Time for change

Although design is one of the most profoundly powerful disciplines in our modern information culture, its identity as a profession is in a state of incoherent disarray verging on crisis. The economic slowdown and tenuous world situation provide us an opportunity to come together as designers to articulate and organize our professional culture, to enhance our recognition and prestige within the context of an increasingly design-reliant information economy, and to wield our influence in ways that will benefit humanity and the planet.

Designing Design

If we as a profession are to effectively employ our skills for change in the world at large, we must first look to our own affairs. Technological advances over the past century have dramatically multiplied the quantity and nature of information engaged with by human beings. In addition, the tools for displaying, manipulating, distributing and interacting with this information have become dramatically more sophisticated.

Every juncture of information creation, storage, retrieval, distribution and use entails design. If we think about this, it is clear that there should be no profession in higher demand than that of the designer: the potential applications of design skills, and the need for those skills to distinguish and empower any given information commodity, are overwhelming.

Nevertheless, and even improbably, designers are currently a divided, fractious lot, whose professional esteem is considerably lower than it should be. Unlike other skilled professionals, designers are viewed as outsiders of uncertain prestige, and are frequently excluded from participation in business enterprises except in a narrowly circumscribed, post hoc context. A consideration of principles would suggest that a skilled designer should be present throughout a development project, to facilitate cohesion and effectiveness of planning and execution. Instead, designers are often summoned to perform only limited, specific tasks after managerial and fiscal specialists have already made crucial decisions—often inefficiently with little or no depth to their understanding of the dynamics of information and its consequences. These problems all point to the need for us to define, and to design, what is meant by “Design.”

Is that a pizza in your pocket, or are you turning in circles?

This is not a new problem, and it has not persisted because of a lack of effort to articulate what designers do, and to improve their professional status. There have been many grand efforts in the last few generations: from Moholy-Nagy who explored and demonstrated the relationships among art, science and technology; to Ray and Charles Eames who taught us how to integrate the practice of design with social concerns and sound business values; to Paul Rand whose taught us the power of clear thinking in problem solving; to Jay Doblin who taught us the importance rule-based design systems. Each added eloquence, clarity and commonality.

We thrive on change and our ability to project its effects in the context of our work. And yet we are unable to build a viable profession using these same principles. Appreciation and understanding of structure are always necessary for a successful design practice, yet we are unable build a structure for our own profession. To some designers it feels like some kind of restraint, a compromise. To others, staying focused and sticking with a set of values in a design practice is counter-intuitive. This perpetuates the lack of focus in our profession, even when compelling, substantial answers exist.

There has clearly been a steady decline in the design profession for over 30 years, and the source of that decline is the profession's intractable stasis. We are unchanged professionals in a changing professional climate: clutching at old idols while failing to create new offerings, failing to reinvent and reinvigorate the practice when needed, failing to inculcate a professional culture that is accessible and fair.

In the 1960s and 1970s, designers pioneered ideas and reconfigured their services in response to market needs and a refreshingly energized zeitgeist. The Medium Was the Message, Marshall McLuhan was viewed with lucrative respect as the guru of the communications revolution and firms like Unimark, Doblin Group, Landor, and Siegle and Gale distinguished themselves in the emerging modern marketplace by reconfiguring their practice not only with offerings, but also with specialists who were not traditionally associated with design. Ethnographers, language experts, cyberneticists, futurists and alternative media experts were added to the mix. There was a constant pushing of the envelope as to what a design practice ought to be. Great design programs and institutions and best practices came out of that—and back then design had a seat at the management table.

In the ensuing years, the deadening effect of social turmoil followed by stagnation and, later, the sheer volume of work created by waves of economic expansion engendered an environment of complacency. Designers increasingly just scrubbed and buffed what they already had for each successive project and client. They added more bells and whistles as was required by their clients, and chimed all the way to the bank. Yes, the medium in which we deliver design has changed, but designers have offered few new insights or value to clients.

Think about it. The way we run our businesses now is no different than it was 30 years ago. It's like a fast-food take out service: we get an order; we discuss the assignment; we go back to our studios and perform our magic; we return to our clients with three choices. Given the myriad delivery options, why is it three choices? Why not 10? Why not just one? The most appropriate one? The fundamental model of design consulting practice has lost its relevance and become another revenue-focused exercise in consumption. Case in point: Last year The New York Times Magazine devoted an entire issue to “design.” Not one article among the 20 or so was devoted to graphic design or information design.

Time to change

For all its discomfort, the current economic climate is a blessing. It is a wake-up call to us as a profession to confront the inner decline that has taken hold of us, which was masked by the overcaffeinated economy. We are now faced with the issues we have artfully managed to avoid dealing with for years—issues of destiny and the future of ourselves and our profession; of relevance and influence; of inventing new services and values in the business, social and cultural realms.

Currently, we spend way too much time as professionals explaining—often in contradictory terms—what it is that we do. The value of design is defined in thousands of different conversations in as many different individual vocabularies. While these views are doubtless sincere, they would be much more valuable if they were expressed in the context of a shared professional vocabulary and ethos. If every physician made up his own set of definitions and beliefs about anatomy and disease on an improvised basis, the medical profession would still be in the Dark Ages. Yet the design profession functions as if each individual designer is selling his or her services in some sort of terminological vacuum, with nothing more substantial than his or her personal charisma and taste to serve as the foundation for vast edifices of public influence.

Our basic challenge is to professionalize the profession. The slow economy, and the increasingly nasty atmosphere of the social sphere, are incontestable signals that we need to stop sitting on our hands, get our noses out of our institutional feedbags and our emotions away from our personal melodramas, and start thinking long and hard about what sort of world we want to live in, about what we could be doing with our skills, about the causal relationship between our personal integrity and the way we make our living. Designers exercise immense unacknowledged control over the public discourse; we need not be unanimous in our opinions and our aims to begin exercising that control more purposefully, each in his or her own way. A shared sense of seriousness and idealism, however differently expressed, would go a long way toward remedying the disjointed, undefined slackness of our professional culture, and would unquestionably serve to enhance the prestige and influence of the field.

Designers do have one thing in common: they agree that clients don't understand us or appreciate our vision. We have been slow to learn that we are part of that problem. We can design a chart that explains what we want to communicate, but are miffed when clients don't get it. We designers need to improve our communication skills if we expect clients to pay us to solve their communication needs. And face it: we are out of practice.

Shift the conversation

We must first agree on how to think about the purpose of design and the strategies used to implement it. We are at the beginning of an uncertain yet promising era, so there is no better time to rearrange our priorities and change old ways of thinking. It's not about “selling” the magic of design. It's not about designers per se. It's about the fundamental phenomenon of design, which includes many participants—and most of them aren't designers.

We need to position ourselves explicitly as participants with our clients. There are two ways we can shift the way we converse with our clients.

1) Apply our skills to solving essential problems.
We must create a shared, jointly owned sense of the value of design. Truth is, designers are critical to many projects, but entrenched professional boundaries tend to cause business and civic leaders and others outside the design profession to treat designers in a disadvantaged way (even though we're sometimes granted a certain special “hipster” status).

One of the first things we have to do to correct these perceptions is to connect our work, our skills and our abilities to the challenges that are truly valuable, from an economic, social and cultural perspective. In other words, not just focus on the aesthetic value that we want to imbue all our work with, but look at the larger task at hand and then figure out what we can bring to it.

Think of the types of projects we normally do: posters, CD covers, advertisements, web pages. These are relatively worthwhile projects, but their value is more enduring when they are done in the context of problems that people truly value being solved. And they are only a small part of the continuum of activities and skills that we can bring to bear on solving truly valuable problems, problems that affect the way we live and world we live in. Begin in your own community. When you're forced to think in terms of your own world, you begin to think of design artifacts as components in solving larger socio-economic issues, not just as end results. If we shift our thinking in this way, we'll shift our values and our value considerably: we'll find ourselves in natural revenue streams and cultural movements that spring from solving the real problem, not merely producing a mundane deliverable.

This is an important responsibility for us to shoulder. If we truly want to be valued, we must stop being insecure about our talents, and overprotective of the mythical magic we try to sell clients. We need to be more specific and clear about what it is we actually do and get much more immersed in our clients' work and needs as part of a team, not some phantom who comes, does something cool and then leaves.

All designers must stop insulating themselves. Experienced designers must share their knowledge, become teachers. Those who are new to the profession must spend time learning essential crafts such as typography and layout.

Each of us needs to begin practicing with real projects. Find a problem in your community that you care about, pick a cause: education, health, environment, politics, religion, art. Then use your skills to help that cause reach a small or a large goal: design posters, design events, give lectures. Many designers are unaware of the power of the skills they sell—true understanding comes from personal experience. Like any successful project, both sides will win. Designers add something substantial to their culture, their “clients” learn first-hand the value of design. What we learn from the process of creating something that is personally important to us should stay with us as we work with all clients.

But all this will only be successful if we can also be more articulate about the fundamental activities and process of design and agree on them. That's the second method we'll use to shift the conversation:

2) Develop and institute an effective and clear professional vocabulary.
We speak with a thousand voices, and our clients hear a thousand different renditions of what design is. We need to move away from talking about the things we produce toward talking about what it is that we actually do. If you ask a doctor, for instance, what he does, he says I perform heart surgery or brain surgery. If you ask a lawyer, she says I prosecute criminals or I litigate cases. They describe their work as activities. But if you ask designers what they do, most often the answer is a list of deliverables: annual reports, brochures, websites or posters.

We describe our profession by tasks rather than by their underlying ethos. This is so ingrained in our current makeup that designers are truly vexed when asked to use a verb to describe what he or she does. Our challenge is to describe that answer in a way that can be shared and jointly owned by the design community and the communities we serve, from business leaders to civic leaders, artists to musicians.

If you now look at the context for activities—changing a corporate culture, creating a new image for a museum, showcasing a new artist—you realize there is an underlying process for solving all of these challenges, one that involves many participants (and not just designers). It's important to remember that we must celebrate the craft of design, just as we learn to apply it in new and thoughtful ways to new and important challenges.

Common currency

Our goal with this shared process of designing is to articulate the context in which we solve problems with our craft, our skills and our abilities. And, if we get it right and learn to participate gracefully, we'll be asked to be involved earlier—and more often—in this fundamental process, which will prove a virtuous circle…

Over the past year, the American Institute of Graphic Arts—currently the largest professional design organization— has studied and refined what can be called pattern language. It's based on case studies from successful work by many designers, and from conversations with executives from, among others, Hewlett Packard, Herman Miller and IBM. The design process has three phases with four distinct steps in each phase (more detailed information is available at www.aiga.org/designing).

Phase 1: Defining the problem

1) Successful teams first define the problem they are trying to solve—they articulate it, they give it boundaries (what's part of the problem, what's outside our control). They call upon designers to help cull, visualize and express that problem in human terms—looking at it from many different views.

2) They then envision the end state. (If you've ever been part of team that seemed lost, it's likely they skipped this step.) Knowing what victory is becomes vital as you embark on the journey of solving the problem. As designers, we can help prototype the end state (through scenarios, models, journey maps, etcetera).

3) Next comes defining the approach by which victory will be achieved. Once you know where you want to go (as defined in #2), you need to create a map to get there. That map must be imprinted in the minds and hearts of every participant along the way. Designers can literally make the map real.

4) Inciting support—and then action. In some cases, not everyone will want to make the journey with you. They'll need to be inspired. Convinced. Cajoled. Educated. As designers, we call on our skills as communicators to help them see why they should come along.

Phase 2: Innovating

5) Once the band of gypsies, so to speak, is assembled, the next task is to look at the work ahead and be smart about it. Often it pays to take pause and seek insight that will enable the team to prototype a solution. That means research. Designers can help structure that research, and report its findings in an easily understood way.

6) Then comes prototyping a solution. That might mean physically prototyping it; building it in miniature, or a one-off to see if it will work. Or, it might mean prototyping a new customer experience—a collection of moments that make up an experience. In either case, designers play a critical role.

7) Delineating tough choices. A good prototype (or prototypes) unearths all sorts of unexpected data and insights. And from that, tough choices emerge. Should we include this feature, or that? What if the solution costs more than people can afford? What if there are down sides? Designers can make the choices evident.

8) When integral to the project, designers can help the team work as a team. By helping them make choices, envisioning different outcomes, seeing the “white space” between and connecting divergent views and approaches.

Phase 3: Generating value

9) Choosing the best solution. This is the culmination of many steps of hard work. If we do our jobs right, we can often be the pivotal voice in this stage, helping argue for the best overall solution. We can visualize the case, see different sides of the problem and lay out a path for making a commitment to a given solution.

10) Once a solution is chosen, the next task is to ensure that people—customers, constituents and employees—know about it. In a traditional sense, this means marketing the idea. In a deeper sense, it enables people to support the solution—be it a product, ballot initiative or service.

11) Selling the solution. In most cases, an exchange of money or time is involved— between seller and buyer, creator and participant, sponsor and beneficiary. This process is greatly helped by design, so that people know what they're buying and what it's worth.

12) Learn quickly. The most effective teams, of course, are those who enjoy learning. Strive. Improve. Designers can help take the team back through the journey, recounting the steps where good decisions (and bad ones) were made, and where and how the team can act differently next time.

It is possible to relate the above design process, or pattern, to business leaders, community leaders, design leaders, etc. Bear in mind that this is nothing new—it's always been there, driven by leaders of all professions acting intuitively in most cases. We are simply acknowledging it and putting it in the context of a professionalism to help our cause, our communities, our selves.

A final point too: it's an underlying process. It does not preempt a designer's methodology. On the contrary, it is the designer's responsibility to understand the role he or she plays, and recognize their unique contribution at any particular stage, and throughout the entire process. This removes the burden of constantly having to explain, as Paul Saffo said, “what it is exactly that you do.”

The above creates a valid forum for reaching a unified design profession. Reading it isn't enough, applying two or three steps to your practice isn't enough. It has to be embraced by the design community as a legitimate first step toward professionalism. It is only when designers begin to seriously converse with one another about values and goals for their profession and then collectively agree, that clients, educators and the general public will begin to understand what designers do.

Changing our future

Most of us find change uncomfortable, if not traumatic; yet change can be both exhilarating and desirable. Change tests our convictions and calls into question our intentions and aspirations, clearing a path for growth. It always requires that we make choices—to choose between a reactive and an anticipatory course, between being good and doing good, and between suffering change and causing change. The resulting decisions shape our life and how we look at it.

We've all experienced change, either as active or as passive participants. Experience demonstrates that it's better to occupy the driver's seat—even in a stressed-out, unprepared state with no roadmaps or instruction manuals—than to be disengaged passengers observing change passively, and at the mercy of the fates. Negative change tends to have this passive quality (as walking into an avalanche); positive change tends to be active and driven by the individual (as winning a marathon). It's clear that a destination dictated purely by the needs of business and technology will not likely foster, or even allow, the finer things in life.

Designers ought to be aware of the difficult dynamics of change. Design is, after all, the art of causing change to occur in accordance with taste and intent. Information is its realm. Good design combines aesthetics with pragmatism in a seamless blend that produces an intended effect (be it to sell a product, to convey an image or achieve some other deliberate end) while simultaneously shaping and coloring the public sphere in subtle ways, infusing it thereby with beauty, grace, elegance, verve and proportion.

Designers must combine passive and active change as they work to employ their skills and vision in the context of clients' requirements. Good design balances these forces, these dynamics, so that neither party is dominant or compromised: instead, each benefits the other through the harmonious synergy of effectiveness and relevance. This balance requires sincerity, respect and inspiration on the part of the designer, and an understanding on the part of the client of what design is and can do.

As design establishes and defines itself as a profession, as the role of designers is better understood and appreciated in the culture at large, clients will be better able to use the services of designers to define and achieve their goals. As this happens, the influence of design professionals on every aspect of commercial and public life will consolidate and grow. This influence will increasingly extend even to the conceptual vocabulary and tenor of people's thoughts, which are influenced—for better or worse, and inevitably in ways that we cannot presently understand—by the complex and compelling message forms that are generated by the fusion of design and technology.

Change is, in itself, the stuff of design: it is the experience of engagement with the inevitable. What design does is to put us in the driver's seat—or, at a minimum, to enlist for us the services of an expert driver. If we are dissatisfied with the present, it is up to us to design a more desirable future. Nothing could be more eminently possible, if we apply some imagination and resources to the problem—if the present world does not suit thinking and feeling human beings, it is up to designers to envision and create one that does.

Re-published with permission from Communication Arts, May/June 2003