On the Evolution of Design


April, 2018

What follows is a triangulation and summary of observation from my many years of practicing, managing, some teaching and paying attention to the wider professional conversations at large.

Those conversations include what professionals and practitioners have been saying and writing as well as what the business analysts and mass media are saying and writing. The topic of countless articles, podcasts and a handful of books, the public discourse seems to be amping-up. To me this is particularly evident in the level of interest and inquiry happening at the inaugural Brainstorm Design conference and Singapore Design Week this week.

To provide some reference and context, it feels appropriate that I be transparent about my own background and therefore my lens. My observation has been that your background and training greatly affect your perspective of Design and maybe no two people are alike. More on this as you read on.

My earliest formal training is that of an Industrial Designer. As an undergraduate Industrial Design student in the ‘80s, I was taught that in order to design, I needed to understand many dimensions of the world around me and at the same time consider the order of the universe (Causality and Metaphysics). I was going to be designing for people and my choices would have philosophical implications.  This was a direct reflection of the ancestors of the curriculum - the Ulm School of Design (Hochschule fur Gestaultung Ulm) and its philosophy and structure which integrated subjects like sociology, psychology, economics, philosophy and system thinking with aesthetics and technology.

We started learning Design Fundamentals of color theory, line, form, proportion, space and the other elements that would combine to visualize and communicate your design point-of-view. Nearly every undergraduate design assignment started with an investigation into people’s lives and a study of some elements of society. Most often we would consider the trends of culture & aesthetics, social & economics, practical and physiological - and then synthesize, frame and model our observations. Then we would sketch and iterate models from low-fidelity (cardboard and foam core) to high-fidelity and we always had to dictate what it would “look like” and how it would function (or “work-like”).

If your proposed product was missing a parting line (or) melted when turned on (or) was sticky from fresh paint or glue, then it was likely to be stepped on and kicked around or hacked to pieces by a cantankerous professor. I later realized that the focus on shoddy execution was the cause and effect of a mediocre idea – perhaps one that lacked character, distinction, progress, attention to detail or clever simplicity. I believe that the message was that this idea is not good enough to ever be seen by people outside of the room. I chalked it up to “Tough Design Love, German style” and it made a lasting impression and drove us to be smarter, cleverer, more creative.



The Evolving Definitions of Design

The definition of Design is changing as new technologies emerge, new business models disrupt the old and businesses seek better ways to connect with their customers – which leads to higher revenues, increased margins and better quarterly performance when done right. The field may appear to be fragmenting, but as always, some common threads remain. Most importantly, the value is realized and continues to increase. These are some of the most popular definitions being discussed at universities, in publications and public forums today:

Traditional / Classical Design: the creation of physical objects (Industrial / Furniture) and visual communication (Graphic) for a particular audience. Applying skills related to color, form, texture, space, ergonomics and anthropometrics.

Human-Centered / Commercial Design: driven by how consumers interact with a product or service. About accomplishing tasks and how interaction with the product makes them “feel”. Applying skills related to Design Research, Interaction Design, Human Factors and more.

Computational / Analytic Design: Understanding consumer-generated data of usage to better serve the needs of consumers. Some might refer to it as data-driven design. Logic design has been applied to the data flows, inputs and outputs of a system, product or service. This should also include the design of Machine Learning. These professionals exercise skills of programming, logic and structure definition, data modeling, software architecture and analysis methods and tools.

(Emotional) System Design: I use these terms in the context of product and service system design as companies realize that services in combination with products provide higher profits and customer loyalty than products alone. Starting with an understand of what people want, need and expect from our products and services and how they will potentially fit into their lives and could potentially enhance their selves. Successful emotional system design goes beyond ease-of-use and usefulness, to connect with customers on a deeper more personal and visceral level. These Designers strive to create products, services and systems that become symbolic and have reflective meaning in their customer’s lives.

Experimental / Emergent Design:  Mostly born in the digital world where software developers believed in the process of delivering pieces of functional code (or functionality) and let the product or service design emerge from audience use or interaction. When combined with a human-centered philosophy, customers are engaged in co-discovery and collaborative design techniques to progress ideas from concepts to viable market solutions. Solutions are discovered and evolve versus being predefined.

Use Experience Design: Perhaps the most widely used and also the most loosely defined (or varied in definition) of the bunch, it is the process of scripting or designing an intended experience with a product, service or system. It is the intentional design of a person’s perceptions and responses from the use or anticipated use of a product, service or system. This process also often focusses on increasing user satisfaction with a product or service by improving the accessibility, usability, usefulness and desirability (or pleasure) of interaction with a product or service. Evolved from human-computer interaction, it is now often used in a broader brand specific physical and digital integrated product and service design context.

So, I could feel the overlaps and synergies of these descriptions and definitions as I wrote them. And the one that might be missing (depending on your lens) may be Service Design. I also have to use a few descriptors for each as they are not yet known by a single word along. That said, most mass media writers will pick a single word for alliteration, but do not confuse that with clarity of definition.


User Experience & Customer Experience

Should we separate the User Experience (UX – resulting from interaction with products, services and systems that a company makes) from the Customer Experience (CX – or how a customer perceives their interaction with your entire company)? Many corporations have this split right down the middle, between product development as the home of UX, and Marketing & Sales as the home of CX. It’s a convenient organizational evolution, but one that artificially splits the experience of their customers with the Brand. It is one Brand and one Customer – and the brand is product and the brand is the culmination of every related experience through the history of their relationship.

Some like me, decided that this was a harmful division that needed to be erased, so we coined team names and complimentary processes like “Experience Design” and “Experience Strategy” and “Experience Planning.” This worked to a limited extent depending on the type of company that you were in, its maturity on these topics and its organizational structure. Consulting companies that did not have competing groups embraced this thinking.

“Design Thinking” has become the business acceptable moniker for much of this discussion, while traditionally trained practicing designers prefer “Design Doing”. Let’s continue to contemplate and discuss these differences and intersections and not fall into a trap of too much “Design Talking”. It is widely accepted in the business world today that Facebook, Snapchat, Uber, Alibaba, Airbnb and others have redefined traditional market spaces, invented a few new ones and changed human behavior. At the same time, there is a heightened desire to use design as the spark of Disruption, Exploration, to remove Boundaries and challenge Regulators and discover and define what is next.


Your Background Colors Your Lens (of definition and practice)

Context matters. I have also come to realize that those of us with formal design training (and say at least 7-years of practicing) view this future through a different lens than those that have come to User Experience via a path of Marketing, Economics, Analytics or Library Sciences. And then their perspective of User Experience also differs from those that studied Psychology, Sociology, Anthropology or the Performance Arts. That said, the similarities of definition and practice are greater than the differences, but the differences do exist.

Consistently though, “hybrid” or “double or triple threat” individuals have always been the ones most sought after. I remember this comment from the '90s, “We look for Designers that can look broad across a problem or space and go dive deep into a problem area or the details. We call them “T-shaped” individuals”. See Karel Vredenburg's description for more detail. In the past, I have also referred to them as folks with a “major” (interest) and a “minor” (hobby). For me personally again early in my formal training, that was literally a major in Industrial Design and a minor in Philosophy – and then later formal studies and on the job training in Psychology, Anthropology, Branding, Engineering, Business and Digital Design.


Some Persistent Tenets

Fundamentally, the idea of “designing for the human first” or at the service of the customer is a grounding principle that is here to stay. As is an iterative design and development process that involves multiple disciplines of diverse professionals working together. The priorities and what it is called – Agile and bug free, Lean and efficient, Design Thinking and driven by consumer understanding or something else. The belief in the need for consumer understanding of what people Think (cognition), how people Feel (emotion), what people Do (behavior) is also considered paramount to success.  We will most likely continue to immerse, form, evaluate and repeat. And maybe Experience Design should only be used in the context of the activities of a multi-disciplinary team doing human-centered, iterative product, service and system development?

The design of new products, services and systems are now employing parts and pieces of all of these types of design. Business consultants work intertwined with Design professionals and business schools are the new Design schools and vice-versa.  Personally, I am looking forward to the day that a global Design or UX firm buys a global business consultancy or IT firm to “round-out” its people, process and offerings.


The Slow Shift of Human Senses & Perception

We as humans only have our senses to use to experience the world – and they are becoming “augmented”. Some would say that our selves are becoming better together via code, algorithms and digital machines. But for most, maybe the verdict is still out.

It is hard to argue with the fact that these technologies are Not now affecting where our attention is spent, what we do, how we feel and how we interact with others. They are affecting who we are as individuals, families, communities and as a species. And yet we are conscious of the fact that everything is designed and it remains up to future Designers to articulate and chart this future course.

The future of Design is the future of the interactive dialogue and trust that a person has with a product, service or system. It is Design to illicit an intentional human experience whether that is the satisfactory completion of a task, the learning of a new skill or the creation of new friendship.


Product, Service & Emotional Systems Design Consulting & Collaboration - for the Automotive & Mobility industries