Interactions Cafe

XVII.1 January + February 2010
Page: 80
Digital Citation

On designers as catalytic agents

Richard Anderson, Jon Kolko

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Richard: The increasing importance and acceptance of user participation in multiple ways is stressed within most of this issue. Do you find a similar increase, and acceptance thereof, in designer participation among frog's clients? Are designers increasingly positioned as "catalytic agents for broader impact rather than mere stylists for commodities" (borrowing words from the cover story)?

Jon: Absolutely—and at the same time, no. Our clients are begging for, and willing to pay for, strategic, organizational change. But that work has to have some "thingness" to it—it must be accompanied by actual design work, embedded in actual products, systems, and services. The handwaving that accompanies a lot of "design thinking" doesn't fly; clients see through it and won't pay for it exclusively. That means that for all the userness in our work, the designerness is as important. How do you describe design thinking and the value of designers when advising non-design executives?

Richard: Sharing examples is key, as is enabling the executives to experience the value. Both facilitate countering "cultural constraints" and "power relations" of old, as discussed in the article on African design education. Those old constraints die hard, as suggested by Don Norman. He argues that much of the integration of new media that increases user participation is "still based upon a distorted view of commerce: We make it, you consume it. The media moguls think of this as a one-way transmission: They would have their companies producing, with us everyday people consuming."

Jon: Yeah, but it's not just media moguls who think this way. All of us are guilty of taking a "heroic design" approach, one that puts us at the center of the world and mandates use, consumption, and our own twisted form of "user experience." Design comes with a huge responsibility, and part of that responsibility is realizing when to get the hell out of the way. The piece on African design education you mention describes a 50-year history in Africa of questioning "progress" as defined by the West. We might be able to act as catalytic agents in Africa, but we're going to need to realize that the West's idea of how life should be—a small family, a house in the suburbs, and all the technology we could possibly eat—just isn't going to fly there.

Richard: In past issues, we've published articles that contain powerful examples of the impact of corporate failure to heed such advice. But not all organizations can benefit more comprehensively from designers, good design, design thinking, and user participation. And what to do to achieve such benefit will vary, since the nature of corporate "cultural constraints" and "power relations" vary.

Jon: What type of organization won't benefit from good design?

Richard: It is really a function of readiness. Some companies are in markets where good design doesn't yet matter; customers are willing to tolerate poor design, and executives might be right to hold off investing much in it. Readiness scales galore have appeared over the years, some addressing the readiness of the market, others addressing the readiness of the organization. Yet most organizations can benefit from design thinking applied in areas in which analytical thinking dominates.

Jon: It's a good point. The readiness of a company has a lot to do with the readiness of the industry, but all of that is contextually sensitive, and I wonder who is driving culture. In the past, it's been marketing or technology. Based on the state of cultural constraints and power relations you mentioned, do you see a future for designers to actually drive readiness? Maybe we shouldn't wait around for people to come to us as we gain traction in making fundamental and strategic decisions. Maybe we should be the catalyst for change.

Richard: Designers should be the catalyst for change, but in most companies, they are forced to be reactive rather than "involved and proactive from the beginning"—words from Jonathan Lazar's forum. Designers will be considered primarily as stylists by many, for a long time to come.
        —Richard Anderson and Jon Kolko

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