Models and principles relevant to design

XVI.3 May + June 2009
Page: 72
Digital Citation

INTERACTIONS CAFEOn changing the world while paying the bills…


Authors:
Richard Anderson, Jon Kolko

Jon: Bruce Sterling’s really done it this time—he claims that not only are technologists full of hot air, but so are designers. Recently, I was at the IxDA conference, and the buzz was about the ability to effect behavioral change at a cultural level. Robert Fabricant, Dan Saffer, and even John Thackara all claimed that the designers’ role is to pursue massive change. Is this just a lot of hot air?

Richard: I certainly hope not. I wholeheartedly endorse Elaine Ann’s arguments in this issue that design has a major role to play in bringing the world out of the financial crisis.

Roger Martin—dean of the Rotman School of Management and someone I’ve often referenced—agrees. During his appearance at the Commonwealth Club in San Francisco last November, I asked Roger to tell us how greater use of “design thinking” might have prevented the world financial crisis. A part of his response was that designers would have looked at the big picture and designed a mortgage system that was “holistically elegant,” unlike the one that failed. The creators of the existing system turned a blind eye to very stupid features of the system; designers would not have done that.

Jon: That’s all well and good, but—specifically with the massive change or “wicked problems” type of argument—the U.S. government doesn’t seem to care, or see much value in design or designers. It’s a bunch of lawyers and lifer politicians, and there’s not a lot we can do to get any sort of nonlinear, abductive thinking in the mix. I’m wondering if all of these huge issues, many of which were brought about by large corporations, are going to be left to the large corporations to fix on their own.

Richard: There is good reason for pessimism. What would you need to see happen to become at least a little more optimistic?

Jon: I believe in the transformative power of design, but I’ve also watched “design thinkers” take an exceptionally reductionist view to difficult problems. Climate change simply isn’t something that’s going to be “solved,” in the same way that poverty isn’t something to be “solved.” Wicked problems are defined by Horst Rittel as a class of social problems that is not binary. To be optimistic, I need to see an indication that the larger “we”—designers, on a global scale—can actually do this type of work and pay our mortgages. Because that’s ultimately what’s stopping the designers I know and associate with from diving head on into problems of this scale; they can’t pay the bills when they stop building widgets.

Richard: This issue contains articles calling for the abandonment of obsolete conceptions of usability and user-centered design, consistent with a shift occurring in the world toward service and sustainable design. A shift that, because of its nature, should involve designers in work that takes a broader view while paying the bills.

In upcoming issues, we plan to focus more on how to change the roles design and designers play in companies, with an upcoming contribution of this nature from Roger Martin.

Some have called for Obama to create cabinet-level positions focused on innovation and design, or for companies to shift their focus to transformation rather than innovation and design. Do such proclamations do any good? Should you and I take some sort of related stance via interactions, or by doing so, would we only be adding to the hot air?

Jon: Yes, I suppose that would be just more noise. We need real action—activist work, the type of work Tad Hirsch talks about, or gaming work as described by Andrew Hieronymi. More and more, I’m coming to the conclusion that we can’t take the wickedness out of social problems because humans are inherently as complicated as the problems we’ve created. Perhaps we should set our sights much lower, and focus on the banal, the comical, the thoughtful, or the beautiful. These design opportunities are more immediate, and are more immediately solved. Sterling ends his piece quoting Charles Eames: “Design is a method of action.” I’ll quote Eames, too: “Choose your corner, pick away at it carefully, intensely and to the best of your ability, and that way you might change the world.”

Footnotes

DOI: http://doi.acm.org/10.1145/1516016.1516033

©2009 ACM  1072-5220/09/0500  $5.00

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