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Design is talked about much more today than in the past. Some people in business are getting exposed to Design for the first time now, but the practice of Design has been central to humanity for the longest time.
Throughout ages, Design has been central to the creation of culture and to the emergence of habits. It’s also played a key role in shaping and popularizing solutions that have very practical applications.
There’s always been an interplay between technology and design, and we design within the constraints of available technology. Early on, the technology of tools and weapons allowed our ancestor to get an advantage over other animals. A bit later impressive technology was deployed to build vast monuments. The conceiving and shaping of tools and monuments was early Design.
Technological advance led to the industrial revolution and new manufacturing techniques. New kinds of organization were born – with scale and reach unseen before. Designing the perfect organization around manufacturing optimization became key.
Ever since the advent of the industrial age good Design has considered – at its core – the possibilities of and the impact on people, technology, and organizations. Design is not done in isolation. It’s applied, it explores the conditions in these three dimensions, and aims to improve things across them.
Let’s look a bit at the human perspective.
The building on the left is from a time when extracting and shipping raw materials like high quality stone was very expensive. In comparison, people’s time was abundant and the cost was low. So it made sense to employ people to enhance and make the most of the precious raw materials. I took the photo on the right a couple of weeks ago in New York. It shows vast buildings created from high quality stone, steel and glass. But they lack ornamentation of any kind. That’s because the equation has flipped. Technology has made raw materials comparatively accessible and cheap. But people’s time is expensive, so it wouldn’t make economic sense to spend a lot of time designing and assembling/shaping buildings with ornamentation. Human time has become the most precious commodity in the world!
I think of Amazon, and Amazon Prime in particular, as a convenience platform. People don’t have to think (there’s one place where they can get anything), and they don’t need to visit several retailers to get what they want. It’s all there, relatively well priced, and it comes to you. The rampant success of Amazon is due to it saving time and effort for people.
Another way that design and technology can combine powerfully, is when we amplify or extend the capabilities and skills of people. In this example we see that on their own, pathologists and Artificial Intelligence get the diagnosis wrong from time to time (3.5% and 7.5% respectively). But when AI is used combined with the pathologist, the error rate drops dramatically. (At Fjord we worked with Harvard Medical school to use design and digital tools to amplify the skills of the pediatrician related to the Pediatric Growth Chart and annual check-ups for kids, and that work drove huge improvements and received a Red Dot award.)
Unlike many future vision video, people live idiosyncratic and imperfect lives. Not all environments are neat and clean, people are multitasking, stressed, and make mistakes. They are emotional and use intuition. The human condition itself is a key reason for Design being fascinating.
The industrial age made it key to design systems, machines and companies that worked reliably and efficiently. Perfecting manufacturing and reducing errors and waste was a key goal for design in the industry. The industrial revolution and the industrial age had a big impact on the process and practice of Design. There was a tight marriage between mass manufacturing and design. The two examples here are a toaster by Raymond Loewy and the original Fiat 500. Between the 1930s and the 1960s, Raymond Loewy's streamlined designs for thousands of consumer goods―everything from toasters and refrigerators to automobiles and ocean liners―radically changed the look of American life. The original Fiat 500 (Cinquecento) was the last car to be designed completely by one person – Dante Giacosa. Mid Fifties Italy was still devastated from WWII and poor. Two seater micro cars/bubble cars were becoming popular. These typically sat 1-3 people and were arguably closer to a motorcycle than car. Giaoccosa came up with the Nouva 500. A real car people could afford and offered a real automotive experience and then some. Nearly 3.9 million were sold between 1957 and 1975.
When you design an organization that must optimize efficiency in industrial manufacturing, you create hierarchical and tight command structures. Ironically, when organizations are designed or re-designed for our digital service age, the design is largely about undoing the effects of the industrial era: Breaking down silos, flattening hierarchies, making organizations more flexible, and more human again. More fit for people to be creative, collaborative, and innovative. While the industrial age brought unimaginable progress in many ways, it also left a legacy on organizations that is still casting a big shadow today. Optimizing for the previous age holds back progress in the current age.
Data is a key ingredient in modern business. Increasingly companies and governments are collecting and organizing data. But making the data productive and meaningful is a whole different task. Design is uniquely positioned to make sense of the data. What questions should we ask of it? How do we represent the answers? This map – created by our data & design team – shows frequency and location of disasters in the US. It’s easy to understand and interpret at a glance, and can be interrogated in numerous ways. The data behind it is complex and sophisticated, and it’s only through design that we can make sense of it and make it accessible.
Traditional tech constraints are falling away. Technology is evolving and changing, fast, exponentially. Many magical inventions things that we have fantasized about for decades – intelligent robots, self driving cars, genomics, drones, artificial intelligence – are becoming reality right now.
Markets recognize the impact and potential of technology, and have rewarded leading technology companies with hefty valuations. 7 of the 10 most valuable companies are in tech.
Sometimes we get scared and anxious as we see how fast technology is changing things around us. But if we take a step back and look at these simple statistics, we can see that extreme poverty and child mortality are both reducing globally, while literacy is on the increase. While tech is undoubtedly changing the world, much of it is for the better.
However, there is a critical thing to be aware of. Businesses, marketplaces, and society are made of people. They can only change as fast as people can embrace and adapt to new technologies. Unlike technology, people don’t change over night. Our physical and mental capabilities evolve slowly – some would say not at all ;) W don’t add new senses or limbs whenever we fel like it. We are born with amazing capabilities, but the basic capabilities don’t change particularly fast. The constraint, or the bottle neck to progress is not technology anymore, it’s people. Design, which is fundamentally about the human condition, is the key glue between technology & people, the interpreter. Design helps people make sense of the world around them. Design is therefore crucial to unlock the potential of technological advancements. And to realize the human potential.
Given how crucial Design has become to the application of technology, technology leaders are building much bigger design teams, and the ratio of designer to developer has also changed dramatically, as illustrated by Atlassian, IBM and LinkedIn on the right.
Recently, over the last 5 or so years, Design has changed dramatically, and the impact of Design is also growing in remarkable way. Let’s look at a few examples of this.
Design has always focused on the end customer or citizen. But recently Designers has turned their attention also to corporate customers, and to employees. Arguably, there’s a consumerization of everything underway, and all audiences deserve – and increasingly expect and demand – good design.
Design has evolved to go from a focus on one touch point to multiple, from designing tangible products or singular interfaces to designing services and systems, and designing cultures of engagement, cultures of innovation. Designing systems and cultures is by default more complex and intangible than the design of an artifact or an single app.
Diverse and cross-functional teams come up with better ideas. Multiple perspectives and skills are also needed to solve complex challenges. As Design Thinking is increasingly practiced across organizations, it leads to broader Design participation at work, so more people get exposed to a people-centric and experimental approach. There’s also a proliferation of easy to use tools and technologies like Pinterest, Etsy, and 3D printing, and the barriers to participation in Design are lowered.
Arguably, digital Design is already the most important and impactful form of Design, and when you ask designers, in aggregate they clearly believe that the future of Design is more, not less, digital.
One of the key characteristics of digital solutions is that they are unencumbered by distance and other traditional barriers. If people want them, they can quickly scale not just to millions, but to billions. For most designers, the prospect of designing for billions is exciting, but also a bit daunting. Another profound capability of digital technology is the ability to customize, tailor, and personalize for each user. This flips the industrial notion of uniform mass production on its head. But it also opens up the opportunity for every user to feel like they are individually considered and catered for, maybe even themselves participating in the design.
Companies can’t hide behind an advertising or marketing veneer anymore. Everything is out in the open. Excellent customer experience, and broad-based customer-centricity are universally known to be core to success. As a result, Design has moved center stage, and has become a priority for the top leaders of companies.
There are numerous different disciplines of design, from architecture to fashion design and visual design. What has also changed in the Design domain, is that we see different design disciplines combine and merge on the larger and more complex engagements.
Regardless of how big the design team is and where the design capability exists in the organization, it’s important to ensure Design is thought of as a complete system. Organizations that take Design seriously and want to win with the help of Design need to build a comprehensive Design system. It’s not enough to hire a few talented designers and think that the job is done, or to send business people to a Design Thinking course. A vibrant and sustainable design system contains three core elements, as shown here: Design Thinking ensures a people-focused outside-in mindset permeates across the organization, and is central to all strategic initiatives Design Doing is about craftsmanship, and about iteration and testing design hypothesis. Design Doing has always been core to Design Thinking, which is why we show the two elements with a large overlap. Design Culture is what binds everything together, attracts and retains great design talent, and ensures Design becomes part of the fabric of the organization. Like in any system, the three parts are interdependent, and must be in harmony.
Bland sameness, and loss of creative craft skills. Complexity overwhelms, and design is unable to provide consistent experiences. A belief that design can solve everything is replaced by conclusion that it solves nothing when everything isn’t solved.
So if that’s what’s been going on in design, what’s up next? A couple of simple predictions.
Given design’s central role to harness the potential of technology, design will become even more important in business and society. Design’s core purpose will be to simplify and save time, to bring enjoyment, and to multiply human potential.
Design of organizational ethics will become an important Design niche. Many would argue that politicians and the political systems are failing us, and time after time businesses are exposed as corrupt, mismanaged, and flawed. Given that there’s an intimate interplay between Design and culture, and given that Design is about improving the human condition, it feels natural that Design – and designers – will increasingly influence and impact company leadership and politics.
We’ll increasingly expect digital living services that flex around us. Designing these scaled yet tailored services that affect many aspects of our lives and interact with us via multiple touch points and using multiple different modes – voice, screens, VR, haptics, and more – will be a big focus area, and also a big challenge for Designers.
In the past digital has often been thought of executed separately from physical experiences. Facebook and Google are examples of primarily digital services that have reached unprecedented scale without much interplay with atoms. But people are built for a physical world, need physical stuff like food, tools and furniture, and take powerful cues from physical objects. Many of the most transformative experiences today fuse digital and physical, in impressive ways. Examples include Tesla, Disney Parks, Carnival Cruises, Uber and Lyft, Amazon Echo, Amazon Prime + Amazon Whole Foods, Google Pixel, Warby Parker stores, and more. The fusion of digital and physical will accelerate massively. Designing for a digital experience in a world of atoms is a fascinating task.
Design is now central to reinventing businesses and to making sense of technology. It’s such a vibrant and energizing domain, because people are endlessly fascinating. We should all feel fortunate to commission and/or practice Design.
time and effort
Cancer diagnostic errors:
Human + AI
Combining artificial intelligence with a human pathologist can
boost the accuracy of cancer diagnosis to nearly 100% accuracy. Source: https://www.livescience.com/55145-ai-boosts-cancer-screen-accuracy.html via Daniela Rus MIT CSAIL
… or amplifies
Capital is being superseded by creativity
and the ability to innovate — and therefore
by human talents — as the most important
factors of production. If talent is becoming
the decisive competitive factor, we can be
confident that capitalism is being replaced
- Klaus Schwab
Founder of the World Economic Forum
Technology firms are the most
Source: Electronic Arts, ESPN, USA Today, Forbes
Despite our anxiety
% Of people in extreme poverty,
Child mortality rates,
1820 1840 1860 1880 1900 1920 1940 1960 1980 2000
Extreme poverty Not in extreme poverty
Survival rate by age 5Mortality rate by age 5 Literate populationIlliterate population
Source: Max Roser, Our World in Data
1820 1840 1860 1880 1900 1920 1940 1960 1980 2000 1820 1840 1860 1880 1900 1920 1940 1960 1980 2000
Tech changes fast.
People do not.
Design is critical for unlocking
designers are hot
in tech land
Source: Kleiner Perkins Internet Trends 2017
Designer to developer ratio:
+ 65% Y/Y
Facebook, Google and Amazon have
collectively grown art and design headcount
by 65% in the past year, and there’s much
headroom to hire more.
Source: NEA Future of Design Survey 2016
Atlassian IBM LinkedIn
Focus of design
shifts from point
Change can be designed
- Shelley Evenson
Design is done in
teams, and design
Where do new ideas come from? The
answer is simple: differences. Creativity
comes from unlikely juxtapositions.
- Nicholas Negroponte
Professor and Co-Founder, MIT Media Laboratory
The medium is
Top 10 words to describe the Future of Design
(Size is proportional to popularity)
In 2016, the largest US-based national
designer Association AIGA issued a
study in collaboration with Google to
reveal a sentiment shift for its future
towards digital and interactive forms
PRINT DESIGN (74%)
BRAND STRATEGY (82%)
DIGITAL DESIGN (82%)
Source: AIGA x Google Design Census 2016
Designing at scale:
…while also creating individual,
tailored solutions, at scale
Design disciplines will
Motion graphic design
Design disciplines will
Motion graphic design
A service design initiative typically involves multiple
Design disciplines will
Similarly, the design of a signature digital product also
involves multiple disciplines
Motion graphic design
Design rule of 3
– a comprehensive
Threats to Design
Bland sameness, and loss of creative
Complexity overwhelms, and design is
unable to provide consistent
A belief that design can solve everything
is replaced by conclusion that it solves
nothing when everything isn’t solved
Design takes an even
more central role
Design is necessary for unlocking the
transformational potential of technology.
And it’s necessary for maximizing the
positive impact of people, and their time –
our scarcest resource.
Design of ethics
(privacy, truth, politics)
We’ll see more designer CEOs and Politicians
We’ll increasingly expect digital living
services that flex around us
Design of rule
sets and for