12th August 2012

The Future of Design

Beck Davis, School of Design, Queensland University of Technology [email protected]

When asked about the future of design, I immediately think of two things. Firstly, I am drawn to the concept of design thinking - the process individuals go through when critically evaluating a situation, place, space or circumstance and reframing it. Design thinking is the critical reframing process. Secondly, my thoughts turn to education and the teaching of design thinking and the late philosopher John Dewey (1910:139), who states:

 “Power in action requires some largeness and imaginativeness of vision. Men must at least have enough interest in thinking for the sake of thinking to escape the limits of routine and custom. Interest in knowledge for the sake of knowledge, in thinking for the sake of the free play of thought, is necessary then to the emancipation of practical life - to make it rich and progressive.”

Attempting to imagine the educational content of a discipline for the future is particularly relevant and challenging in my field of product design. The very nature of the product design discipline has, traditionally, been about projecting futures – reimagining possible future scenarios and designing the products, services and or contexts that make the future a tangible, contemporary reality.

The future of design and in particular the future of product design is something I have considered in my own research and analysis of design activity. This includes looking at how designers collaborate in teams, and respond to particular conditions such as sustainability and universal design. My work is centred less on what designers design and focuses more on better understanding and deconstructing the process of designing. This has led me to undertake a series of design studies. I conducted these with experienced design practitioners and applied a comparative cohort analysis to reveal the design team approaches to co-evolution, and how they define problems and subsequently construct potential solutions.

One of the most interesting findings of my work has been how elements of uncertainty impact a designer’s solution-seeking ability. Specifically, how designers analogise throughout the design process. And, how the introduction of uncertainty stimulates a designer’s ability to extract between-domain analogies. What this essentially means is that embracing uncertainty, rather than focusing on user needs, has the potential to stimulate more ideas early on and can therefore lead to more innovative outcomes for designers.

What is the key to the future of design education?

Is the key to the future of design centred on traditional approaches such as understanding and defining user needs, materials, manufacturing, engineering, ergonomics, experiences or services? – OR – is the future of design based in our education systems and developing our capacity to engage in systems thinking, developing our capacities to learn, and engage, with critical thinking?

While it is important that product designers pertain specific skills and knowledge surrounding such things as materials, manufacture, ergonomics and experiences – when considering the future, it is clear that designers will need additional capabilities. Particularly given the global challenges ahead. Challenges such as global mega trends of our aging population, food shortage, waste and climate change, to name a few. These challenges require new, innovative, and disruptive ways of thinking. In essence, to quote David Wann (1996:5) “No design is an island. Every design is a system that is part of a larger system.”

Furthermore, as an intelligent society we need to acknowledge that much of the technology we need to combat such challenges, or our capacity to access such technology exists, however, what is lacking is a broader understanding of the complexity and uncertainty that surrounds the interconnected nature of these challenges on the global scale.

In this globalised era of unprecedented interconnectivity, design has the opportunity to open up pathways to new alternatives. However, this interconnectivity also brings with it complexity on a scale previously unimagined. Rittle and Webber (1973) highlight complexity as wickedness and identify ‘wicked problems’ as the social connectedness, and the role of systems thinking and the overt complexity this ‘connectedness’ brings with it.

So, how do we design for a world that is operating beyond capacity? How do we design for problems that are wicked and interconnected? What new knowledge, thinking and systems do we need to lead design beyond current thinking and approaches? How can we move forward into a future rich in potentialities?

What is needed is a new, innovative outlook for design education; designers of the future need to be better equipped to deal with the local and global challenges that await them. As such, design education needs to focus on developing the critical capacity for learning and thinking. But what does this mean for design education, and, how might we imagine the future graduate of such programs?

From my perspective design education that centres on thinking mostly on how people use products will only serve to limit our creative and innovative capacities. Design education, therefore, should embrace uncertainty and complexity, and seek to embed this into the design process.

Designers need to understand that in order to generate the disruptive innovations that are needed to combat future global challenges, broader, systemic and complex thinking is required. Designers need to understand that the future is accepting that product design is more than designing tangible artefacts. The act of designing is a process, a systemic, complex process that does not need to result in a quantifiable solution but may in itself generate new questions and or new ways of thinking or doing. Design needs to go beyond traditional mental modes of problem solving for user needs and to do this, design education must advance.  

And on that note, I would like to applaud Griffith for the launch of the new Bachelor of Design Futures. As a participant of the Design, Action, Leadership and the Future HotHouse last year, I witnessed Tony’s ability to bring together seminal design theorists, practitioners, anthropologist and sociologists from around the world - all interested in examining re-directive change to move towards ‘sustainment’. This event served as a catalyst for interdisciplinary engagement and discussion.

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Dewey, J (1910). How we think, D.C. Heath, Boston.
Rittle, HWJ and Webber, MM (1973). 'Dilemmas in a General Theory of Planning', Policy Sciences, vol. 4, pp. 155-169.
Wann, D (1996). Deep design: pathways to a livable future, Island Press, Washington., D.C.