14 May 2021
Expanding the scopes
Designers, whose job once used to boil down to passive roles of creators of our everyday realities, have now found themselves in the position of change agents who bring forward new perspectives to the organisation and implement processes that allow for translating them into useful solutions. Design thinking, service design and many other methods, despite all the criticism regarding over-reliance on these processes, paved the way for the so-called soft thinking in the corporate context, the ability to empathise and adopt a perspective other than the purely financial one, which – in the course of the global economy transition from the capitalist model into the circular one – becomes both critical and morally right.
The cult of information
The role of a designer is evolving dynamically, along with our perception of designing as such. This thematic area sees an incessant expansion of its bounds due to the fact that analytical thinking and translating it into solutions is becoming indispensable in the world where the amount of information, an ever-increasing information overload, is incommensurate with the methods available and possibilities of its processing. Already in 1986, Theodore Roszak in ‘The Cult of Information’ indicated that our minds do not think in information, but rather in ideas. In order to answer the question how the actual role of a designer and their role in processes and organisations will evolve, one must focus on the particular skills of designers in terms of generating ideas, adapting them to suit new purposes and replacing them with new ones the moment we feel the current models of operating in the world and doing business have become exhausted. Synthesizing information, integrating patterns and putting them into a hypothesis, even when there is insufficient or too much data, and having the courage to give up one idea for another are unique competences that artificial intelligence cannot replace. Just as AI allows the generalization and segregation of data, only people have the unique ability to create ideas that are not purely information-based. Master ideas, as Roszak called them, like the one that ‘all people are equal’ are at the root of our culture. It takes courage to design the future on their basis. The era of fluid reality and uncertain future forces change agents to work on new areas and competences. What exactly?
A designer at the time of uncertainty
I am writing this text at the moment of the coronavirus pandemic. This moment is a perfect summary of the times we happen to live in and designers have to work in. The fear and panic that we currently observe and will be facing more and more often are spreading and making the leaders take ill-considered decisions. Companies – just like people – are based on limbic systems and fear spreads virally in them. It is impossible to foresee with accuracy the state of our industry in several or over a dozen months and it is indeed a perfect moment to change the approach from foreseeing to preparing, with a designer at the very heart of things – making use of both tools and skills in order to work out the best possible solutions. The shift of focus from forecasting the future to designing its most desirable version puts its creators in a new position.
Considering the role of a designer for the new times, I would like to make a reference to a car driver driving the vehicle on a slippery surface. While losing control of the vehicle, we instinctively hit the brakes hard. It is the information from the limbic system dealing with the situation of uncertainty and obscuring logical thinking. The rational mind, in turn, would prompt us to stay calm in such circumstances and let the car slide over the surface while we gently steer. Slowing down, we can assess the situation and take proper action, think about the future while anchoring in the present.
Skills for the new times
In order to navigate in uncertain conditions, the present and future drivers should learn how to steer such a car. Starting off from the position of an architect – a co-creator of the future able to moderate the dialogue between representatives of various fields and see the contribution of the output of one sector to another. The important role of an architect will encompass the ability to shape the vision of the future which we are committed to implement and design the entire system allowing it to thrive. The very process of thinking not in terms of tools solving selected problems but embracing a system of links will require the change agents to demonstrate a whole new skillset comprising, among others:
- critical thinking – relying on logic and reasoning in order to identify the strengths and weaknesses of alternative solutions, conclusions or approaches to problems;
- active learning – constantly galvanising oneself into understanding the impact of new information on the present and future problem solving and decision making;
- solving complex problems – identifying complex problems and analysing related information in order to work out and assess the options and implement the solutions;
- inductive and deductive reasoning – on the one hand, the ability to combine information in order to formulate general rules and conclusions, including finding links between seemingly unrelated events, while on the other hand the ability to apply the rules adopted for the purpose of addressing specific problems;
- radical thinking – opening possibilities when others refused to see them and the courage to confront the well-established truths;
- expanding the scope of cognition – the last and possibly the most important issue which I would like to pinpoint as one of key significance is the ability to expand the scope of rational, scientific cognition and combining the areas of human experience hitherto artificially separated. Science, using its own methods to determine the truth, has no tools to set social goals that were once dictated by religion, ideology or culture, and today we can observe how it fails to prove effective in the face of the most important human issues. That is why a loving attitude is so important today, not just logic, in line with the writings of the Argentinean Colectivo Situaciones on the approach to producing knowledge and solutions. These, in turn, translate directly into the values of actions and strategies.
Design can – and I hope will – be a tool to transform the new foundations of design based on sensitivity and tenderness into concrete solutions and directly influence the way we interact and operate in the world.