What is “Design”…Really?

July 19, 2018
Design, that ubiquitous word conjuring images of black turtlenecks and black-framed eyeglasses, has taken a major shift in its definition in the last decade. And most of us aren’t really caught up on what it means.

As a verb, the Oxford Dictionary defines design’s role as being to:

  1. Decide upon the look and functioning of (a building, garment, or other object),
    by making a detailed drawing of it.
    1.1 Do or plan (something) with a specific purpose in mind.

And that’s where most of the world still thinks design begins and ends. This dated definition of design is still valid. It’s just not anywhere near the whole story any more. Designers still design: logos, ads, books, websites, signage, packaging, clothing, products and buildings. But now they also help (and facilitate) design of business models, systems, experiences, and social innovations.

Using “design” in this new reality means using design thinking.

What many major businesses and some other innovative enterprises are discovering is that putting design at the core of every decision can change all aspects of a business for the better. Using “design” in this new reality means using design thinking. Chief Design Officers are becoming much more common on executive teams, and they’re not picking colours and typefaces. Design thinking is an evolving toolbox used to reach into the future, instead of building ideas and systems of operation based on the data of the past. It relies on tools that allow any range of multi-disciplinary experts to use empathy and experimentation to imagine something entirely new. It’s a way of seeing the possible rather than only the logical.

Peirce’s Leap

Design thinking uses “abductive” (as opposed to inductive or deductive) reasoning. This is a term coined by Charles Sanders Peirce in the early 1900s and captures the idea that something that is actually innovative can’t be proven in advance or based on the past. As Roger Martin says in his book, The Design of Business,

“To advance knowledge, we must turn away from our standard definitions of proof — and from the false certainty of the past — and instead stare into a mystery to ask what could be. The answer, Peirce said would come through making a ‘logical leap of the mind’ or an ‘inference to the best explanation’ to imagine a heuristic for understanding the mystery.”

How does this work?

Design thinking is an organic approach relative to established business paradigms. It is used largely for innovation or solving “wicked problems”¹ rather than the day-to-day sort. In simple terms it involves a design facilitator(s) working together with subject experts as well as people with possible complementary knowledge or skill sets. These experts may be more (or less) than you would think. You might bring a logistics expert, patients, nurses, cleaning staff, a police officer and a ballet instructor together in a room to imagine an emergency ward that captures patient data more accurately and efficiently. Through a series of exercises and experiments, this group might discover something truly groundbreaking. They might also stumble on some physical design issues with furniture or equipment that cut time and costs and saves lives. Being open to the possible is critical to using design thinking to its fullest potential. These ideas often need that “logical leap of mind” Peirce spoke about. Not everyone is comfortable with the leap.

When Ion works with community members (residents, businesses, community associations, government workers—a relatively homogenous group compared to some in design thinking circles), we give them tools to imagine the emotions and experiences they will have in their “future community”. For that to work, they need to understand the future plans the government has (as they stand). They get a brief but carefully explained vision of this, and then we figuratively bring the expectations and imaginations of the participants into that place. They may adjust it (not the physical structures, but the experiences), enhance it or sometimes even turn it upside down. It’s important to remember that this isn’t about imagining the utility of a future, but the emotional experience of the future — the human experience. This gives the governments qualitative insight that won't come from surveys or town halls, because it takes the known off the table and gets people to work with the imagined. The imagined is often not very tidy. It requires nurturing and listening. These ideas often need that “logical leap of mind.”

It’s not what we’ve always known

What comes out of design thinking is data in the form of stories. Having people tell stories, act them out or draw them, brings a physicality to the imagination process that can make it more real. Instead of fiction, it becomes a future reality. The imagined future may not offer the safety nets of predictability, repeatability or efficiency that organizations rely upon to keep things running smoothly. But design thinking is best used for innovation, not tweaking the gears on an existing machine. This can often be disruptive to established systems and knowns. Attached to those systems and knowns are people’s fiefdoms and careers. What happens if we don’t do it that way anymore? What happens to my job? And then comes the subversion to sink the innovation before it has a chance to float. For this reason, in creating teams to explore real innovation in an organization, the people that need to shepherd that innovation through to realization need to be involved from the beginning. Be they community leaders, department heads, CEOs or important external/internal influencers, they should be a part of imagining that unknown.

Creating interdisciplinary teams to work on innovation projects does a number of critical things:

  1. It brings people together who don’t normally work together. That’s disruptive, but it’s also very fertile ground for thinking differently.
  2. Each skill set will usually attack a problem differently than the others. That unique form of approach is instructive for everyone else and allows new light to shine on a challenge.
  3. It allows the usual influencers to understand the people who will actually use a product or service. This gives them real insight, outside of stilted focus groups or quantitative testing, into what matters to the “customer”, be they anyone from a homeless person to a home-heating buyer.

Keeping these teams involved in the process of creating solutions, especially if it is early and often, gives them ownership of the definition of the problem, the process of solving it and the ultimate outcome. They become built-in champions.

What Design Is

Design today is bigger. Design thinking is taught in the world’s best business schools as well as its best design schools. Designers still bring function and beauty to the things we see and use every day. But they also help non-designers to break out of their normal thinking patterns and to share their knowledge in cross-disciplinary ways. This mashup of skills and facilitation creates truly new ideas.

What Design Isn’t

Design isn’t decorating. Design is a problem-solving process. It can certainly address tweaks to an existing thing, but it can also facilitate disruptive change when it’s called design thinking or design for social innovation. These forms of design are great tools for complex problems. They’re not a panacea for everything business, government or NGO but, if the climate is right and the players are willing to take Peirce’s “leap,” their work just might be the next big thing.

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