What do you think of when I ask you to imagine ‘great design’?
You can think of classics, like Dieter Rams’ industrial designs at Braun - making something that’s both utilitarian and delightful to use. Much in the same way, you can think of Jony Ive’s and others’ work at Apple - making technology we now interact with day to day beautiful, simple, attractive.
Or the power that comes with pressing a button on your phone, and a car showing up in front of you a few minutes later. And it costs less than a traditional taxi.
Design, especially the stuff we call ‘great’, makes us think of physical objects or maybe digital systems. It’s something we interact with, something we can take delight in, something we can enjoy or even love. It’s something we notice, so we can say how great the design of it is.
But I don’t think that’s right. I believe that what we think of as design is not serving us anymore.
We live in the time of global pandemics, in the time of climate change and many complex global crises and tensions relentlessly unfolding on us. They’re not going away. Coronavirus is the first of many visceral challenges of our generation.
What we’re all facing as humanity, together, is evolving, and we need to evolve our definitions. Of what’s good, what’s acceptable, what’s applaudable. One of those fundamental definitions that needs to evolve is design.
Why design? Because we shouldn’t use ‘design’ just as a shiny distraction. We should no longer put some of the best problem solvers on the planet, on the made-up problems of how to make more addictive services or how to make more money on advertising.
Design is so much more.
The toolkit of design, just like any technology, is just a multiplier of intention. And we haven’t been looking at our intentions closely enough. When we look, we will see that there's much more to design. Great design is a balance, a dance of art and science.
As an art, design is fundamentally human. It is about connection between the maker and the user. When you use something that’s ‘well designed’ you feel like you know the person or team that made it. Their vision, their feelings have been translated into an object. That’s art.
As a science, design is responsibility. An object that’s designed, is an object that shapes the behaviours of another. Just how a Sony walkman shaped how we listen to music, so does Uber and Airbnb shape how we travel and interact with cities today. And so do Facebook and other social platforms shape how we interact, gather and connect.
We love to take responsibility for the positive effects of our work. They make us money, they make new things possible, they change the world.
But nothing exists in isolation. With every design, every business (and I do mean every single one), will also come a vast range of neutral and negative effects. And those are also our responsibility. Not to feel bad and guilty, but to confront, examine and resolve. To transform. To get creative.
Everything we make and release into the world is embedded in to the endlessly complex global system. When we create new value, we also create waste, we devalue the existing work of others. Time is finite and people are already using all of it. To spend time engaging with our value, they will have to abandon something else. And the more we’re disrupting, the more change we’re bringing, the more negative effects there are to deal with.
As a business, embracing full responsibility can be hard. Doing business is already hard enough. We are all dealing with climate change today, because past and current business generations aren’t taking that full responsibility.
In technology, almost no-one is dealing with the negative impacts of technology or talking about them head on. We mostly manage or dismiss them. “It’s people’s fault for getting addicted to our app.” Or “no-one forces them to use it”. Those that challenge this are the outliers.
Great Design = Connection + Responsibility
Great design should display those two simple, mature and human qualities. Connection and responsibility.
Connection is seeing the user for a real human. It is the joy of creation, of bringing something new to life and sharing it with others. It goes deeper than any brand or marketing strategy can go.
Responsibility is appreciating the full impact of our work, and taking credit for it. Not just the good things, but not just the bad things either. It is owning the unintentional consequences of our work fully and honestly workign to resolve them.
As consumers and users, we already expect that from companies. We expect them to treat us and the planet fairly. We are disappointed every time either of those is violated. We distrust and dismiss companies entirely based on those two values. And we already reward those that display those qualities.
The businesses just need to catch up - by building both values into their cultures and products. It’s an opportunity not only for a whole lot of good business, but also for building a better future.