October 22, 2010

Notes on “Design 2014: Harnessing the Power of Design Thinking Now”

Branding and design professionals are constantly challenged to adapt to new technical, social and economic changes to remain relevant to their clients, so I was not surprised that when AIGA Boston offered a panel discussion in early October entitled “Design 2014: Harnessing the Power of Design Thinking Now,” it quickly filled up. Several members of our creative team at Corey were there to seek answers to the questions posed in the announcement: “How might we educate designers as problem solvers of the future? How might a designer evolve and look ahead in order to solve the future problems clients & business models pose? How does a creative business need to evolve to stay competitive and offer their clients competitive thinking?” The panel represented a wide range of the professional landscape. Moderated by Angela Shen-Hsieh, the CEO of visual i/o, they included:

  • Jan Kubasiewicz, Professor of Design at Massachusetts College of Art and Design and Director of the Dynamic Media Institute (education)
  • Michael Hendrix, Associate Partner, IDEO (innovation)
  • Gary Koepke, Founder, Modernista! (advertising)
  • Marina Hatsopoulos, Angel Investor, Windy Street (investment)

Each of the presenters provided thoughtful reflections on the meaning and the transformations of design as a profession and the value that design can bring to organizations, but the discussion was unfocused and seemed more like a high-level bull session than an attempt to engage the issues posed in the announcement. Highlights included:

  • Gary Koepke said that at Modernista! everyone tries “to come in stupid every day,” rather than assume that they have the answers;
  • Michael Hendrix noted that design is “figuring out what is not working” rather than congratulating ourselves on how clever we are;
  • Many of the panelists spoke to the necessity of working effectively as multidisciplinary teams and the challenges of managing and coaching them;
  • Marina Hatsopoulos provided the perspective of the entrepreneur/client – and it was telling that in her first venture developing a device that produces quick physical prototypes from CAD drawings, she felt that as a startup they could not afford the services of an industrial designer. She also complained that the graphic designer who created their logo selected a color that did not work well in different media.

Looming in the background throughout the event was a diagram from an article on the AIGA website by Christopher Simmons.
The diagram relegates the role of designer to the outer surface of the business, and was created “to explain to clients just where design fits into their business plan. It was as much about managing expectations as it was about selling the value of design.” If the diagram was intended to provoke discussion, it never caught fire, since the issues it raises were never addressed head-on. There is a section of the AIGA website that explicitly raises the question about the future of design that would have been much more relevant. Based on research that was co-sponsored by AIGA and by Adobe, the findings of this study would have been an excellent starting place for a productive discussion that could have added to the sum of our professional knowledge. Another excellent piece on the AIGA site is by Ric Grefé, the executive director of the AIGA, and employs video presentations from the 2009 biennial conference. If we are going to move forward as a profession, we need to build on the best work of our colleagues, and not just rehashing the same issues.

One topic that came up in our post-event discussion is the use of the term “design thinking” that appeared in the title of the event. There has been considerable discussion during the past decade within the design field – and among business leaders, educators, professional organizations (particularly the Design Management Institute) and business publications, such as BusinessWeek and Fast Company – about the value of “design thinking” for business. The concept, particularly as championed by the industrial design firm IDEO, is that the design process and the sensibilities and skills that designers provide can be applied effectively to business issues, particularly to stimulate and accelerate innovation. Many leading designers have embraced the term, since it elevates our value to our clients, but there is considerable debate among designers about what the term means and whether designers are really capable of delivering on the promise. This will be the subject of a future blog with the tentative title: “What is design thinking, – and how is it different from just thinking?” How would you define “design thinking”? Is there a way designers approach problems that has value for business beyond creating visual and tactile experiences?

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