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Ed. note: This article originally appeared in the November 2012 issue of HOW magazine, a bi-monthly publication dedicated to serving the graphic and web design community. Cheryl Heller is the National Director of the AIGA Social Innovation, Leadership and Entrepreneurship for Designers Program, a learning initiative that augments professional designers’ skills through exposure and insider insights into the best practices in social innovation, entrepreneurship, leadership and change management.
the mid ’90s, I was executive creative director at Siegel & Gale when
Kodak’s professional products division asked us to help sort out some misguided
branding on one of its global film products. They were confident that fixing their
marquee brand was the key to fixing their business, but in reality, they were
caught in a technological upheaval far more disruptive than any product
turnaround could fix. Technology, some of it of their own making, was
undermining their entire market, closing the gap between professionals and
amateurs and engendering a movement of hobbyists who took over the business of
Average, “amateur” folks replaced
professionals because advanced products automatically gave them new abilities.
The security and confidence expected by and for professionals was eroding,
impacting the entire ecosystem of the imaging world. Today, everyone with a
phone is a photographer. The sea change is well underway, and Kodak’s dominance
is hardly a memory.
Similar shifts are everywhere. Academic
institutions offer curriculum online, experimenting with new platforms for
learning, potentially competing with their own traditional offerings.
Businesses are transformed by social media and the transparency it brings, shifting
power from their own empires to their customers’. Citizen journalists create
content more popular than traditional news sources, amateur filmmakers become
stars, maker fairs attract multitudes who do their own manufacturing,
publishing no longer needs publishers, augmented reality will soon make it
possible for everybody to design their own worlds and people who just like to
cook are setting up stalls and selling food—professionally.
Other consequences result from this: With
greater freedom to express themselves, citizens declare their values. A
multitude of platforms make it seamless to speak, and to act on, beliefs. One
outcome is the outpouring of extremists, and the tools and information that
become instruments of violence. The greater outcome, though, is the hopeful
one. Whether it’s called giving back, social impact, social entrepreneurship,
social enterprise or the generically plaintive “change the world,” social
innovation has become an unstoppable dynamic, which the visionary writer Paul
Hawkins called the “greatest movement on earth.”
And design? It’s smack in the middle, as a
practice transformed by technology in much the same way Kodak was, and
disrupted by the transformation of every industry it touches. Yet design has
deep potential to contribute to society as a way of voicing long-held values
that honor nature, equity and justice.
IDEO turned up the volume by marketing
Design Thinking—doing a brilliant job of making it synonymous with design. The
good news is that more people are thinking about design than ever before. The
bad news? Everybody who can think now thinks they can design. Consider the
parallel of design thinking with amateurs armed with a snapshot setting on
their digital cameras.
For example, TED fellow Juliette LaMontagne
recruits a group of 18-to-24-year-olds from various professions, teaches them
design thinking and turns them loose to design products for developing
communities. “I started a design-led social entrepreneurship program called
Breaker. We assemble interdisciplinary teams of young people, issue them a
global challenge, introduce them to the design process and expect them to
design a commercially viable product or service that will contribute to the
solution of that challenge,” says LaMontagne. “In less than one year, we’ve
created and launched three products aimed at advancing adolescent literacy and
urban agriculture, respectively.”
Economist Daniel Altman plans to teach
villagers all over the world to design and manufacture their own products,
markets and economies. No professional designers required.
Finally, there’s the explosion of interest
in design for impact: AIGA’s Design for Good program, OgilvyEarth, countless
blogs, curriculum, workshops and conferences. In an article in 3BL Media about
a Gates Foundation grant for communicating social impact, Aaron Koblin wrote:
“You only have to look at...the increasing convergence of technology and social
good that you see...there’s definitely an upsurge in interest for channeling
creativity into socially useful ends.”
This is progress. More people have a voice
and access to the tools of design. Our lives are richer, we share more than
ever through open-sourced engagement. Everybody has a shot at
changing the world.
Progress complicates for some as it
simplifies for others. To be a professional designer in this enabled world, we
must reinvent what it means to be a professional designer. Otherwise, we will
be the frog in the water that reaches the boiling point so slowly that we don’t
notice until it’s too late (which I understand is not actually true, but you
get the point).
Changes present opportunities. Disruptions
create openings that are potentially better, bigger, more relevant. There is an
opportunity for design to claim and step into an important place in this new
It requires, though, that we do for
ourselves what we do so elegantly for others: create a new identity that
imagines, then claims a bigger role in a better future. Designers are born with
an identity crisis—it’s the nature of all we desire to be and do. We are
strategists, implementers in any media or form and successful entrepreneurs. We
want a seat at the CEO’s table when business decisions are made, to hold our
own in an argument with the McKinsey consultant, to understand customers better
than the client does and to deliver creative breakthroughs at every turn. We
want to do different things all the time, and do them in wildly diverging
industries and contexts. We get bored if we don’t. We hate being limited by our
own experience, and bristle at somebody else’s perception of what we’re
equipped to do. Because of this, we struggle to capture in words what a
designer is and does across all these disparate silos and roles.
There is a word for someone who refuses to
be pigeonholed, happily choosing to be broad instead of deep. The word is
At the new MFA Design for Social Innovation
program at the School of Visual Arts, I am on a quest for young designers
interested in social innovation, and one of the inviolate qualifications is
that they be generalists—within design, and outside of it. The most effective
social innovators are generalists—they see systems that are invisible to
experts. For example, it would be easy to think of global development pioneer
Paul Polak as an expert in alleviating poverty, but he has been successful at
that because he’s also a shrink, an inventor, an entrepreneur, a writer, a
researcher and a self-made engineer. Polak is a generalist of the highest
A Chinese proverb tells us that “the
beginning of wisdom is to call things by their right name,” but generalist
isn’t such a wise-sounding name for us. It’s a dismissive description denoting
a dabbler in a culture that rewards expertise and an economy that rewards
hierarchies. We respect the titles, the rank, the power that comes from the
In creating a new future, the most
important first step is to imagine the desired end state. And then we must be
as fluid, creative and adaptive as needed to get there, noticing the inchoate
relationships and opportunities as they present themselves, building on them to
create a new restorative order.
Traditionally, designers have been regarded
as makers of things—translators of strategies and information—rather than
creators of transformation and intentional outcomes. But that is changing.
Design has the potential to be the single
most powerful, relevant and restorative process for change known to humankind.
Design can be the methodology that integrates and scales the millions of
initiatives already underway, that aligns diverse communities around a shared
vision when they need to work together but don’t know how, making invisible
dynamics visible, enabling enlightened businesses to grow and thrive. And not least,
design has the capacity to invite, motivate, engage, entertain and delight
people, moving them to action, inspiring them to believe that something better
is possible. It is a vision in which designers are the leaders we need now.
When photography began, technology was
challenging. Making a good photograph was the ability to make a photograph at
all. Today, a successful professional photographer requires diverse talent and
experience, and technology is only the beginning. How much of photojournalist James
Nachtwey’s brilliance can be attributed to his technical skill, and how much
depends on the life, perspective, vision, wisdom and bravery that feeds it?
It’s time for design to evolve from working on parts, time to put the parts
together into something whole.
Refuse to be labeled by design thinking.
Acknowledge and take responsibility for the full range of functions that design
plays in the process of change and transformation and learn to use them as a
Because generalists see issues from multiple perspectives, it’s easy to assume
that what’s obvious to them is obvious to everyone. Don’t assume that.
business to change. A recent study by LRN revealed stunning gulfs between the
way C-suite executives perceive the culture within their organizations and the
way the rest of the company perceives it. It severely limits the organization’s
ability to evolve. That gap in understanding uncovers a need and an opportunity
for design. Business is where we work, business executives are who we know.
It’s where to begin.
these skills to use in shaping the future. Turn the circle around. Facilitate change
in unexpected places. Everything that can be improved upon is an opportunity
for design, beginning with conversations. Maggie Breslin, a designer who worked
at the Mayo Clinic for years, is a great believer in the design of
conversations: “I see enormous opportunity for design in health care to create
the spaces for doctors/providers and patients to have difficult conversations.
I think those difficult conversations are the key to developing a health care system
that is less expensive, of higher quality and more efficient; in short,
everything we say we want the health care system to be.”
It’s not the economy, stupid. It’s the stupid economy. Ours is alarmingly one
dimensional, which is why it’s so fragile and unrewarding. The value that can
be measured by more than money is the purview of design. In fact, MFA Design
for Social Innovation faculty member Lee-Sean Huang says that “one definition
of a designer is someone who creates meaning.”
David Remnick, editor in chief of the New Yorker, wrote an article sometime in
the early aughts—when we had begun to see our current wars and networked
downturns emerge. He said that in the decade or so before, we thought we had
escaped history; thought we had learned from the past and evolved to the point
where we could avoid the old, devastating mistakes. But of course we didn’t. We
evolve, it seems, and still we keep forgetting the lessons that would help us
achieve a state of existence good for everyone rather than only a few.
And David Abrams, in The Spell of the Sensuous reminds us that indigenous people without
written language see time in circles, instead of in a line. It is our written
history—the recording of one event after another, fixed on a date that will
never return—that creates an experience of time as something linear, with a
linear expectation of progress, appropriate for a mechanistic view of the world
but missing the cyclical rhythms of living nature. The design process is more
like the indigenous experience of time: one circle of learning, seeing,
creating, making and learning again, always with the potential to conceive a
fresh new beginning around the bend—one more aspect of what design can bring to
In a review of an architectural project he
called a “Social Cathedral,” Michael Kimmelman wrote, “Sculpture is always
closer than architecture to pure form, being mostly liberated from all the
obvious constraints (environmental, economic, technological and political) that
shape any building’s design. Architecture is a contaminated art in this sense,
but that is also a virtue. It is social art.”
Design, like architecture, is a
contaminated art—contaminated by the restraints of its inescapable role in our
society. Those restraints are its potential, and its calling to be more than
In 1990, I turned down a partnership at
Pentagram because I felt it constricted me to be labeled a designer. I saw
design at the time as making a pretty much prescribed set of artifacts that one
could improve upon but not easily redefine. Either I was dead wrong at the
time, or design has finally become big enough to hold the ambitions of all of
us malcontents and generalists. But, what’s clear is that the time has come to
snatch design out of the mouths of those who have defined it for us, to seize
this moment and make it all that we know it can be.
To fulfill design’s promise, the most
important shift we need to make is letting go of the entrenched mental model of
design as the point of itself; as the end product rather than as a means to
something greater. Makers are justifiably proud of what they make, and can come
to view the artifact as the answer. There is a tendency to view the site, the
poster, the logo or the product as the purpose of design when it is not. We
will only make design a force in creating the future if we see it not as an end
in itself, but as a tool, a medium, a lever in a process of ongoing
transformation—and if we take full responsibility for the transformation we
engender. “What will we accomplish with this?” is the question we must never
forget ask, and to honestly answer. That will be the work of the designer of
Cheryl Heller is a communication designer and business strategist. She has helped grow businesses from small regional enterprises to multi-billion global market leaders, launched category-redefining divisions and products, reinvigorated moribund cultures,
and designed strategies for dozens of successful entrepreneurs. Cheryl is founder of CommonWise, founding Chair of MFA Design for Social Innovation at SVA, board chair of PopTech. She is the National Director of the AIGA Social Innovation, Leadership and Entrepreneurship
for Designers Program (SLED), a learning initiative that augments professional designers' skills through exposure and insider insights into the best practices in social innovation, entrepreneurship, leadership and change management.
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