“What can design do?”

In a meeting last week, I said I wanted to try to involve some other designers in a project, but just got a blank look and the question “what can design do?” — designers can’t really help with the actual making of the product, they meant. Ugh. It’s true: Silicon Valley-type engineers and other very smart people have put designers to shame by creating products and services that no one imagined but that many can’t live without, and for which “design” (the role, as it is commonly understood) is just not critical.

Rather than working within people’s existing needs and expectations (the traditional approach of practical-minded designers), the work of engineers has changed people’s habits, thinking, and behavior. Designers are relegated to optimizing a use-case, working out the complexities, or putting a nice shiny coat of varnish on top (and rounding the corners). This approach, and the “undesigned” look of Google, Craigslist, MySpace, etc. has led people to talk about design more as marketing (and to be avoided) than as part of the product. The real work is in the engineering design, and invention happens there first.

I’ve tried the fancy idea of using “design thinking” as a way of making product decisions, to be more strategic (and less production-oriented). It works for IDEO, but not so well for me — it feels more like business development than inventing. Heroically, Bruce Nussbaum has tried to save us all by equating design and innovation, as the secret sauce that will enable the West to compete with China, etc., but I don’t think it’s gonna stick.

Ok, I’m starting to finally get it: this may be a time when the myriad possibilties of creating new-to-the-planet things means engineering (exploring the deeper design of systems). But I am not ready to give up all the fun to engineers! I would rather undergo some wrenching adjustments to what it means to “design” and be relevant again. I want to be able to say that ‘design creates new things to make people happy,’ not ‘design makes it look pretty or more usable.’

Like an architect would, I am going to have to know a lot more of what an engineer does, and be able to work directly with a good part of the code if I really want to play in the deep end of the pool. I am going to start designing in code, maybe bullshit, arty code, but code nonetheless. This is a little rough and later in life than I would have liked, but what the fuck, bring it on!

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