Seismic Shock: Approaching the old practice of design from the new perspective of today

By | June 26, 2021

The wrenching shift in my perspective from the outcomes of a project to its process – forced by circumstances of scholarship less than three weeks ago – has kept me preoccupied with reams of paper. I can sense the difference in slowly reading through printed out versions of selected journal articles, annotating their margins and underlining, in the old ways of scholarship, than the perceptually faster scanning that occurs with text on screens.

On the upside, I believe I have managed to reorient my thinking towards the processes rather than the content. This is key to my transition from practitioner of design and innovation motivated research in the informal economy to academic scholar pursuing a doctoral degree.

On the downside, given my decades of work experience accrued at age 55, I can see the evolution of my own professional practice reflected in the literature as and when it attempts to document the transformations that have taken place in the practice of design, particularly over the past 15 years or so. In a recent paper, I felt the jolt of recognition from the observer’s perspective at mentions made of key projects and papers that were transforming design practice (see Sanders and Stappers, 2008). Did I not blog that project for Core77? Didn’t I mention this in my own blog? Was I not there experiencing all these innovations and transformations and changes?

A critical inflection point for the expansion and transformation of design practice can be said to have begun around the turn of the century (Bhan, 2004) when designers began to reposition themselves as partners, rather than vendors, to industry (Portigal and Bhan, 2005 November) in response to the changing landscape of manufacturing, outsourcing, and industrial design practice (Bhan, 2005 March).

CK Prahalad  (Prahalad and Ramaswamy, 2002; 2004a; 2004b; Prahalad and Krishnan, 2008) is credited with introducing the concept of co-creation in the corporate context. His publications together with collaborators have been consistently cited in the literature wherever the roles of the user and the designer have been explored in new ways (Dell’Era and Landoni, 2014), as well as approaches that support co-creation in different arenas such as co-design (Tseng and Piller, 2003; Sanders and Stappers, 2008; Russo-Spena and Mele, 2012), participatory design (Holmlid, 2009; Björgvinsson, Ehn, & Hillgren, 2010; 2012) and service design (Forlizzi and Zimmerman, 2013; Miettinen and Valtonen, 2014).

Now, two decades later, I believe that the practice of design is again changing and expanding in ways that have their roots in the transformations that took place in the recent past, but influenced greatly by changes in the landscape of users themselves. Literature until now has considered the transformation of design practice from the perspective of design processes, that is from the point of view of the designer and the design researcher (though, as Sanders has said, when she first mapped the changing landscape of design research (Sanders, 2007), that these roles too are undergoing changes) rather than the users themselves.

What has been the impact of the advent of increasing democratization of design and innovation on the users themselves – that is, on everyday people who are not trained in design?

Campbell (2017) calls people who design without formal design training “lay designers”, so as to relocate the locus of power and asymmetry of information (which Prahalad himself calls the root of poverty). This shift can be most clearly seen in the healthcare sector – first noted by Sanders herself (Sanders and Stappers, 2008) where early adopters of design and innovation methods, formerly the purview of professionals, through initial projects in co-creation and co-design have led to the proliferation of literature in the healthcare field that reference design methods and techniques and processes, without necessarily involving a practicing designer in the process.

As a professional industry watcher of long standing (Bhan, Core77 2004-2010; Portigal and Bhan, 2005) I have myself observed the diffusion of innovation methods in the guise of human centered design toolkits and handbooks spread from practitioners to institutions (Campbell, 2013) and then thereafter become commonplace in the indigenous startup ecosystems dotting the African continent. Concepts and approaches which were barely recognized when I first stepped foot on the continent (Out of Africa, Samsung, 2008 with Experientia) are now accessible via digital platforms for formal and informal learning.

I can see the changes in the literature when I search for design related keywords – publications from a far wider variety of journals and disciplines show up than what used to be the case when I was studying at the Institute of Design at the turn of the century (circa 2003). On one hand, the debate goes that formal design education and professional practice imbues designers with advanced skills in making and doing. On the other, the trend towards facilitating the multidisciplinary nature of creativity in higher education and business (Design Council and Hefce, 2007) is one that I’ve been part and parcel of from the early days (see Bhan, 2004; 2005).

As every good reflective practitioner (Schon, 1983) knows, there are moments in time when one must pause to reflect on the massive changes that one is experiencing while immersed in the process, in order to step outside of the changes and observe them with some subjective measure of objectivity. The year after the systemic shock of the global pandemic was experienced by everyone living around the entire world (more or less) is one such moment.



Björgvinsson, E., Ehn, P., & Hillgren, P. A. (2010, November). Participatory design and” democratizing innovation”. In Proceedings of the 11th Biennial participatory design conference (pp. 41-50).

Björgvinsson, E., Ehn, P., & Hillgren, P. A. (2012). Agonistic participatory design: working with marginalised social movements. CoDesign, 8(2-3), 127-144.

Campbell, A. D. (2013). Designing for Development in Africa: A Critical Exploration of Literature and Case Studies from the Disciplines of Industrial Design and Development Studies. In Proceedings of the Gaborone International Design Conference (GIDEC).

Campbell, A. D. (2017). Lay designers: Grassroots innovation for appropriate change. Design Issues, 33(1), 30-47.

Dell’Era, C., & Landoni, P. (2014). Living Lab: A methodology between user‐centred design and participatory design. Creativity and Innovation Management, 23(2), 137-154.

Forlizzi, J., & Zimmerman, J. (2013, August). Promoting service design as a core practice in interaction design. In Proceedings of the 5th International Congress of International Association of Societies of Design Research-IASDR (Vol. 13).

Holmlid, S. (2009, September). Participative; co-operative; emancipatory: From participatory design to service design. In Conference Proceedings ServDes. 2009; DeThinking Service; ReThinking Design; Oslo Norway 24-26 November 2009 (No. 059, pp. 105-118). Linköping University Electronic Press.

Miettinen, S., & Valtonen, A. (2014). Service design methods in event design. In Event Design (pp. 41-52). Routledge.

Prahalad, C. K., & Ramaswamy, V. (2004). Co-creation experiences: The next practice in value creation. Journal of interactive marketing, 18(3), 5-14.

Sanders, E. B. N., & Stappers, P. J. (2008). Co-creation and the new landscapes of design. Co-design, 4(1), 5-18.

Russo‐Spena, T., & Mele, C. (2012). “Five Co‐s” in innovating: a practice‐based view. Journal of Service Management.

Tseng, M. M., & Piller, F. T. (2003). The customer centric enterprise. In The customer centric enterprise (pp. 3-16). Springer, Berlin, Heidelberg.

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