Design - debunking myths part 2

The world needs more designers.

Stick with us for this 4 minutes read to learn why.

In our last blog post we talked about creativity and some flawed assumptions that are associated with it. In this post we will debunk myths around design and start off with the same exercise as last time.

Close your eyes and see what comes to your mind when you read the following word:

design.

The majority of people would think of how something looks like. They would think of colours and forms of (web) products or some unnaturally modern looking objects created by designers.

Those thoughts and understandings are in best case limited but we even dare to say they are wrong. (We know: again the blog post's title image was very misleading). 

What is design?

Let’s start with the following proposition: design is problem solving. Therefore given any problem, challenge or opportunity, as designers (y)our job is to find a solution to that situation.

 

We were very much inspired by Mike Monteiro’s Medium post on that topic. He describes design as the process we undertake to solve a problem: “Design is how we communicate what an object does, or its function, through its shape or form”.

So the shape and form are only the medium that transport the message of the function; the object’s goal if you want. His baseball mitt example is quite striking and illustrative.  In this case designers (probably) thought about how on earth would you be able to catch a leather ball that leaves the bat at around 170 km/h safely (that is they thought about how to lower the chances of dropping it or hurting your hand). Their approach becomes very obvious when you see a baseball mitt. Regardless the colour or any other elements usually considered as design, the object’s goal becomes quite clear ones you hold the mitt in your hands and hear about the job you need to complete with it (your job is to catch a fast and potentially hurtful ball).

As advocates of human-centred design approaches we sometimes sum up design with the following two words: understand and act. Let us elaborate on the understand bit shortly because we feel that this part is often ignored.

The importance to understand

So solving a problem or challenge or shaping an opportunity implies that there is room for improvement for someone (or something). As we see it, that again demands that you understand the problem or opportunity at hand. You have to deeply get what problem you try to overcome and for whom.

There is a dogged quote associated with Henry Ford that way too often undermines (y)our job and responsibility as a designer. As the saying goes, Ford forgoes to ask his customers what they want as they would have merely responded with little innovative more of the same approaches (faster horses).

Even if Ford said that (which is very much doubted), Ford would have been asking the wrong questions and making the wrong assumptions. Because in that case, what his customers might really have wanted, was getting form point A to B faster, NOT necessarily with a horse. He might have found out along the way that it’s also about comfort and safety or cleanness or even environmental friendliness. As this entry by Erik Flowers points out very nicely Ford actually wasn’t thinking about our transportation questions but rather was solving a cost and efficiency question of his production facilities.

Here is a short story on how deep understanding can influence things to the better: Last year we have been in school classrooms quite often and applied a simple design (thinking) challenge: create the perfect chair. The aim was to build a chair that is considered perfect. For legs, something to sit on and a back, right? Before we let the kids design the chairs, we introduced five characters for which this chair should have been imagined (e.g. old person, baby or sporty person, …) and spent some time to talk about their needs. By first understanding what the needs of the assumed characters were, the prototyped chairs took on very different shapes and forms. They served a specific need and solved a certain problem or offered some other value. After just three hours, the kids understood that designing a chair wasn't about the form but the function.

 

Steve Jobs said it best. „Design is a funny word. Some people think design means how it looks. But, of course, if you dig deeper, it‘s how it really works. You have to grok what it is all about.“ We hope that this quote is true but even if not, the message in it is.

Conclusion

Put it straight forward: we need more designers. We need more people that feel comfortable with solving complex problems. We need to foster a mindset that embraces challenges and opportunities. Understanding the challenge's context, the people involved and their needs should come first and not undermined by a self-pleasing „I know it better“ attitude. For that to happen we need tools and approaches. We need space (not necessarily physical) and support.

All of us can decide to be more like a designer, that is to solve problems and come up with meaningful solutions. Some can even positively impact that more people become creative problem solvers (e.g. company CEOs, schools, universities, …).

Being a designer is not merely a profession in our view. You can acquire several skills and apply a certain mindset that helps you in understanding and acting upon a problem or opportunity. The earlier we teach our kids to apply a designer’s mind- and skillset, the better we are equipped for all the challenges that we face.

Our goal

Our goal is to share design-based skills with people in our community. Be it in schools, companies, community workouts or OpenIDEO meetups. If we manage to inspire more people of all age to behave more like designers, we believe that more impactful things can and will happen. Reach out to us if you want to support us in our quest or simply want to chat about design.

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