To Hell With 10-inch Stilettos and 3G Smartphones, How About Designing a Better Future?

There's a lot of soul-searching going on among designers. Many have begun to grapple with the question: What is the role for design in a world that is no longer quite as "fabulous" as it once was?
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Last week was "National Design Week," which, for those not in the know, is when the design industry pays tribute to itself and its sparkling creations -- including all those smartphones that keep outsmarting us and chairs that make profound statements (beyond just "sit on me"). But amid the celebration, there was a lot of soul-searching going on among designers. Many have begun to grapple with the question: What is the role for design in a world that is no longer quite as "fabulous" as it once was?

Just three years ago, the talk at a big Miami design fair was of a gleaming metallic chaise longue that had previously sold for $900,000. These days in Florida, you could include a full mansion to surround the chair and still not command that price.

So if we can't afford the fancy chairs and don't need yet another info-gadget, and if those 10-inch stiletto-heel shoes from Alexander McQueen are ill-suited for pounding the pavement to job-hunt, what do we need from designers right now?

Well, how about a better educational system, or more efficient forms of transportation? Why not design new ways to offer much-needed support to our senior citizens? Or new methods to ensure that clean water gets to where it's most needed in the world?

Most people tend to assume those kinds of big, messy challenges are outside the domain of design, which is usually associated with stylish creations. But there's a rising movement that is promulgating a different way of thinking about design--as a means of creative problem-solving. A wave of new books and studies out this fall, analyzing and codifying exactly how designers think, solve problems, and innovate, has raised an intriguing possibility: The same techniques and methodologies that gave us the sleek iPhone could also help us to tackle weightier real-world problems.

It's not that designers have all the answers. It's more that they know how to ask the right questions. After spending a couple of years studying the creative approaches of some of the world's most innovative designers for my book Glimmer, I found that they tend to do the same handful of things when faced with difficult and entrenched problems.

  • First, they "ask stupid questions." Designers tend to challenge basic assumptions and established ways of doing things. That's not as easy as it sounds; most of us are conditioned to see reality as unchangeable, and to figure if something has been done the same way for umpteen years, there must be a good reason. Designers know there usually isn't.

  • They look at the world sideways. Designers often employ lateral (or non-linear) thinking to generate lots of original and sometimes offbeat ideas for possible alternative ways of doing things. And they're particularly good at coming up with new possibilities by connecting existing ideas that might seem to be unrelated.
  • They study real life, up-close. Today's designers spend a lot of time observing and listening to the people they're trying to serve. It's the key to figuring out how to design something people actually need (as opposed to just making stuff you hope they'll buy).
  • They "make hope visible." Designers don't just talk about new ideas. They quickly give form to them, through sketches, images, makeshift models, and prototypes. By doing this, they help others to see new possibilities--and this can rally support behind change. (President Obama employed design brilliantly during his campaign, but has not used it nearly as effectively since.)
  • They "fail forward." When they put their ideas and prototypes out into the world, designers fully expect to fail--it's part of an iterative design process that relies on feedback to quickly figure out what works and what doesn't. Each misstep actually brings the designer one step closer to a workable solution.
  • We can learn from this methodology, and from the optimistic mindset that goes with it. In terms of the way our culture tends to view difficult challenges today, we seem to be plagued by the sense that major problems are intractable. And we also tend to think there's no room for any failure as we attempt to move forward. This can lead to a kind of paralysis: It breeds an attitude that leads people to say things like, Sure my healthcare is lousy--but I don't want you messing with it because I'm afraid you'll only make it worse.

    Can "design thinking," the buzzword of the moment, help break this logjam? That's a lot to ask. But as we find ourselves in the position of having to solve complex problems and basically reinvent the world around us, it seems to make sense to study people whose livelihood is based on problem-solving and reinvention. Because you don't necessarily have to be a designer to start thinking like one.

    In future posts, I hope to share some stories of how people on the cutting-edge of the new design movement are beginning to try innovative approaches in tackling some familiar and very pressing concerns: from facing up to hunger and homelessness to radically remaking the classroom. And some are applying design thinking in the personal realm, exploring questions like: How can we start to redesign and reinvent our own lives to meet these demanding times? Again, design doesn't have all the answers. But it just might lead us to ask fresh questions, and to see some old problems in a new light.

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