Demystifying Design
in the 21st Century

This February, Eilidh Dickson traveled to Lyon, France, to give a talk at the Interaction Design Conference. In collaboration with a long-time designer friend, she presented Demystifying Design in the 21st Century.

The talk was inspired by a desire to pause and reflect on where the design industry stands today. Over the past few years it has snowballed. On the one hand it’s incredibly exciting to see the growth, the contexts in which design is being applied and the impact it’s having. On the other hand it’s daunting to see the speed at which the industry is evolving. But as designers, are we truly aware of the changes happening right in front of us?

The talk was based on a series of interviews with designers from around the globe and their experiences thriving and surviving in today’s design industry. Organizations representerad in the discussion included the New York Times, the BBC, Fjord, Grid Impact, IDEO and Tomorrow Lab, among others. Real-world experiences, tips and tricks, and battlefield stories – a plethora of insights gathered from the talk have been synthesized into eight key themes, five of which we’ve shared in this article. The full presentation can be viewed here.

1. Design’s found the mainstream. How can we maintain its integrity and value?
Never has design been as big a deal as it is now. Consultancies are being snapped up by corporations. Internal design teams are being spun up left, right and center. Designers have obtained the keys to the boardroom and they’re influencing conversations at the highest level. The design process and design thinking are being lofted through corporate culture as the new elixir. It’s safe to say that design has become a valued business tool. At the same time, due to its increased value, everyone wants it faster, sooner, now.

Nowadays it’s all about speed. Clients expect results much faster. But we can’t lose the ability to understand people (consumers) at a deep level in order to understand what to design…. This takes time – it’s weeks rather than days. There is no doubt that designers will have to get used to working even faster.

What used to be a slightly mysterious and ambiguous process that allowed a degree of flexibility has become more prescribed, itemized and commoditized. After spending years perfecting our double diamonds to make design comprehendible, are we now becoming slaves to our own process diagrams? How can we ensure the integrity of the processes that business has so wholly embraced – yet continue to deliver the value that business has come to expect?

Over the past 10 years the design community has done well to educate on ‘design thinking.’ It’s been hard and I certainly feel I’ve spent the past 10 years selling design and fighting for it. Now everyone knows about it, it’s taught on business and entrepreneurship courses.

2. Design is now working with other disciplines. How do we build common ground with what seem to be opposing processes?
We’re designers, right? We work interdisciplinary all the time! Some of us even are interdisciplinary. Our teams have visual designers, interaction designers, design researchers, product designers, industrial designers…interdisciplinary. Getting stuff into the real world, shipping it, requires more than just designers – and we need to cross that divide. It’s about working with and for people whose fields are worlds apart from design and its processes. It’s about building empathy and respect for these people, relinquishing a little control and, yes, trusting them to make some important decisions.

The good news is that the practice we’ve had bridging different design disciplines puts us in a good place: design is “combinatory.” Now we need to use this expertise to bring together people and skills that are outside of design.

What’s frustrating as a designer is spending an incredible amount of time and effort creating a solution and then the client doesn’t know how to take something so disruptive into the market. It’s disappointing, as then the idea dies. I’d prefer to be in a design company that has a really deep understanding of how to bring something to market successfully.

3. Design has grown up. Should we think more about the consequences of our actions?
In a very short time we’ve moved from designing websites and flash games to massively scalable systems and totally pervasive applications. Everything we create is immediately part of a bigger system, information is flowing everywhere and the knock-on effects are infinite. Are we doing enough to consider the unintended consequences of our work? Do we as designers need to take special responsibility for the future? The good news is that designers are well placed to do so. One of the things we’re inherently good at is looking at problems from a multi-faceted perspective. This is no easy task, but it’s time to start considering these implications from the outset of a project.

I wish designers – who are often interfacing with clients on the front end – were thinking more about the ethics of the technology. Design is enabling technology to come into a human’s hand. You can choose to have that conversation up front or not.

4. You’ve got to “Make the Thing,” but what’s the right thing at the right time?
This is not a new discussion but it’s one we need to keep alive. Design is about putting things into the world, but there are reasons to rethink the designer’s urge to give birth to new stuff. The world is filling up, and the more we solve for our user the more niche and narrowly useful stuff on our planet. And it’s not just plastics – it’s digital products and services, too, which are filling our lives with noise. Perhaps the best design is that which has considered what not to make? Making is valuable, but at the right time, in the right place, and at the right fidelity in order to figure out when to say “yes” and, importantly, when to say “no.”

If you don’t make, I don’t really think you’re actually a designer. I think you have to use those skills in some sense. The thing that differentiates designers from thinkers is the fact that we think through making.

5. We expect high standards for diversity and inclusion but are we meeting them ourselves?
We expect high standards of the world when it comes to diversity. The common narrative is that diversity strengthens design because we bring many perspectives to the table. How many of you have worked with a person with a visual impairment – but not on a project for the blind? We’re doing well enough on gender, but what about other parameters, like socioeconomic factors, culture, and differing levels of ability or physical impairment? Should we be trying harder? In many cases the immediate desire for cultural fit often blinds us to the long-term benefit of hiring someone different than us. To be more inclusive, we need to start pushing our work norms to include all types of people in our teams, our ideas, our personas, our video scenarios and our design practice as a whole.

Wrap Up

–Trust everyone on your team; the designers can’t control everything – and letting go prevents gray hair!

–Stay curious and have interests outside of design – broad thinking seems to be where it’s at.

–Have humility and empathy for everyone involved – be human centered with your team.

–We must collaborate beyond design, we can’t do this alone.

–Let’s not be precious with our process. A little adaptation never hurt anyone!

–Think cultural diversity not cultural fit – diverse teams make great projects.

–Be intentionial about what you make and the ripple effect it might have in the world.