What is AIGA thinking about the future of design?

Make/Think,” the 2009 biennial AIGA Design Conference, focused on the dichotomy, synergy, relationship and opportunities for designers as they apply their unique skills toward making things and changing the way others think. Why is this so important right now?

Designers typically enter school because they are at heart fetishists with a passion for making beautiful, clever things. Design education helps these talented and committed young designers understand how to see communication problems, master techniques and produce a body of work that demonstrates that mastery.

Yet for almost every designer, the opportunity to be respected, influential and well rewarded comes from moving toward a role less defined by making two-dimensional objects than by conceiving of strategies that might include a multitude of media and dimensions. It is in this area, often considered “strategy” by business, where clients see designers creating substantial value. And, now more than ever, it is seen as “design thinking,” a method of birthing innovation.

Many who practice design soon discover that they yearn to be involved much earlier in a client's problem-solving process—well before the point when clients think “design” is needed and may have a preconceived solution in mind. Designers want to—and should—contribute to defining the true nature of the client's problem. Designers are uniquely capable of approaching such problems holistically, possessing skills that include creativity, empathy and the ability to make ideas visual and accessible. Designing incorporates branding, positioning, strategic choices and human experiences over simply producing designed artifacts.

This interest in the evolving role of the designer as design thinker and problem solver is one that AIGA embraces completely. At “Make/Think,” we sought to raise and contrast the issues of these two complementary roles for designers. A number of the presentations—including David Butler of Coca-Cola, Nick Law of R/GA and Marissa Mayer of Google—explored the ways that strategic user-centered design is influencing commerce.

In considering the future of design, however, two presentations were particularly critical.

Roger Martin speaking at the AIGA Design Conference 2009 in Memphis

Roger Martin at “Make/Think.” (photo: Wheat Wurtzburger)

Roger Martin, the dean of the Joseph L. Rotman School of Management at the University of Toronto, made the case that designers' interest in a broader strategic role is not simply a self-interested and presumptuous argument; it is based in the client's interest. In his presentation, “Why Design Thinking Is the Next Competitive Advantage,” he articulated the value of integrative thinking or “design thinking” as essential to countering the risk-averse tendencies of business strategists in solving complex problems. Although it is not limited to designers, Roger makes the case that designers, by their nature, can bring solutions to light that escape others:

I think in a knowledge intensive world where advancing knowledge is the key to value creation and the key to competitive advantage to organizations, this capacity of design thinking is absolutely critical to having organizations overcome the biggest block they have, which is a dependence on analytical thinking and a fear of intuitive thinking. It's the thing in-between.

Elizabeth Coleman speaking at the 2009 AIGA Design Conference in Memphis

Elizabeth Coleman. (photo: Wheat Wurtzburger)

Elizabeth Coleman, president of Bennington College, posits that this potential role for designers is much larger than the business relationship: it involves design thinking's role in governance, civic experience, liberal arts education, and civilization's responsibilities. In “Design and the Liberal Arts Education” she focused on the role of design—both as a discipline and way of thinking—in helping future generations take on the challenges of the 21st century. Liz believes that a new liberal arts curriculum can help us cope with a world that is threatened by man's own behavior:

A new liberal arts that can support the intellectual and ethical demands of this action-oriented curriculum began to emerge. In particular and most prominently: rhetoric, the art of organizing the world of words; [and] design, the art of organizing the world of things to have maximum effect. … Rhetoric and design … are critical and hard-fought values and capacities, both intellectual and ethical, albeit astonishingly underappreciated at this moment in history. And we have never had greater need of them.

Liz makes the case from outside the design community that design must move from the margins to the center of liberal western thought and civilization, at a minimum. That view reinforces AIGA's case for design's relevance in a broader world and designers' need—and opportunity—to assume a role of leadership in society. Only through these efforts can we assure the opportunities for designers become less bounded.

AIGA believes designers' aspirations—and their aspirations for the profession as a whole—must focus on three interlinked goals over the next decade:

  1. Relevance for the profession in others' view
  2. Leadership in actively pursuing a role in civic and social leadership, engaging with other leaders as peers
  3. Opportunity that will drive a design economy and will depend upon success in the previous two goals

As we begin a new decade, I encourage anyone who is interested in seeing where design is going to experience these two presentations. Both Roger Martin and Liz Coleman have spotlighted a different way to see who designers are and what their responsibilities should be, if they are committed to earning them. Every designer should listen carefully to these perspectives, for they may frame an extraordinary future for the profession.

About the Author: Richard Grefé is the director emeritus of AIGA, the professional association for design, the oldest and largest professional association of designers in the United States representing the interests of 27,000 designers working in a variety of communication media and dimensions, ranging from type and book designers to new media and experience designers. AIGA, o ver twenty years under Ric’s aegis, has become a leading advocate for the value of designing, as a way of thinking and as a means of creating strategic value for business, the civic realm and social change. Currently he is teaching “Human-centered designn for social change” at Wesleyan University. Ric earned a BA from Dartmouth College in economics, worked in intelligence in Asia, reported from the Bronx County Courthouse for AP, wrote for Time magazine on business and the economy and then earned an MBA from Stanford Graduate School of Business. Following an early career in urban design and public policy consulting, Ric managed the association responsible for strategic planning and legislative advocacy for public television and led a think tank on the future of public television and radio in Washington.