Scott Klinker, Jeremy Alexis
Twenty years ago a seminal article appeared in ID magazine that contrasted two approaches to design and design education: the methods-driven and scientific approach described by Chuck Owen of the Illinois Institute of Technology (IIT) and the experimental and semantic approach advocated by Mike McCoy of Cranbrook Academy of Art. These two separate methods evolved into what are today simply known as “innovation” (or “design thinking”) and “design,” and each has built its own culture within the design profession. Yet some confusion surrounds these concepts, especially about how these two methods interact to deliver products. By examining the two approaches, we can highlight some of the most critical issues shaping American design. In a debate format, two new voices revisit and update the argument.
Q: What’s the position of your school in the original article? What has changed since then?
Jeremy Alexis (IIT): Charles L. Owen, who still teaches at IIT, highlighted the rational, computer-supported approach to design he was pioneering at the time. He believed that design could help businesses and government with the planning of large-scale systems.
In the mid-1980s, computers were becoming more ubiquitous, and suddenly a tremendous amount of processing power was available to designers. Chuck wanted to harness this new power to help draw connections between research insights and design concepts. He did not want the computer to replace the designer, but rather for it to support the design process.
Now we actually rely on computers less than we did when Chuck wrote the article in the 1980s. We still believe in a rational, process-driven approach, but much of our work has shifted to facilitating the transformation of organizations. We do not teach our students how to write computer code. Instead, we teach them how to run workshops, make decisions in large teams, and spread ideas through an organizational culture.
Scott Klinker (Cranbrook): The 1980s were a pivotal time for design. Post-modernism took a critical look at “form follows function” and asked, “Does this really make sense for our time?” Two major movements responded: Memphis, which embraced the energy of fashion in design, and Product Semantics, which applied poetic interface metaphors to the new electronic appliances that were entering our lives. Mike McCoy’s Cranbrook students were applying methods from literary theory (deconstruction) to product form, giving sculptural expression to the mysterious functions housed inside the “black box” of electronics. Both movements called for a poetic approach to design.
The result was a new era of “things with attitude.” At first this created a market reserved for the design cognoscenti, but now nearly every consumer market includes “things with attitude.” Designers not only solve functional problems, we also make products “speak” to specific cultural attitudes, and we do it with form, interface, and experience design. Defining and shaping attitude is a whole new discussion requiring new tools, and these tools are not only rational ones. Not all design problems raise questions of attitude, but at Cranbrook we like the ones that do.
Q: What’s the current approach of your school?
Scott (Cranbrook): If the world is filling with “things with attitude,” then we explore “the attitude of things”informed by a critical look at modern change. As part of an excellent graduate art school, Cranbrook 3D is a laboratory for experimental thinking and making. Most of our students already have some professional experience and have returned to a research setting to develop a unique voice within the field. Like all of the 10 disciplines here, from painting and sculpture to jewelry and architecture, we experiment with new connections between form and meaning by actually making things. A designer’s creative autonomy and authorship is equal to a painter’s or a ceramicist’s. Innovation culture calls this a “traditional, arts-based model” of design education. We simply call it design.
Design should be mastered as a liberal art before it is considered a business tool. Great design comes from an artistic or cultural impulse, not from a focus group. Great design starts by creating meaningful stories with a POV, not by building a bulletproof business case. Great design creates new culture, not just clever new utilities. Great design is about meaning first, the market second. We want the next great generation of designers who know how to experiment with form and meaning, not the next generation of strategists who churn out 8.5x11 rationalized reports on business opportunities. We want to elevate the best American design talent on the international radar.
Jeremy (IIT): At the IIT Institute of Design, we believe that design should be human centered and improve organizational performance. By human centered, we mean design should be based on observed, real user needs, not the whim or personal belief of the designer. When we say improve organizational performance, we mean that design should create and deliver value for its stakeholders. For businesses, it means improved profits and more loyal customers; for nonprofits or governments, it means more effective ways to serve constituencies. We also believe that design should not operate in a black box: We are working to document design methods in order to make them more repeatable, predictable, and scalable.
We also teach that good design starts with a clear point of view, but it should be based on facts, not intuition. We also talk a lot about culture, but we think design should be based on an existing culture, not create new ones. And finally, we challenge our students to experiment, but to do so like scientists (using hypotheses, building on past work), not like artists.
Q: What is the role of design in innovation? Or innovation in design?
Scott (Cranbrook): Innovation makes strategy. Design makes form. They are completely different methods, with different priorities. To exaggerate the difference, we could call it business innovation versus cultural innovation. Design at Cranbrook seeks cultural innovation to offer emotional responses to modern change and manifest those positions, those values, with specific form. Business thinking serves our goals but does not drive them.
Design culture already practices some of the so-called “new” strategy that innovation culture is sellingmature designers analyze research from many disciplines, think strategically, and distill that knowledge into a POV with form. Innovation “D-schools” promise a new kind of designer, specifically trained in strategic business thinking without a deep foundation in form giving and communication theory. What will these business “design thinkers” deliver?
Jeremy (IIT): Innovation is the result of good design. When we successfully identify an unmet need and then develop a new product, communication, or service that solves that need and makes money for the company, we are innovating. I would also suggest that form is the tangible result of strategy. Considering them different methods or an approach is not constructiveit serves to further highlight the unfortunate (and often only perceived) gap between “designers” and “businesspeople.”
Q: Is design being led astray by too much business thinking?
Jeremy (IIT): Design is not being led astray by too much business thinking; in fact, I would suggest that designers need more business thinking. At IIT, we train designers to work with clients, not patrons. This is a critical distinction; we believe design needs to create value for both the user and the organization, which requires designers to have an intimate knowledge of an organization’s business model and its capabilities.
This issue continues to polarize the design community. In fact, the thought leader who defined what the Institute of Design is today, Jay Doblin, was often criticized as a “corporate design shill.” He did not mind this criticism. I would rather have a designer say to me that I am too corporate than a CEO tell me I do not understand his or her business.
Scott (Cranbrook): Most markets are now diverse, complex, and specific. Niche can be as successful as mass. Defining niche values and attitudes does not require design-by-committee. It requires a POV. Ask Apple.
Innovation culture is different from design culture. I admire innovation culture for speaking the language of business and gaining a seat at the table. But rational propositions are the most obvious ones. Cultural propositions are fuzzy and require a specific POV with a specific form. In this case, design becomes more aligned with art than business. All the hype in the business press about this fascinating thing called innovation has led to an artless design culture here in America when an artful approach might be the most needed. American music, film, and fashion may be considered some of our most important creative exports. American design is not. Is innovation to blame?
Q: Is design thinking useful without design making?
Jeremy (IIT): I do not want to say that making is not important (it is what generally distinguishes us as designers), but design thinking on its own is valuable. It is especially helpful for organizations that are trying to change and transform. At its core, design thinking helps identify the non-obvious, non-intuitive options. Right now, most businesses, when planning a change or anything new, generally pick from a set of known options. A manager trained in design thinking will not be happy with these existing options, and will seek out and develop options not previously identified. This is how companies like P&G, Steelcase, and Target made dramatic, profitable changes. We should be responsible for training management on the nature of design thinking, when it should and should not be used, and what results to expect.
Scott (Cranbrook): Strategy without form is an empty container these days. What we say and how we say itwith formmust match. If markets are more specific, then form must be more specific. Cranbrook’s studio-based model of making things puts form on the table for hard scrutiny, measuring form against content and context.
Design education is like a hierarchy of needs. When one layer is satisfied, then the next layer can be considered and achieved. Learn the basics of making and form, and then build toward higher levels of actualization. Cranbrook is concerned with the craft of that form giving, with the assumption that the designer’s craft comes to include more disciplines as the designer maturesincluding the crafting of business models, strategies, production methods, marketing positions, brand messages, etc. With the right foundation, this maturity is inevitable as the informed designer engages the complexities of the market.
Q: What is the role of intuition in design?
Scott (Cranbrook): Some of the best design happens when designers simply respond to their own needs. This doesn’t mean that blue-sky fantasies take over. Eames had a famous diagram that showed the intersections of the designer’s concerns, the client’s concerns, and society’s concerns. The designer can work with conviction at the overlap of these concerns: This is called informed intuition. The important part here is that the designer starts with his own set of subjective concerns and is not simply a corporate mercenary.
Was the iPhone conceived through “user observation”? Doubtful. Designers lead the public imagination with new proposals. Designers provide visions of what could be. Informed design experiments make sense of modern change and are risky because they propose new behaviors, not just cater to observed, existing ones.
Jeremy (IIT): If designers just design for other designers, we will end up with an oversupply of beautiful, expensive, and mostly useless products. Overvaluing intuition leads to the star-designer phenomenon, which is bad for the profession. When there are a few high-paid designers who are admired for their seemingly infallible intuition, we end up with a lower class of designers left to implement their ideas for much lower pay. This income distribution resembles the music industry and the crack-dealing industrynew recruits are lured by a few successful examples but will likely never achieve a living wage.
When we create processes and methods that deemphasize intuition, we create fewer star designers. Instead, we create more designers who can operate in a competitive, profit-driven environment alongside marketing and finance folks. With more processes and methods, our work becomes easier to plan for, and thus easier to buy for managers.
Q: What is the future of American design?
Scott (Cranbrook): While working at IDEO, I experienced projects that integrated the efforts of Cranbrook “designers” and IIT “innovators” within the same team. It was a friendly balance of heart and mind, form and strategy. I think this balanced approach to design process will represent the new state-of-the-art in the American profession. Successful teams will be comfortable with the give and take between design and innovation. Understanding the line where design ends and innovation begins will be an ongoing question. Experts in both methods will continue to be in demand.
As “things with attitude” come to center stage in more markets, American design will need a more sophisticated way of discussing connections between form and attitude to build meaningful products and brand stories with a POV. America needs more laboratories for experimental thinking and making. As a profession, the “art” of design must be supported and encouraged as much as the business of design. Designers with a sophisticated critical framework for evaluating form, in all its complexities, will build a better American, and global, design.
Jeremy (IIT): I agree with Scott’s vision of the balanced approach. We recognize that if we over-rationalize the design process, we will miss out on the creative, contrarian point of view that often leads to great design innovations. It’s important to recognize our role in the future of global design. At the moment, the U.S. is known for great brands, great firms, and great schools. But our position in the future is not a given. There is an amazing amount of design talent being developed in India, Korea, China, and Taiwan. They have sent students to our best schools not to become American designers, but to go back to their home countries and improve both practice and education. Many of these countries also have national design policies and strategies (which we do not, for better or worse, in the U.S.). We need to act now, since we do not want our role to have been only to educate these competing national economies; we need to think about how to partner and collaborate with them to build American business.
Product designer and educator Scott Klinker heads the graduate 3D design program at Cranbrook Academy of Art in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan, where he also received his MFA in 1996. He has worked in-house for IDEO (Palo Alto) and Sony/Ericsson and later chaired the design program at the Kanazawa International Design Institute in Japan. He currently runs Scott Klinker Product Design, developing licensed designs for contract furniture, house-hold goods, and toys, with clients including Steelcase and Burton Snowboards. In 2006 he was featured as one of Newsweek’s annual “Design Dozen,” a selection of the best new designers.
Jeremy Alexis is an assistant professor and assistant dean at the IIT Institute of Design. He holds both a bachelor of architecture and master of design from the Illinois Institute of Technology. He currently teaches the research and demonstration (yearlong capstone) class, as well as classes on economics and design, concept evaluation, design decision making, and problem framing. Before IIT, he worked for Doblin, Gravity Tank, and Archideas. He has worked with clients such as Unilever, Motorola, Citibank, Pfizer, American Express, and Target.
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Figure. IIT-Chicago Bike Federation
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