All the World’s a Stage

Last week, I had my students reading articles about defining “design”. Some of them were specifically dealing with the struggle of finding a definition (or multiple definitions) for what we do, while others were about what it means to be a designer. We had a good discussion in class last night, but I wish I would have learned of Cameron Norman’s post on his blog Censemaking a few days sooner. It would have been perfect for inclusion.

It’s been suggested that anyone who shapes the world intentionally is a designer, however those who train and practice as professional designers question whether such definition obscures the skill, craft, and ethics that come from formal disciplinary affiliation. Further complicating things is the notion that design thinking can be taught and that the practice of design can be applied far beyond its original traditional bounds. Who is right and what does it mean to define the new designer?

Titled Defining the New Designer, Cameron’s article examines definitions and descriptions of designers and what they do. He ties in discussion of Design Thinking and cites several people that were contributors to the articles I used in class, such as Sir George Cox, John Thackara, and Bruce Nussbaum. I don’t find any conclusive answers, but it raises a lot of interesting questions that are worth thinking about and discussing.

If I could pin down a result from the discussion that occurred in my class, it would be this: The field of Design continues to grow and diversify, and thus settling on any singular definition of Design is fruitless. We must prepare today’s students to think about Design not as a WHAT, but as a HOW. We must position them with the skills necessary to act as facilitators and bridge makers in interdisciplinary teams. We don’t know where they will be applying design thinking/process/methods in the future. As Dan Roam stated in NextD Journal’s special issue Beautiful Diversion, “A whole new breed of designer is waiting in the wings, and we can’t even imagine the tools, the voice, and the stage she will have.”

Education + Design + Crowdsourcing = ?

I have a question for you. What will happen when design is taught in K-12 grades, not as its own subject—not as Design, but simply as the process by which problems are solved and new things invented? It’s not so far-fetched. I’ve been perturbed by the whole STEM movement in education because of its apparent exclusion, or at least oversight of, the importance of training in creativity through artistic endeavors. Then I read an article like KidDIY: 2013 National STEM Video Game Challenge aims to shape future of innovation, and recognize that in some cases, whether or not the organizers realize it, their STEM initiative has turned to STEAM, although a more apt acronym might be TEAMS.

Now, let’s imagine several generations of youth growing up with this kind of education. Some will excel in the core design skills and specialize in that role professionally within various organizations, but everyone will have the basic background. What business schools are calling “Design Thinking” will just be “Thinking.” Now, layer atop that the services popping up—not Kickstarter so much as Quirky and, related to the aforementioned article, GameSprout.

The full question, then, is this: What happens when everyone is educated in the design process and given the tools, collaborative community, and professional advice to create… well, anything?

Design Issues

There’s one week left in the masters-level class I’ve been teaching. It is mainly a seminar-style course with a few complimentary projects. The semester was organized into seven units. These are the readings that my students were required to write responses to and then discuss in class. This is a good survey of the current state of design theory.

Defining Design
Beautiful Diversion - NextD Journal
Are Designers The Enemy Of Design? - BusinessWeek
In which design is subjected to Lakovian analysis -
Defining Design -

Design Leadership
Design Vision
Managing is Designing? Exploring the Reinvention of Management - NextD
Design Vs. Design Thinking. - BusinessWeek
Leadership Is THE Strategic Issue - AIGA

The Design Landscape
What is graphic design? - AIGA
What is Industrial Design? - IDSA
What is IA? - IAI
Definition of IxD - IxDA
Designing for Interaction - Dan Saffer (pages 2-8 and 20-22)
Ladder of Fire: Unpacking Advocacies - NextD
IA Summit 09 - Plenary - Jesse James Garrett
What is Design? (Yes, all 10 definitions!) - Demystifying Usability
Why Does Interaction Design Matter? Let’s Look At The Evolving Subway Experience - FastCompany
10 Most Common Misconceptions About User Experience Design - Mashable
What is service design? - Design Council
Engine Service Design
Richard Buchanan Keynote – Emergence 2007 « Design for Service
An Evolving Map of Design Practice and Design Research - Dubberly

Design Methods
The students researched specific methods individually and presented them to the class, rather than having assigned readings, but I did provide the following resources as starting points.
Stories - Boxes and Arrows
NASA - Process: User Centered Design Methods
Use our methods - Stanford 
Design methods - Design Council

Design & Business
AIGA Center for Practice Management - Trademark Basics for Graphic Designers
AIGA | Aquent Survey of Design Salaries
Intellectual Property: What does “Work for Hire” mean for designers? - AIGA
Why Does My Firm Own Everything I Do? Intellectual Property & You - Core77
The State of our Contracts - AIGA
American Firms Now Embrace Design, But They’re Aging Fast. What’s Next? - Co. Design
The Cost of Frustration - UIE
No Accounting For Design? - Fast Company
Dos and Don’ts for Designers Dealing with Business - Core77
On Being T-Shaped - Core77
Ten Ways to Measure Design’s Success - BusinessWeek

Social & Organizational Change
Hourschool: Learn from your network, one hour at a time. - AC4D
AIGA | Design for Good
Redesigning America’s Future
Introduction: Design and Organizational Change - Richard Buchanan
Marc Rettig - How to Change Complicated Stuff - IxDA Library
RED Paper 02: Transformation Design
The Designers Accord
Navigating a Sea Change - Lauralee Alben

Design Ethics
AIGA | Ethics and Social Responsibility 
AIGA | Logo Warehouses, Crowdsourcing, and a Lack of Understanding 
AIGA | What’s the harm in crowdsourcing? 
AIGA | AIGA position on spec work 
AIGA | Design Business and Ethics 
AIGA | AIGA urges the Obama 2012 campaign to reconsider its jobs poster contest 
What is AIGA’s position on spec work? And how are ethical standards determined?
AIGA Standards of professional practice
Ethics in the Design Field - Webdesigner Depot
The Politics of Desire and Looting - Design Observer
"This is what I have learned" by Milton Glaser
First Things First 2000
First Things First 1964
In Search of Ethics in Graphic Design — AIGA

Design Education
Design Research and Education: A Failure of Imagination? - Core77 
Why Design Education Must Change - Core77 
Teaching Social Innovation - Austin Center for Design
What this Country Needs is a Good Five-Year Design Program - AIGA

Design Thinking

Helen Walters published a very good article about design thinking on Fast Company today: “Design Thinking” Isn’t a Miracle Cure, but Here’s How It Helps. It’s a written version of a talk she gave recently titled Design Thinking Won’t Save You. She explains what design thinking is not, hopefully correcting the misconceptions of uninformed executives. I found most of what she had to say to be spot on, and I like her perspective. Here are a few choice bits to wet your appetite.

“So let’s be very clear. Design thinking neither negates nor replaces the need for smart designers doing the work that they’ve been doing forever.”

“[Design Thinking] turns up insights galore, and there is real value and skill to be had from synthesizing the messy, chaotic, confusing and often contradictory intellect of experts gathered from different fields to tackle a particularly thorny problem. That’s all part of design thinking. And designing an organizational structure in which this kind of cross-fertilization of ideas can take place effectively is tremendously challenging…”

“…designers should do everything they can to demonstrate that they have an understanding of what they’re asking, and put in place measurements and metrics that are appropriate and that can show they’re not completely out of touch with the business of the business, even if they can’t fully guarantee that a bet will pay off.”

“…what Apple has in Steve Jobs is what every organization looking to embrace design as a genuine differentiating factor needs: a business expert who is able to act as a wholehearted champion of the value of design.”

Although she never tries to give a definition of design thinking, you will find many aspects that may lead to one, such as the value of multi-disciplinary thinking, having a design champion in an executive position, changing the organization to facilitate cross-polination of ideas, and reframing failure as an exercise in learning.

Design vs. Innovation? - Part 2

This is a continuation of commentary on Design Versus Innovation: The Cranbrook / IIT Debate. See yesterday’s post for Part 1.

Scott insinuates that “innovation” is just design-by-committee, but gives no evidence to back it up. Then he suggests that innovation is to blame for the current state of the design community.

All the hype in the business press about this fascinating thing called innovation has led to an artless design culture here in America when an artful approach may be the most needed. American music, film, and fashion may be considered some of our most important creative exports. American design is not. Is innovation to blame?

How is our design culture artless? I certainly see no evidence of this. The design professions have, in fact, become more apparent in popular culture than ever before. Thanks to the likes of Target, Apple, Oxo, SimpleHuman, Method, and many others, consumers are becoming more conscious of design. As for design as export, Jeremy later states that foreign students are coming to the U.S. to study design and returning home to improve education and practice. I’m sure that isn’t what Scott had in mind, but it does say something about the quality of American design.

I wish Jeremy would have given a definition of Design Thinking, as it would have made it easier to understand where he’s coming from.

I do not want to say that making is not important (it is what generally distinguishes us as designers), but I do believe that design thinking on its own is valuable.

As far as I’m concerned, making is an integral part of Design Thinking. Take away making and all you have is, well, thinking. The making is what makes it Design Thinking. So, while I agree that design training can help a manager know when design should and shouldn’t be used, I’m not so sure that qualifies him or her as a design thinker. Scott points out that a solid design education should be built on foundations of craft and form making. The best graduate programs require this of their students.

Responding to Scott’s remarks about intuition, Jeremy states:

If designers just design for other designers, we will end up with an oversupply of beautiful, expensive, and mostly useless products. Overvaluing intuition leads to the star-designer phenomenon, which is bad for the profession.

He falls into the same trap that Scott was in earlier, insinuating that a designer’s use of intuition only leads to design for other designers. Admittedly, this does happen, but intuition is not the cause. As I stated previously, an experienced designer’s intuition is often as useful as a full-blown usability study. In regards to rock star designers, I would say that we currently have very few. I would argue that some are needed to act as role models for students and linchpins for the industry.

After all of their insinuations and declarations that design and innovation are completely opposing approaches, Scott and Jeremy wrap things up by agreeing that the future of American design is a balanced design process that integrates both designers and innovators. That’s basically what I was screaming at both of them the entire time I was reading the article. Design is one approach that can lead to innovation—the best approach, in my opinion. A design approach incorporates intuition, making, strategy, user research, and a lot of thinking. Taking any of those away will likely result in a less effective solution.

A tempest in a teacup.

Design vs. Innovation? - Part 1


An article that appeared in Interactions Magazine and IDSA’s Innovations Magazine was just made available on It revisits an article published in ID Magazine twenty years ago that contrasted the approaches of Chuck Owen of the Illinois Institute of Technology (IIT) and Mike McCoy of Cranbrook. The debate is approached from the point of view that there are two conflicting approaches to design: methods-driven and scientific versus experimental and semantic. Let’s break this down.

These two separate methods evolved into what are today simply known as “innovation” (or “design thinking”) and “design,” and each has built its own culture within the design profession. Yet some confusion surrounds these concepts, especially about how these two methods interact to deliver products. 

It seems to me that this is a poor characterization right from the start. Claiming that one specific approach is “design” or “innovation” is ridiculous. Those are extremely broad terms that cover a lot of very different processes and techniques. Design Thinking is a bit more specific, but even that is a fuzzy label that is never actually defined for the purposes of the article.

While explaining their current approach, Scott Klinker of Cranbook makes the following statements:

Great design comes from an artistic or cultural impulse, not from a focus group. Great design starts by creating meaningful stories with a POV, not by building a bulletproof business case.

While I agree with these statements in and of themselves, within the context of the article, it seems that he is using focus groups as representative of all usability studies, which is a gross misrepresentation. The best usability specialists in the industry would be the first to tell you that focus groups are not the best way to learn about your users. As for the second statement, meaningful stories should be an important part of a business case.

We want the next great generation of designers who know how to experiment with form and meaning, not the next generation of strategists who churn out 8.5x11 rationalized reports on business opportunities.

I would like to see the former contributing to the latter, regardless of the medium of delivery.

Jeremy Alexis of IIT then gives a sensible description of their user-centered approach before making the following rebuttal:

We also teach that good design starts with a clear point of view, but that point of view should be based on facts, not intuition. We also talk a lot about culture, but we think that design should be based on an existing culture, not create new ones.

Intuition is often a very useful tool for experienced designers. That is not to say that it shouldn’t be validated, but intuition should not be ruled out as a source for design inspiration. And why shouldn’t design create new cultures? In the social web we are currently engaged to, creating new culture is often the explicit goal.

Scott continues:

Innovation makes strategy. Design makes form. They are completely different methods, with different priorities. To exaggerate the difference, we could call it business innovation versus cultural innovation.

Innovation “D-schools” promise a new kind of designer, who is specifically trained in strategic business thinking without a deep foundation in form giving and communication theory.

I couldn’t disagree more. I taught a semester course on innovation through design methodology. The techniques and processes designers utilize are ideal for innovating new ideas. Jeremy says as much in his response. Score 1 for IIT. My own understanding of “D-schools” is not that they promise a new kind of designer without the design foundations. Rather, they seek to give business people an appreciation and respect for design and what it has to offer, while at the same time giving designers training they need to be more effective in business. That seems like a win-win to me.

To be continued…

“Never tell me the odds.”

Han Solo, Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back

How many times have I heard a respected celebrity claim that the only reason they did the things they did was because they didn’t realize at the outset how difficult they would be? And yet, they were successful. We don’t hear about the failures.

My training as a designer—the skills, processes, techniques, tools, and talent—gives me the confidence necessary to take on almost any problem that needs to be solved. It doesn’t matter what domain I’ll be working in, who I’ll be working with, or what technology is involved. I know that, while I may not be able to solve the problem myself, I will add value, significantly contributing to the solution.

There are those who take umbrage with this attitude, claiming that it is awfully arrogant to believe that design is the answer to everything. However, this is not the claim I’m making. Not every problem belongs to design, nor is design necessary for a successful solution. I think it is fair to say, though, that design can benefit any solution.

When asked the question,
“What are the boundaries of design?”

Charles Eames answered,
“What are the boundaries of problems?”