“You need to have a ‘Swiss Army knife’ education and way of thinking because the design fields are changing.”


What does the future of the design profession hold? According to three judges of this year’s Innovation by Design Awards, it will involve an inevitably multidisciplinary approach, understanding what effect design actually has, accepting responsibility for failure, and continually learning to move forward.

At the Fast Company Innovation Festival, Co.Design‘s editor in chief Suzanne LaBarre led a conversation with Khoi Vinh, principal designer at Adobe; Doreen Lorenzo, director of the Center for Integrated design at University of Texas-Austin; and Justin Garrett Moore, executive director of the N.Y.C. Public Design Commission, about the state of design and where it’s headed next.

[Photo: Celine Grouard]

“The biggest thing to note is design [today] is much more impactful and the consequences of designs are greater, whether it’s how we interact through social media or how we design for the sharing economy,” Vinh says. “All these things are making material impacts on the world in a way that design didn’t do 20 years ago.”While designing physical objects–like the Nike Pro Hijab, 3D-printed Adidas sneakers, Dyson hair dryer, which were among the 13 Innovation by Design Award winners and were on display during the panel–still presents a challenge, some of the most urgent, emerging issues today are ripe for the expertise of designers. Take the work of Nate Matias–a recent PhD graduate from the MIT Media Lab who received the inaugural Linda Tischler award, an annual commendation named in honor of Co.Design‘s late founder and longtime Fast Company editor. For his thesis, Matias developed an online moderation tool that helps stop the spread of fake news.

[Photo: Celine Grouard]

Designers Finally Have A Seat At The Table–Use It

The definition of design is shifting–and so too is the role of designers. “Twenty years ago the only people who cared about design were designers,” Lorenzo says. “I remember feeling like the person that wasn’t allowed in. You had to stay outside. You had to work with companies, but they wouldn’t talk about it–it was like working with a shrink. The fact that design is part of the conversation, it’s embedded in all the things we’ve talked about and it has a place is enormous. We’ve come far. It’s great strides. We’ve just gotta be sure the next wave continues to show the value it brings to society.”

[Photo: Celine Grouard]

The next frontier for design will involve areas that aren’t immediately thought of as natural territory for designers: artificial intelligence, engineering, and government.“We often talk about having a seat at a table, but it’s a seat at the kids’ table,” Vinh says. “Really a lot of the problems we talk about with the products and services we’re dealing with today—Facebook’s ad policy, Twitter’s ads, or ride sharing—we generally talk about those as engineering problems or business problems or strategy problems. That’s where the ‘grown-ups’ do the thinking. We don’t think about [the problems] enough [from the perspective of] insufficient user advocacy through design.”

Vinh believes that designers have an opportunity to step up and address issues that don’t immediately seem like design problems. “Designers are very willing to take credit for things that go right, but when things go wrong—like in the 2016 election—designers are nowhere to be found,” he says. “There’s a real level we need to break through in how we discuss design, how we think about design, how we examine design, and how we accept responsibility for what we do, good or bad.”

[Photo: Celine Grouard]

Be A Swiss Army Knife

Essential to rising to this challenge is redefining who designers are. “We have greater design literacy, but where we have a long way to go is who is designing and who is involved in this conversation,” Moore says. “It is very far from where it has to be in terms of gender, race, and other demographics. Design thinking—the vocabulary, the art, and the practice—is still not completely reconciled with the world we live in. The ethics of design have a long way to go.”

In the past, designers followed tracks of study–architecture, graphic design, planning, etc.–but these silos will have to be demolished, Moore argues. “Design fields are shifting and moving toward interdisciplinary approaches to design, so there’s really a need for getting out of the traditional silos of architects, graphic designers, technologists, planners,” he says. “It’s a response to the world and it’s a response to the trajectories of people. You need to have a ‘Swiss Army knife’ education and way of thinking because the design fields are changing. I call myself an urban designer, but what that meant 20 years ago is totally different. When I tell people I’m an urban designer, they think it’s hip-hop fashion.”

[Photo: Celine Grouard]

Learn To Keep Learning

Lorenzo agrees. She’s currently developing UT Austin’s design education program and emphasizes that having a genuine curiosity about how the world works is a natural path to interdisciplinary thinking. “You’re in the design world because you are curious and you’re interested in learning,” she says. “This whole concept of failure, I think, is the worst thing. Fail fast? No, learn! You should be in constant learning mode all the time. As a designer you have to stay current, you have to stay involved, you have to stay on top of things. [The world is] always going to change. Businesses are doing the same thing and the ones that do survive. There’s an evolution that constantly happens to stay relevant.”

The only constant–in the landscape of design itself, in what designers need to know, and with the problems they’re faced with–is change. Yet there are still a few constants from the past that will inform the future of the profession, according to Vinh. “Through every phase of design, the designers that rise to the top are the ones who are able to write, articulate their thinking and ideas, weave a narrative, and communicate their ideas in a really compelling way,” Vinh says.

Meanwhile, there’s a distinctly 21st-century condition that is poised to determine what design is most relevant in the future. “But today, you have to work really hard to get as many followers as you can,” Vinh says. “We’ve entered a stage where everything is marketing, to some extent, and you have to sell to and build an audience of people, for better or for worse.”

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