Can Design Solve Everything?

Design Forum Talks: Design, Value and Meaning
Valkoinen Sali 28.11.2018

In late November 2018, I attended a seminar organized by Design Forum Finland, which, once again, discussed design and its overarching possibilities in solving complex problems in business, innovation and life in general. Many interesting keynotes were expected, such as Berlin-based phi360 consultant Arndt Pechstein’s “Hybrid Thinking” as well as cases such HEI School, which has successfully combined design and pedagogy. Yet, some very familiar topics and aspects were presented in the agenda: e.g. “Human-centric Design and Value”, “Designing Impact” and “Design Methods Supporting Social Innovation”.

Ville Tikka, the Strategic Director at Wevolve, described how the society has evolved from the 1950’s to 1980’s modern society to the post-modern society (1980’s-2000’s) and further to post-contemporary society (2010’s and onwards). In modern society, it was viewed that the world functioned like a machine and the “truth” could be found. Design was about designing products. In the post-modern society, the knowledge was critically questioned, and the world was viewed as socially constructed and where design created services. Whereas now, from the 2010’s onwards, the post-contemporary society is being viewed as a complex system of systems where design creates platforms.

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This complexity, as we know, makes planning extremely difficult and constitutes new challenges to overcome. As the problems are more complex and wicked, new ways of solving them are needed. As witnessed in this event, today, it is even more common to argue that design can solve many of these problems.

Many brilliant services and solutions embracing human needs and building on empathy were presented, and human-centric approach in designing services was emphasized.

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One of the most inspiring ones was the case of HEI Schools, a pedagogic concept which brings the Finnish preschool system to the whole world. An exiting example of what designing is capable of when practiced carefully and when it is guided by a clear vision and based on in-depth knowledge.

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Pechstein’s keynote about “Hybrid Thinking” was an extremely interesting way of seeing business design of the 21stcentury. It is described as “a combination of the four most powerful approaches of innovation and change management”: Agile/Design Thinking, Biomimicry, Neuroscience and Circular Design and Platform Business Modeling. Basically, Hybrid Thinking puts together different elements of thinking and doing, and intuition is embraced  to achieve trust, loyalty, and emotions. Biomimicry utilizes the power of evolution by mimicking nature in designing solutions. This was something new and interesting, I recommend watching his keynote on Youtube.

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While design as an approach to solve complex problems in people’s lives was presented from many different viewpoints and through various small or large-scale service or business solutions, the big questions were existent and discussed by many of the speakers. It was stated that “design should be everywhere” and that “design should be part of each and every work place, not just a separate department in an organization”. “Design affects everything what is done and how is it done” and that “systemic thinking should come actionable”. “Creativity is in all of us and it should be nurtured”, “and that “human being is the creative, innovator and visionary not only professional designers”. It was also suggested that “we should come out of the concept of design” because “that is also one silo”.

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My question is, how is this achieved? How can we extend design approach throughout our organizations and even stretch it to the level of strategy and leadership? How can we make everyone a visionary, innovator and creative, even those who do not have a slightest idea of design thinking or service design?

These questions are relevant in order to one day reach these declamatory visions, while the ordinary worker still seems quite small and unaware of these great plans and possibilities design hold. Even our managers and leaders have not all assimilated the idea of design as an enabler, let alone to conduct business.

Recently, it has been academically argued that the hype surrounding the concept of design thinking has resulted in a need to understand its core essence. It also has been argued that the concept is vague and that the effectiveness of the approach is unclear. (e.g. Hassi & Laakso 2011, Johansson & Woodilla 2010) Two separate discourses on the topic of design thinking have been identified: the “design discourse” and the “management discourse” the first having a history of about 50 years focusing on the cognitive  aspects of designing (“the way designers think as they work”) and the latter appearing around the change of the millennium which regards design thinking as “an overarching method for innovation and creating value” and focuses on the need to improve managers’ design thinking skill for better business success. (Hassi & Laakso 2011, 2) It is also argued, that the management discourse lacks empirical evidence on the usefulness of design thinking and that it’s not linked to a theoretical base. (Hassi & Laakso 2011)

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As service design students, it may be useful to acknowledge this ongoing academic debate around the concept of design thinking (if not familiar yet) and about the lack of academic evidence on the effectiveness of design thinking. This debate came into my mind when going back to these pleasant and declarative visions of design (thinking) taking over in every organization and in society heard in Design Forum Talks event.

To conclude, we do not know if design can solve every wicked problem in this everchanging world. Furthermore, there is a long way of making an ordinary manager a design thinker, innovator and visionary. However, design (thinking) indeed has the characteristics and capabilities built in to have the potential in drastically changing the course of thinking and doing things in the society – also in doing business.

All the keynotes can be watch on the Design Forum Finland website.

Laura Saksala

References

Hassi, L. & Laakso, M. 2011. Conceptions of Design Thinking in The Design and Management Discourses. Open Questions and Possible Directions for Research. Conference Paper. Proceedings of IASDR2011, the 4thWorld Conference on Design Research, 31 October – 4 November, Delft, the Netherlands.

Johansson, U. & Woodilla, J. 2010. How to avoid throwing the baby out with the bath water: An ironic perspective on design thinking, strategy, and innovation. 8thEuropean Academy of Design Conference: April 1-3, 2009, Lisbon, Portugal.

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