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April 02, 2007

A Response to Bruce Nussbaum:
Why Design Deserves Less Blame and Less Credit

I know Bruce Nussbaum personally. He is nice man who has become the most vocal and probably most important proponent for design, my chosen field. For this, I am deeply appreciative. Unfortunately, like many journalists writing for popular publications like BusinessWeek, he has a tendency to simplify issues to the point where meaning has been lost. So it is with his piece titled Are Designers The Enemy Of Design?. Before responding directly to Bruce, let’s clarify a few things.

As I've written before, the word “Design” is highly problematic mainly because of its flexibility. One can design just about anything: hair, fashion, furniture, hardware, electronic hardware, software, business models, services, space shuttles, or living rooms. Even the nature of the discipline of design (if you can say there is discipline of Design at all) speaks to its flexibility; one could easily argue that each and every method used by designers is borrowed from some other discipline. Visualization and an appreciation of color and form comes from art; prototyping and passion for materials from engineering; systems thinking and observational methods from social science.

Is there a single other discipline with few or no unique methods? If one is an engineer, there is little doubt regarding what one does and what methods one uses. The same is mostly true for doctors, lawyers, psychologists, computer scientists, etc. This certainly a big reason why “Design” and many of the concepts related to it is so very hard to describe. This integration also contributes to a general lack of agreement on what design is from practitioners. It is chameleon-like in being what people need it to be. Thought of in this way, design is perhaps the only wholly synthetic discipline. This is interesting considering the goal of the activity of design itself is also the synthesis of disparate information and parts into integrated solutions.

This purpose around integration is also exactly why design has become all the rage these days. It transforms our messy and complicated problems into meaningful and elegant solutions. It takes inputs from people’s desires, to technological capabilities, and business feasibility and produces a tangible outcome. This is especially important in our current era of Continuous Innovation. We’ve spent a century optimizing business, product creation, and delivery. Every MBA student is taught the "Key Revolutions in Business", usually in a class titled Organizational Behavior. These revolutions, starting with Taylorism and ending with Information Technology, revolve around the optimization of factories, companies, industries and information roughly in that order. Each changed the game so drastically that firms were forced to get on board to compete. They are well instituted in pretty much every company.

For this past century design has been mostly a small cog in the ever more optimized engine that powered business. Frankly, even the most powerful designers had a relatively minor influence when compared to leaders in business and technology. Bruce’s piece reflects a revisionist history practiced by both designers and non-designers alike (recently applied in blog entries by Adaptive Path’s Dan Saffer and graphic designer Marian Bantjes) that isn’t doing the discipline any good. There has yet to be a “golden age” in design where our practitioners led mass opinion and there was a common, agreed on platform for our work.

For this reason, it is simply unfair that Bruce implies design practitioners are mainly responsible for how they hurt the planet through the crap they create. Come on Bruce, let’s be honest: the reason the planet is being hurt is because people like to consume and businesses foster consumption. This is the story told day in and day out in BusinessWeek. Developed Western business has optimized the process so well that America, at only 5% of the world’s population, consumes far more than its fair share of energy and products. This has little to do with designers. In fact, I would bet designers are, on average, far more knowledgeable about issues of sustainability than any other discipline. Take a look at the work of any design school and you will be sure to find work focused on sustainable products and services. The problem comes when those leaving school enter the business world and come to grips with reality–design with sustainable goals is both more expensive to produce and harder to sell to our colleagues from other disciplines.

Where Bruce lays too much blame on design for Earth’s woes, he also puts too much credit in it as a solution for all of our problems. Design as a notion is coming to the fore now because the purpose of business isn’t just about efficiently selling large numbers of products anymore–products are commodities and there can be only one Walmart. The goal of business and strategy is today delivering Distinctive Value and Innovation. Thus, our current (and next recognized) business revolution is that of Continuous Innovation. But the notion of design may be more important than the discipline itself as the solution to our real problem–an inability to meaningfully work together. We need to integrate our thinking so that the divergence and specialization of disciplines that mirrored optimization over the past 100 years is brought full circle. We need to have some integrated and collective values. We need to focus on people’s needs, transforming lives, and we need to care about breadth of perspective.

That is not to say specialization isn’t important, just that something shared is important as well. Can there be a shared practice of Innovation which many disciplines share but none own? I suggest there can. When disciplines and companies finally get this, perhaps we could enter a golden era for Design. That said, it very well may not be led by those who call themselves designers. I agree with Bruce that sustainability is an emerging paradigm but disagree that it is Design’s responsibility. If we’re going to throw the gauntlet down, let’s throw it down at all of our feet: businessmen, engineers, social scientists, policy makers, and designers alike. Let’s please stop the posturing and recognize that Sustainability is a vast issue requiring systemic and integrated thinking. It is no one disciplines issue to solve. For that reason, I see the current era of Continuous Innovation leading into our next big business revolution: Sustainable Enterprise. Trends are forcing companies to be more innovative. They will soon force them to be more responsible.

Posted by zacharyparadis at 04:31 PM | TrackBack