“In reality, design is not that important”

In a recent interview in FastCompany with John Maeda of Automattic reflects on the mantra that companies should embrace “design-led” to differentiate their products and services in crowded market spaces. For many years, Apple was the exemplar of a company that was design-led for other companies that dreamed of becoming the next version of them. These dreams turned into a gold-rush as organizations vacuumed the market of self-reported designers to leverage empathy and innovation for organizational and product advantage.

Unfortunately somewhere along the way, desire and reality collided. Maeda stated:

  • “When companies become design-led, Maeda believes designers are saying “get out of the way, I’m the boss.”
  • . . . design’s tendency to become what he calls a “microworld of aesthetic high-fives” . . . because it comes at the cost of teamwork.”
  • “Many kinds of designs are jumbled within large organizations so the act of “defining design” can easily take up a great deal of time.”
  • ” The complexity of design interests designers, but the rest of your org doesn’t care.”

Maeda’s comments are informed by over a decade of witnessing the many problems companies have faced after desiring to benefit from design-led investments. He still believes in the “need of a CEO who cares about design, and recognizes that good design is good business. It’s because the customer wants it.” The expression “good design is good business” has been around for over forty years, but Maeda recognizes that most organizations do not understand the difference between design and designers. Many designers are self-reported and come from business, technology and social science fields. They aspire to the big “D” because they consider themselves to be empathetic, human-centered and innovative.

I wanted to better understand Maeda’s statements, so I reviewed his 2018 Design in Technology report. If you have not yet read one of these reports, published since 2015, they are an interesting way to understand the almost stream of conscious thinking Maeda uses when weighing the potential impact of current design trends on what design is, could be, and what everyone should be thinking about.

Maeda’s 2018 landscape is focused on computational design and the role of artificial intelligence (AI) systems. He defines computational design as ” . . . impacting all other forms of design today because of the cumulative impact of Moore’s Law applied over half a century of exponential progress.” Computational design and designers are part of a fledgling practice, just as experience design was ten years ago. It is very much a new collar role where skills and nomenclature are still forming. He acknowledges this and states that “computationally-minded designers need to choose a path of leading/managing, because their practice area is so ill-defined and often misunderstood.” Currently in high demand, data scientists are themselves just now coming to terms with what it is to be considered an expert in their field.

Maeda identified three attributes of a computational designer:

  • understands computation at the level of code and networks.
  • thinks critically about technology and its impact on people.
  • leverages AI as one of the their tools to co-construct new ideas.

He then uses a space exploration model for the phases of design exploration:

  • Planet Discovery Where we go to understand product landscapes and find the real problems that need answers.
  • Planet Hypothesis Visit to test at a rapid pace, using the information mined from Discovery as fuel.
  • Planet Deliver It’s time to build. This enormous planet offers massive rewards, tempered with massive dangers.
  • Planet Listen A secretive, resource-rich planet on the outskirts of this system, only accessible by the shippers that made it to deliver and get out.

Maeda’s comments and report indicate a significant shift on what design currently is and what it may become:

  • He uses the term “classical design” to describe historical design activities that were microeconomic in nature and focused on projects that are “perfect, crafted, and complete.” Many design disciplines have found it difficult to respond and adapt to an accelerated world where physical and digital are conjoining. Their classical skills and deliverables have become commoditized and they are searching how to remain relevant and are reactive in defining their value in design thinking and computational design.
  • He uses the term “computational design” to describe computing, data and technological frameworks that affect larger numbers of people (or what is commonly called “at scale”). This is disrupting the role and value of design as designers generally have too little knowledge of data and technological frameworks to be effective collaborators who can help create improved human centered outcomes leveraging AI, IoT, AR/VR and abstracted infrastructure.

The global design community is diverse, which is its strength in incrementally improving exists now, or in challenging established archetypes and reinvigorating them, or in creating new archetypes. Diversity can also create so many definitions, languages and values that it is hard to focus the community as a whole – other than it is overall empathetic and human-centered. Design is idiosyncratic because it is an extension of culture, not of science. Design thinking was a framework of reframing problems and identifying opportunities, but the outcomes deploying it have been uneven. It does not fit a predictable investment of time and effort for measurable outcomes that most organizations demand.

John Heskett in his book “Design and the Creation of Value” states that most design is microeconomic (hyperlocal or local) in nature because design outputs are incremental and derivative based on mature expression and production archetypes. Since most designers work within that context, it is difficult to move into larger macroeconomic activities with greater complexity that shapes strategy and policy.

When microeconomic designers interact and collaborate with management whose world is macroeconomic by their very nature, designers do not have the knowledge, language and tested skills to be seen as credible at that level. Design cannot lead at a macroeconomic level until it can show wider skills in social, political and economic knowledge to be effective at the policy level.

The very word design has now been popularized by both the public and companies. At IBM, we created a shared definition of design as “the purpose, planning, or intention that exists behind an action, fact, or material object.” This is a wide expanse that emphasizes observing, reflecting and making within strong team culture, goals, organization, structure, and alignment. This was to help unite an enterprise focused on delivering digital platforms and solutions to a wide variety of markets.

For most organizations, design simultaneously means everything and nothing because there are too many microeconomic and macroeconomic perceptions of it. Many organizations recognize that design is important — but is it the most important? There are many forms of leadership, but all are based on trust, or a willingness to give trust. Solving problems in collaboration with others proves design’s inherent value to an organization and the markets they serve. Unfortunately, as Maeda has recognized, the current understanding and performance of design has been degraded to such an extent that many organizations are rethinking their desire for design to be the tip of the spear.

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