, i didn't.


yes, we are (you, me, lynda...) but i was specifically referring to a few of the other posts earlier on.

On Sep.22.2005 at 03:21 PM
graham’s comment is:

not sure about luck . . . perhaps more a question of location. who knows?

On Sep.22.2005 at 03:47 PM
Daniel Green’s comment is:

Many designers got started in this field because of a love for the craft...a love for making stuff. Strategic planning, managing complex projects, incorporating psycho/socio/economic research, and working with cross-disciplinary project teams are outside the traditional comfort zone (not to mention education and training) of many graphic designers.

However, I personally believe that understanding in these areas can only give us better control over our efforts, not dilute them. The farther upstream we can get involved, the bigger our role on the boat. We can’t know everything, but we need to be better at synthesizing knowledge and resources outside our craft. And I don’t believe we have to sell our designer’s soul to broaden our role, either.

Design has always been a hybrid profession. The more knowledge and understanding that we can draw upon, the more our work will remain relevant and meaningful to the world.

On Sep.22.2005 at 05:40 PM
pk’s comment is:

"...simply the equivalent of operational excellence."

Did you just call me a tool?

actually, that's not far from how a designer's seen inside a strategic meeting.

i have a client for whom every single decision falls to a management decision. the company's main product is journalism. the writers are simply seen as parrots who follow the company's agenda, and my job as their designer is to simply provide a shiny coat and a logo. it's discouraging at best.

On Sep.22.2005 at 06:07 PM
pk’s comment is:

i have a client for whom every single decision falls to a management decision

pardon, typo. should read:

i have a client for whom every single decision falls to a management member

On Sep.22.2005 at 06:09 PM
STaylor’s comment is:

I'm not a traditionally trained designer, and I work in Nigeria, but I see this same designers vs everyone else trend all over and it sucks! Designers ought to understand that they are consultants to the businesses (or interests) they service. We need to be able to improve those businesses (interests) by our work, and when possible, directly.

Our place in the new "design economy" is dependent on being able to think strategically, taking into consideration the relevant cultural, social and economic factors to create work that achieve the aims of the organisation we are partnering with at the time. If we can't do that, someone else will...

Heck, they already are...

On Sep.23.2005 at 04:38 AM
BlueStreak’s comment is:

>Did you just call me a tool?

"that's not far from how a designer's seen inside a strategic meeting"

It's not just in strategic meetings. Thanks to design software that's how graphic designers are seen in general — as tool technicians or just tools. If you've been practicing design long enough, you've come across dozens of clients/bosses that want to meet you at your computer. They don't know the terminology, but they want to art direct their work.

The problem I have is that I don't have great verbal and/or social skills. My instinct is to tell those clients to fuck off and go to Kinkos. So that leaves designers like me needing a pimp. A good design pimp doesn't design, yet has a strong understanding of design and is a sophisticated, charming verbal persuader. Does anyone come to mind here?

Who will lead design in the 21st century? A hustle 'n flow of pimps 'n hos.

On Sep.23.2005 at 11:35 AM
debbie millman’s comment is:

BlueStreak asked:

The problem I have is that I don't have great verbal and/or social skills. My instinct is to tell those clients to fuck off and go to Kinkos. So that leaves designers like me needing a pimp. A good design pimp doesn't design, yet has a strong understanding of design and is a sophisticated, charming verbal persuader. Does anyone come to mind here?

It is actually appalling how little verbal/social/presentation/business skills are taught in design schools. With all the talk about "strategic design" right now, one would think that we (as a community) would actually know what that means. I did a business of design lecture recently at a mid-west AIGA chapter and when I asked the audience how many people knew what the business definition of strategy was NOT ONE PERSON RAISED THEIR HANDS.

Some of the greatest designers that could/can also talk about design brilliantly include Tibor Kalman, Michael Bierut, Paula Scher and Stefan Sagmeister.

However, I don't think any of these folk ever considered themselves pimps! I think the idea that talking articulately about design equating with pimping oneself out is a big part of why so many people can't do both.

Thanks for bringing this up BlueStreak.

On Sep.23.2005 at 12:20 PM
up too late last night’s comment is:

rock on debbie!

the comments here are actually funny..like comedy...i just cant believe that these are the comments of the modern designer...

being a good designer was never good enough.

the whole us vs. them idea is soooo outdated...it's like you have 30 yr. olds acting like grumpy 80 year olds and guys like Milton think like fresh kids out of college...AND when will we stop asking “who will lead design in the 21st century?” with comments and questions like these who the hell would want to?

i have a client for whom every single decision falls to a management decision. the company's main product is journalism. the writers are simply seen as parrots who follow the company's agenda, and my job as their designer is to simply provide a shiny coat and a logo. it's discouraging at best.

wow, I guess I would get my book together on the weekends, start interviewing and fly the hell out of there...it’s not like your serving a sentence..quite! move on!

On Sep.23.2005 at 03:13 PM
debbie millman’s comment is:

hey nancy, thanks for the comments.

regarding "writers as parrots"--my dear friend cheryl swanson of toniq coined the term design waitress in reaction to working with clients who prefer to give orders as opposed to discuss options. i knew she made some headway when a client of mine told one of her brand managers not to treat designers that way (in a meeting full of brand managers and designers, no less)...

On Sep.23.2005 at 03:27 PM
christopher vice’s comment is:

I first discovered GK VanPatter and Elizabeth Pastor about two years ago. Last summer, I participated in NextDesign WorkshopONE. The experience further informed my beliefs that most graphic designers and many industrial designers focus too heavily on navel gazing. The strategies NextDesign taught me have a direct impact on the way we have structured our undergraduate and graduate programs in design at Herron School of Art and Design. In August 2006, we will launch a new graduate degree in design thinking and innovation leadership. This program will seek to contribute research methods to the growing body of knowledge in design thinking.

While there is definitely a major emphasis in design in the popular business press, it's outrageous that many think that "design thinking" is NEW.

NextD acknowledges that these ideas are not new. NextD freely quotes Charles Eames.

In an interview filmed for his 1969 Paris exhibition, Qu'est-ce que le Design? (What is Design?), at the Musée des Arts Décoratifs in Paris, Charles Eames was asked: “What are the boundaries of design?” His famous response was: “What are the boundaries of problems?”

If this perspective doesn't inform design as thinking and problem solving, I do not know what does.

Can we better hear what GK VanPatter and Elizabeth Pastor advocate if we think about how design practices can build on already familiar ideas from Charles and Ray Eames, Richard Neutra or George Nelson? Or Ralph Caplan? Or Jay Doblin?

Now that AIGA has initiated leadership in the production of the Aspen Conferences, one hopes that graphic designers will be introduced to models of design thinking that inform today. Quoting the AIGA web site:

“Chicago industrialist Walter Paepcke founded the International Design Conference in Aspen more than fifty years ago. He and his wife Elizabeth envisioned Aspen as a place where leaders from throughout the world could gather to share ideas. Their vision was first realized in 1949 when the Goethe Bicentennial celebration attracted more than 2,000 people to Aspen to honor the 200th birthday of Goethe, the great German humanist. Albert Schweitzer opened the convocation.

In 1951, two years after the Goethe Bicentennial, Paepcke established the IDCA as an opportunity to bring together designers, artists, engineers, business and industry leaders. That first June, some 250 attendees and their families assembled for four days of presentations on the theory and practice of design. The title, "Design as a Function of Management," was chosen to ensure the participation of the business community.”


Conference themes:

1965 The New World

1964 Directions and Dilemmas

1963 Design and the American Image Abroad

1962 Environment

1961 Man/Problem Solver

1960 The Corporations and the Designer

1959 Communications: The Image Speaks

1958 Design and Human Problems

1957 Design and Human Values

1956 Ideas on the Future of Man and Design

1955 Crossroads: What are the Directions of the Arts?

1954 Planning: The Basis of Design

1953 Design as a Function of Management

1952 Design as a Function of Management

1951 Design as a Function of Management

While design thinking and leadership in the 21st century is quite different than in 1960, an understanding of past skills and experiences can pave the way for deeper adoption of design thinking today.

How is it that so many graphic designers cannot build on the theories and methods that have come before? Why must they continually reinvent the wheel, all the while losing professional ground to other disciplines and losing the respect of clients and collaborators? Do designers have the fortitude to be relevant? I hope that enough designers are interested in leadership thinking to at least populate the few graduate and post-graduate programs in design that have emerged in the last decade. Hopefully designers will seek out new skills. Other professionals are already on the wagon.

On Sep.24.2005 at 11:37 AM
Gunnar Swanson’s comment is:

There are several nesting issues in this thread. VanPatter’s analysis makes sense but it seems to gloss over a couple of issues.

He notes that the graphic design business is being eaten away from what is usually called “the bottom” (and he shows it that way on his charts.) There may be some reasonable discussion about details and/or what can or should be done but the description of the situation seems to be a fairly non-controversial statement. He further notes that the other side of our Venn diagram is being eaten away by people outside the design field—marketing planners and business strategists of various descriptions. Again, I don’t think there’s too much argument about that. Other people are recognizing that stuff we thought of as design planning is important. (Some of them are very good at planning for design. Others are not.) There are, however, several problems with the implications of what he says.

The first is that since we see some competition as “the bottom” then the other thing must be “the top.” VanPatter goes out of his way to say that anyone can still choose “old” models of graphic design practice but it is not surprising that people interpret his analysis as a dis’ of “traditional” graphic designers. (And it does seem clear that he values the analysis end of things more than the craft.)

It is very important to leave ego bruising behind and see where he is right: If graphic designers are not involved in the analysis and strategy stages leading up to graphic design then someone else will be. Not only does that have the potential to set the stage in ways that disadvantage good design practices but it ultimately leaves even more power in the hands of those who don’t care about graphic design per se. It is to the great advantage of those who choose the traditional role of a graphic designer to have other roles filled by people who know and care about graphic design. Or it is at least to their great disadvantage to have those roles filled by those who do not know about graphic design.

VanPatter seems to imply that the analysis/strategist role is a solution to the deformation of the lovely round diagram of conventional graphic design practice but of course that isn’t true. Heeding his warning may stem the loss of the “top” part to other fields and may even increase opportunities for many of us but the increased opportunities will not make up for the billable hours lost on the “bottom” part of the diagram. Additionally, most present graphic designers are not and should not try to be analysts or organizational strategist. Some are, can be, or will be, however, and they are valuable to all.

Many years ago Ralph Caplan coined a phrase to describe designers: “exotic menials.” I used the phrase in front of Saul Bass once and he laughed and said “Well, we used to be exotic.” It is clear that others now know more about what we do than they used to. It is clear that they will learn even more. (We even claim that we want them to know more.) Familiarity brings contempt unless another reaction is earned. If we do not become more of an overall process that involves others then we will be seen, at least in many situations, as (formerly exotic) menials.

None of this argues that nobody should function as a form-maker. If we do nothing but act as pretend-anthropologists and pretend-marketing analysts, we run into a significant problem beyond being beaten out by actual anthropologists and marketing analysts. Objects and images are not going to design themselves and good objects and images require craft. Lorraine Wild argued well against the abandonment of craft in her talk at the New Orleans AIGA conference (later published as “The Macramé of Resistance.”)

To be able to create form in an increasing proportion of situations one needs something beyond form-making skills, however. It takes the ability to engage others with the process and often to include others in the process. My sophomores in introductory graphic design classes here at East Carolina University are doing projects about form, structure, craft, and meaning but they are also presenting information and information analysis early in the process. The aim is to gain the skills that allow others to understand what is going on, to share in conceptualization, and buy in to the process before the “here’s my solution. What do you think?” stage (as well as to refute the notion that graphic design is or should be mainly about making stuff look cool.)

None of this is a rejection of form as leadership. It is a recognition that someone will lead the process and marginalized graphic designers will be hampered in their attempts to create form worthy of following.

On Sep.29.2005 at 04:40 PM
baaahhhhh!’s comment is:


On Oct.07.2005 at 02:34 PM
Gunnar Swanson’s comment is:


You mean those innocent beings that are likely to be eaten by hungry carnivores? Oh. Sorry. Those are graphic designers.


On Oct.07.2005 at 04:19 PM
please, don't stereotype’s comment is:

nope...those are some graphic designers not all.

On Oct.07.2005 at 05:06 PM