Designing for an uncertain future

5 Minutes Read

A couple of weeks ago my dad bumped into my old graphic design tutor. A wonderful gentleman by the name of Ben, he recognised my Dad and asked what I was up to. Dad’s slightly embarrassed response was that he didn’t really understand what I did. “Ah, one of those ‘young persons’ jobs” was Ben’s response.

Being termed as ‘young’ by someone was very nice—happens all too infrequently these days. But it occurred to me, ensconced once again in the design space after many years away, that Ben would approve.

I met Ben when I was 18, at my college entrance interview. I had applied to study fine art, mainly due to my ignorance of any viable alternatives. Ben had come along to talk to the graphic design programme as, drawing a blank at the ‘career aspirations’ field, I had impulsively entered ‘advertising’ on the application form.

Up to this point I thought that graphic design was technical drawing, in which I had neither skills or interest. Ben very patiently explained the reality whilst showing me examples of student work.

I thought the student work looked great. It was clearly grounded in the boundless nature of what I considered to be ‘fine art’ but filtered and given focus. I was intrigued by the use of different media, the juxtaposition of images and text. I sensed a new path opening up and jumped on board with a new sense of possibility.

Developing Ideas

I spent a year studying with Ben; certainly the most rewarding period of my otherwise pretty unspectacular academic career. Ben encouraged me to use the playful side of my nature: experiment with visual puns, new media and techniques.

He challenged us all to really concentrate on developing our ideas. Moving freely early on, experimenting before becoming wedded to a certain path or solution.

As a reminder to not move too quickly into solution mode, someone posted a message above the Mac in the tech room: “Warning: this machine can seriously damage your ideas”. In amongst all of this, I found my ‘place’ and my love of design was born.

I spent a number of years working in graphic design early on, before my career took a different path. It was much later that I learned of design thinking and human centred design.

Employed in a customer insights and experience design team, I was fascinated by the experience designers’ application of design processes to re-imagine services and experiences.

An “outside-in” View

Whilst some of us weren’t directly involved on day to day basis, many tenets of the approach became central to the way the team operated. The adoption of an “outside-in” view of the business (and our team). Especially, the acquisition and application of empathy with those we sought to serve. Always married with an emphasis on effective collaboration.

Naturally, I enjoyed the attention given to developing ideas; the challenging of assumptions. We used such approaches in the roll out of our Voice of Customer programme; partnering with our internal stakeholders and ensuring our tools were appropriately tailored to each, rather than enforcing a cookie-cutter approach across the board.

This really helped embed the program and create a sense of shared ownership of its components and outcomes.

I also learned of powerful case studies where design thinking had been applied in the wider world. The Hippo Roller and GE’s approach to designing a child-friendly MRI machine being examples which have particularly stuck with me.

Later, enrolled on the excellent Leadership With Insight programme I had the honour of facilitating an ideation workshop on behalf of the Latrobe Valley Just One Thing project, around pathways to better engagement and empowerment of the youth in the Latrobe Valley region.

And in my current role, as a key architect of the Evolved Group’s technology platform, my strange mixed background of design and customer insights have found a happy home. I work with a great bunch of folk, including a much better designer than I, so I have often found myself playing the role of facilitator as we bring concepts to life.

Attention on—and empathy with—the end user is vital. Again, taking the outside-in view, challenging our own assumptions. And ensuring that the appropriate SME’s are brought to the table to inject real-world experience.

A Failure of Design Thinking

But human centred design and design thinking have their detractors. In my previous roles I saw stakeholders react against various facets of the approach or even the terminology used. Human centred design was seen by some as basic common sense, rather than a new way of thinking. Some felt that an outside in view was unnecessary, given their hard-won expertise in their fields.

In a recent Harvard Business Review article Natasha Iskander, an associate professor at New York University puts forward a powerful argument against design thinking, accusing its practitioners of rarefying common sense and the process of unduly privileging designers.

Iskander highlights an example where, in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy in the New York region, a competition was launched to find solutions to rehabilitate the region and protect it against future damage.

Teams of designers held community consultations to discover what mattered most to residents about the recovery process, before combining their feedback with economic data. This led to the production of several designs which were then put forth for funding.

The majority of the available funding was awarded to a plan for a wall to protect the region. It’s not only an expensive solution but one which is likely to become obsolete within a couple of decades. And perhaps most worryingly, may actually exacerbate the issue by trapping floodwater within the city.

Adding further insult to injury, valuable real estate continues to be built in an attempt to gentrify the area. This will increase the cost of future damage and force out the very residents who participated in those consultations.

Iskander posits that here, design thinking has fundamentally failed. Rather than fuelling innovation it has upheld the status quo. It has ignored the full threat of the issue it was deployed to solve. And it stands to disproportionately impact less affluent residents of the region.

Facing an Uncertain Future

One of the smaller projects which emerged from the competition took a radically different approach. Fostering the ongoing involvement and collaboration of local residents, an open-ended design process was employed. This sought not to close down the ambiguity inherent in the problem but to explore it. To activate residents as lay designers, rather than just feedback providers.

Crucially, in facing into a new type of problem—an existential threat, carrying no real precedent—the solution seeks to embrace the coming change rather than attempting, King Canute-like, to barricade against it.

The plan is to create a series of small islands along the south of Staten Island. These will act as breakwaters and new ecosystems to support human, animal and plant life. The project has a firm focus on the future of the area—it contains floating schools—and present
s a new ecological heritage, which the community can own and continue to shape as the world around it evolves.

It’s undeniably powerful stuff. To my mind the question is whether the wall proposal was a failure of design thinking or rather, an effort by some stakeholders with vested interests in real estate and an ambivalence to climate science, to drive the agenda to suit. (What is it with these guys and walls?)

New Pathways

The beauty of the alternative solution lies not just in the design itself, but instead in the manner in which the design process was re-imagined. A more democratic, open-ended and future-focused approach. It might feel radical now but perhaps this will become the new normal as our old ways cease to serve.

That’s not to say that we should abandon our methods entirely. Whether or not you subscribe wholeheartedly to the notions of design thinking or human centred design, collaboration and empathy can only ever be good. Seeking the (ongoing) input of those who stand to be most impacted by the problem at hand can only increase ownership.

Perhaps the key is to challenge what we consider to be the “end point”.

To me at least it feels like the “good enough” approach, typified in Iskander’s wall example, speaks to one of the very worst facets of human nature: our reluctance to act in our own best interests until it is (or nearly is) too late. Its project team involved have created an expensive, temporary solution and left many of the real problems for the next generation to face and fix.

The other example suggests new ways forward; greater collaboration, deeper involvement of communities and a democratising of the design process itself.  However we look at it, the need to seek new pathways and forge new connections has perhaps never been so important.


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Picture of Tom Caley

Tom Caley

Tom is The Evolved Group’s Head of Product Development & Innovation. Tom is a passionate advocate for people and customer experience, with a focus on unlocking the potential in others.