The Magic of Reinventing our Profession – or
f**k do we do Society-Centered Design?
von Skadi Marlen Sturm
Alright, we designers love to be heroes and fixers. We strive for solutions. But are we taking on too much by claiming global and societal issues as our field of practice? ‘Society-centered Design’ sounds great, but what do we really bring to the table in solving today’s societal issues and – sorry for asking – but how do we do it? This article wants to shine light on the question, what aspects, if any, of design can positively contribute to global challenges.
The further you investigate the design business and agency work nowadays, the more apparent all the terminology for innovative design methods will become to you. You will find buzzwords like ‘human design’, ‘transformation’ or ‘transformative design’ and also ‘human-centered’ or now ‘society-centered design’. It seems to be a big discourse right now, what design can and cannot achieve.
What becomes apparent when you zoom out, is a clear tendency that we additionally start creating new links between design and greater problems. Those who might endanger the desired way of living on earth. We face climate-crisis, limited resources, disparity, and so forth. An example for that is the sustainable packaging design. However, this is only the springboard of designers entering greater challenges. But seriously, guys, how do we proceed from here? Does somebody have a plan? Or did we got a bit to prestige hungry and got tangled up in self-marketing strategies? Can we really deliver what we are promising? Because all I see is a lot of discourse but a blanc space in front of us.
Looking into history, we can see that this situation is not new to designers: several times technical innovations, new devices, mediums, movements – or obstacles with them – caused the next evolution of the design discipline. It started with the invention of steam engines and motors, which made the industrial production of products possible, and the discipline of industrial design resulting from it. Since things were not depended on one’s hands anymore, it needed a plan and a design, which could be multiplied by the invented machines, and fulfill the humans needs equally. Same with workplaces and tools in factories at the beginning of the 19th century. Next to engineers and producers the professional designers heard their call of duty. With printers and typefaces, the mass production of print media was possible – and new design challenges had to be faced. From professional printers, to copywriters, to layout and photography, there were a lot of things to design! This is also a job for designers, we thought. Typeface must be kind to the eye, photos and text needed to align perfectly and content needed to suit the target group. First TVs were invented, and the spectrum of design evolved again. There were plenty of new tasks: Set design, motion design and costume design were again several new disciplines that were introduced during that period. The industrial design discipline split into transportation, furniture, product design and many more. And we haven’t even started looking at the computer yet! With the invention of the internet and personal computers a whole other transformation and invention of design disciplines began again: web design, game design, audio design, interface design and, to finish this up quickly at this point, ux design, app design. I hope you see my point: whenever a new blanc space was discovered, the designers and their profession linked themselves to it as the crow flies.
Basically, the discipline of design was running through crisis over and over again and reinvented itself on the fly.
What we can learn from history is two things here: First, design claiming new playgrounds for itself is nothing new, and second, designers are an extremely resilient group of people. No matter what happens, they find a way to maintain their need. The older ones amongst us had probably two to three different job titles through their career, doing the exact same thing just on different mediums. The profession of design is not rigid, stiff, or fixed. It is vivid, it changes – it is almost fluid.
This shows once again that design is more like a tool to see things in a certain way or a style to develop things, rather than a profession from the books that is learned as fixed knowledge and applied in the same way from that point time and again. The profession is more like an attitude – or, like Victor Papanek says it: “Design is the conscious and intuitive effort to impose meaningful order”.
The beauty in this is, that even though we might work in completely different fields, all designers are connected through one skill: we have the power to visualize a future that is not there yet.
But that would only be half the job without the will to communicate our solutions to important and beneficial stakeholders, people who will have a better life through it. And not only that, but designers also have more skills that are extremely helpful when it comes to new and wicked problems: creativity, thinking out of the box, have foresight and overview, empathy for and knowledge about users, workers, producers and sellers and so much more.
The icing of the cake is our drive. Design is fueled by passion. We find motivation in “It can’t be done”. Where our knowledge ends, our curiosity blossoms.
And this is the key and the reason for the new direction of our discipline at the same time. Are we aiming a bit high, when we declare ourselves as the problem solvers for today’s societal conflicts and issues? Yes. Are we totally wrong? Probably not. Because design has many aspects which are suitable for the job. Not to forget; designers already have major impact through their work. We are already part of the game. This makes us extremely beneficial for pushing
the discourse. And at the same time designers and design are very good at communicating the issues and solutions understandable and appliable to the affected people.
Design had become an indispensable part of every launched service and product. Designers wished to be included in innovation processes for so long, that we kind of oversee that we are pretty much at the finish line of this request: People finally understood that design is a powerful tool. And we already have a major impact directly through the brands, the designs, the experiences we create! Don’t forget, the brands we create, the striving purposes we visualize and communicate to the world, have major meaning not only in the economical world. People identify with our designs. And will transfer to cultural capital eventually. For example, think of the blue metal NIVEA tin. Designed almost 100 years ago. This tin gives you a feeling of family, home, stability, security, and motherlove. The whole brand profits from the well-chosen design and has its symbolic epiphany in our society today. And because design is now so needed, it has a huge impact on what will be introduced to society, and ergo, what will be changed in global contexts in the future.
What would have happened if we had made that tin sustainable and eco-friendly? What would happen if we consulted brands and clients to make the right societal choices today to ensure that our issues will solve for the better in the future? Our impact goes beyond a good branding design case. If you take a closer look from this perspective right now again, you will recognize that we do design society already. And it’s important to think about that aspect occasionally during your daily work. And simple as that this is the first step on the mission to create society-centered designs. The “meaningful order” which Victor Papanek stated is not only in things, but also in society connections or dependencies.
Frankly speaking there is of course more we must learn and change in our operations. One big difference when it comes to society-centered design versus other design disciplines is, that we need to gather way more expertise about all affected areas before taking design actions and making decisions. We need to know more, globally. Therefore, there cannot be good society-centered design without research, insights, and strategy. Therefore, team up and open your processes to other fields! Society-centered design is teamwork. You do not need to know everything, but you need to start finding out where or whom to ask. If you look back, we as designers always had help, we had the urge to connect to others. That is in fact the smarter and not just the easier way. Moreover, most problems need the teamwork of multiple fields. There is no need to carry that burden alone. But we need to connect the fields, contribute communicate, and lead the discourse.
And yes, that is hard work, and yes, nobody really knows for sure where to start. But that doesn’t mean that we are not the right ones for the job, it’s just the feeling that every early adaptor has once in a while. Strategy is still unclear. We struggle, that’s natural. You are now part of the first “give-it-a-go”es and witnessing more fails than successes. At the moment it seems like something which is really hard to figure out – and is unrewarded (until now) but ogled, too. Urgh! Stupidly, most of the time society-centered design is invisible. But I promise you, it will show eventually. And it will be appreciated and applauded by generations.
Take on the challenge! In the end, most of us want to be someone people will remember, someone who changed something in the world. Why not looking at it like that: You as designers today have now the opportunity to become the formative generation of society-centered design. That sounds exciting, right? Why design one fancy lamp, when you can improve life for thousands of others and be the symbol for positive change?
And different from other fields, this place is not only for one amazing designer. Quiet the reverse! When we look at the world right now, there are plenty of problems out there, which generate plenty of space for many designers. It needs hundreds of qualified well-skilled people, to get to work and to solve some problems.
Let me finish by saying one last thing: I think, the last 10% of our skillset is to accept the unknown. Insecurity is nothing bad, it’s just uncomfortable. In other words, a high tolerance for ambiguity is required to shape something truly new. And maybe it needs to be like this, so we can sense: it is time to demand better for the world. We are not there yet.
You said, you wanted a versatile and exciting job? Well, here we are. Fasten your seatbelts, roll up your sleeves and keep going!