Design Leadership for Problem Systems
The design industry grew rapidly in the 20th century, by satisfying the massive and growing needs of consumer products, industrial systems, and a business ethos of growth, fueled by advertising. I observe a significant change occurring in the language and outlook of people in the design fields, especially apparent in my adopted home city of Toronto. I see a new ethos emerging in this new century, one that stands on the shoulders of many who have long argued for systemic change.
Citizen designers and interdisciplinary leaders are guiding clients and peers toward sustainable design and progressively toward a social transformation agenda (with an ongoing dialogue which we explore in some depth online at Transforming Transformation, request to join). And this shift in values (or the predominance now of actions consistent with values) co-occurs with the devastating upheaval in economic fortunes among those heavily invested in the previous century’s perspective and commitments to growth.
Yet in the gritty reality of everyday work, the vast majority of working designers and design educators are training for, skilled for, and planning on a future led by corporate projects. Many of us owe our livings in a creative, dynamic profession to the overabundance of producing new things and marketing those things and services via every channel of media available. We might accept this reality as yet another dichotomy among those of our modern values systems, which indeed it is. Many of us love and enjoy the constructive and skillful work we do, but may not love some of the outcomes we are making happen. Yet I say we can find new ways to motivate and lead by asking questions, presenting alternatives, and designing social opportunities as we might create artifacts.
Must design management continue to follow the lead of technology and the markets forming around technological innovation and capital? Can we start leading our prospects toward the innovation of social opportunities and serve to enhance our clients’ awareness of long-term possibilities? Can we lead effectively without being ‘thought leaders” and acknowledged iconoclasts? Can we, as Benjamin Zander encourages his orchestral players to do, lead from any chair, the chair we are given to play from?
Transformation design has struggled to purchase true global recognition, and yet it is a necessary next phase of design thinking across the many disciplines in which we teach and practice. We will see it converging with the already several well-accepted models of next-generation and transformative design practice, including IIT’s Human-Centered Innovation, the Design + Business movement, the systems thinking school (e.g. Dialogic Design and Idealized Design) and Design 3.0.
NextD’s GK van Patter has widely presented a progressive model of a design theory of practice, which offers a simple framework for thinking about the emergence of future practice.
Design 1.0 as traditional graphic and industrial design, design as making.
Design 2.0 as design as value creation (including service design, holistic product innovation, multi-channel, and user experience), design as integrating.
The perspective called Design 3.0 that requires a social, inclusive design process. A multidisciplinary design approach that reimagines systems and takes leadership toward change in social and organizational structures and systems. Design as transforming.
(Allow me a pre-emptive caveat: NextD adopted the x.0 referents well before Everything 2.0 caught on to the point of weariness). The progressive concept is not intended as a growth sequence, where designers move on from 1.0 to 3.0. Instead, in many cases, all three modes of design thought can co-occur and cooperate in a single program or organization. The implied sequence from 1.0 to 3.0 advances a progressively inclusive design leadership that engages effective design processes for multidisciplinary collaboration in the service of understanding and addressing complex problem systems. The concept is not that of replacement of Design 1.0 craftsmanship by Design 3.0 leadership. It is a way of scaling up to deal with ever-increasing complexity. But there are no “pure Design 3.0” firms in the world today; most design firms are a mix of practice types. However, the shift to design thinking for complex problem systems is by no means a progressive enhancement to practice. It requires designers to trust the inclusion of non-experts, and requires they release authority over tangible outcomes. It is not a comfortable transition for the individually expressive designer.
The leap to Design 3 is not intuitive or simple. It requires the discipline of innovation process. Shifting the target of design from a print or material artifact (D1.0) to a systemic product or service (D2.0) may not require a huge change in design practices, but represents a shift in artifact complexity and knowledge sharing. Most of us who have designed integrated services or complex web products have made this shift already and may often combine these kinds of projects within the same product. Think of a print and web marketing campaign (D1.0) for a complex web + retail service.
But expanding the target of design to the organization itself – one that is already structured and skilled to function as a repeatable production system of such web services and marketing campaigns – is another matter. Design 3.0 can be seen as a designing of practices that help multidisciplinary teams and organizations reinvent and sustain their innovation capacities. As with other design schools of thought, D3.0 adapts to business or social innovation problems. But it focuses on the problematizing more than the
problem – the skill of collaborative rethinking and reframing of problems so that the right problem is solved, rather than solving the problem correctly.
A socially progressive design theory is worth considering in light of the seismic social and economic shifts occurring in our organizations, communities, and nations today. (Which shifts in particular? Choose your crisis. Without enumerating any of the multiple co-occurring predicaments, let’s accept that we each have a favorite crisis by now – interconnected economies, food and water supplies, overpopulation, peak oil geopolitics).
These crises have become so interconnected and tangled, in my view they have advanced beyond the wicked problem concept of Rittel and Weber’s definition. They have become massively scaled, global problem systems – each one a cluster of wicked problems. We barely know how to think through the issues of a wicked problem, so how might we seriously frame and coordinate action toward problem systems?
Inventive, systemically effective, and forward-looking responses to these crises require non-conformist, disruptive design leaders to inspire and guide currents leading to cultural sea changes. We need pragmatic, experimental, and courageous social design thinking, right now.
While at the same time, the ground under which traditional design has been built is also crumbling under the global seismic breakdown. Our corporate organizations and clients have no special foresight or clarity to lead through this mess. They will muddle through at best. Designers can be excused for feeling at loss for action, without a contributing vision, or for being unable to clarify the very design problem we aim to solve that could drive leadership forward.
But we should not be excused for long. The creative professions must earn the right to create a new context for serving human social needs as actual human needs change. I want to turn our way of thinking about designing for social contexts right-side up. When the dust has settled from the current chaotic turning, I expect us to speak a new language about human needs and human betterment. I envision our clients (in 3-5 years) asking us about how to best serve communities and people, not consumers and users.
For those of us in leadership roles in our day jobs, as team leads, project leaders, entrepreneurial principals, we have the direct opportunity to find eradicated budgets, abandoned business strategies, and muddled objectives almost anywhere we turn. These are leading indicators that disruptive social and organizational design will be called for, and yet, we are not positioned as safe harbors during the storms of crisis. Nor should we be considered “safe,” as safe thinking and reasonableness are dead weight in times of total systemic change. What our teams, organizations, and political communities need from us is that which we do best, and that which efficient organizations typically avoid. Our call to action includes inciting imagination, multidisciplinary collaboration, re-inventing participation, rethinking business strategy, and inspiring and visualizing alternative scenarios from all players.
Our world now presents us with problem systems, not just complex problems, but chaotically interconnected situations of systemically connected problems. Design 3.0 can be seen as a framework, a system of language, that by learning we may be encouraged to dare to take on the problem systems in our own organizations and encounters.
Original article written by Peter Jones