Design’s future is a global perspective and an inclusive mindset

By | January 23, 2015

Matthew Milan’s thoughtful piece reflecting on the turmoil engulfing the design industry is definitely worth reading. There’s been a lot published on the topic ever since Adaptive Path was bought out by Capital One, a bank. Most of it has been either hand wringing over the death knell of the independent design industry, or rebuttals on the future of the agency model. Matt’s piece makes us think about future of design itself, both as a practice as well as a discipline.

A caveat here is that the design being referred to in most of the articles is broadly related to technology – software, user interfaces, websites, interaction, user experience, applications and possibly, all things smartphones. Wholly new areas of practice that have emerged in our lifetimes, and for some of us, since the days we were in design school.

This is what makes this conversation so interesting. In the past decade since I started pondering and writing about trends in the global design industry, the patterns once seen as weak signals of an emerging future are now showing up quite clearly.

“If you don’t know where you are coming from, you don’t know where you are going.” ~ African Proverb

A look back at what was said in 2006

Dirk Knemeyer, who calls himself a social futurist, set the tone for conversations on both Design Futures and Design Globalization. Keep in mind this was written by him back in July 2006!

Over the last few years, conversations here in the U.S. about the future of digital product design typically have an undertone of fear because of the perception that India and – especially– China are presenting a critical long-term threat to U.S. business and design hegemony.

One of the typical threads in this conversation is a belief that, while the lower value and more production-oriented jobs might be in danger, the more creative and higher thinking jobs remain safe. That is an incredibly shortsighted – not to mention condescending – view. The reality is that emerging markets such as China, India, Eastern Europe and others represent a broad and total future for our industry. The long-standing dominance enjoyed here in the United States is going to diffuse and result in far more global balance. Ultimately that is a good thing, even though we might expect the standard of living for average, middle class families here to suffer a bit in the years ahead. Obviously that is the result of myriad factors, only one of which is the impact of emerging centers of digital product design leadership. ~ Dirk Knemeyer Design Futures 2006

And a few months later,

While the offshoring of jobs from the U.S. continues to get most of the press, the reality and impact of globalization is so much more nuanced and complex. At the most basic level, globalization is:

  • Creating a dramatically larger knowledge workforce
  • Creating a culturally and geographically diverse knowledge workforce
  • Creating new, emerging consumer markets
  • Extending the capitalist paradigm into heretofore “underdeveloped” cultures
  • Creating new cross-culture complexity (and opportunities) for expansion-minded companies and products
  • Creating myriad new companies, originating in new cultures and with different mindsets, vision and strategies

And this is just for starters. But what I hope this list clearly communicates is the real breadth and impact of globalization: for designers, business, culture, governments – everyone in the developed or developing world. ~ Dirk Knemeyer, Design Globalization 2006

Where are we at in 2015?

Back then we were just entering the age of the internetworked society, barely scraping the surface of its global reach and scale. Social media had not been transformed into the Facebooks and Twitters of today; blogging was the way to go if you wanted to connect and communicate.

Digital product design had not yet met the iPhone. And sending an SMS from your Nokia would only get you so far, in Africa, in Asia and the rest of the erstwhile developing world.

“If you want to understand what society is becoming and why it’s becoming that way, look at how people communicate. Look at their technology.” ~ McLuhan’s spirit

Today, as social networks like Facebook claim a user base counted in billions, we have the globalization Dirk foresaw. Applications and utilities designed in Boston, Toronto and Palo Alto are in use by netizens in Ghana, in Brazil, in Papua New Guinea. Design’s reach, and thus, the power to shape and influence, has never been so vast nor so ubiquitous.

“When an entire design industry follows a single mindset, commoditization quickly sets in.” ~ Matthew Milan

Yet the industry and its conversations seem to imply a self perception that feels parochial and inbred. The very same technology that the design industry had a hand in creating has now placed them in the global spotlight. As originators and creators of the future that is now, their ideas and concepts are followed by lakhs of emerging designers from app studios in Lagos and Nairobi to enterprise developers in Bangalore, not to mention the OS tweakers in Shenzen and Seoul.

 “To design is to communicate clearly by whatever means you can control or master.” ~ Milton Glaser

The future of design and globalization is now

But nowhere in these conversations about the “future of design” is the acknowledgement that a far more global and diverse audience of practitioners is emerging, who must now use these very same methods and tools to develop solutions for their own local context and operating environment. Instead, when the noobs seek to learn through the eons old practice of following the hand of the master, they’re mocked and shamed for imitation.

And nowhere do I see any acknowledgement of the challenges of designing apps and solutions for the frontier markets, nor any new methods or tools or processes to help emergent designers create for their own context. Experience is clutched tightly and conversations are held in huddles.

“What is design? It’s where you stand with a foot in two worlds – the world of technology and the world of people and human purposes – and you try to bring the two together.” ~ Mitchell Kapor

Matthew points out that design will compete on mindset. I wrote recently on the value creator’s mindset, one that doesn’t think its a zero sum game. There is an irony inherent in the manner of an industry whose life work is in the craft of creating delightful human experience while communicating, connecting and collaborating across timezones and geographies. The so called sharing economy means that a taxi driver in Nairobi is using your Uber app.

You can’t compete on a platform of cooperation.

“Eventually everything connects – people, ideas, objects. The quality of the connections is the key to quality per se.” ~ Charles Eames

And its distribution has never been faster, cheaper and easier than getting online to Facebook.  China has just opened a Bauhaus Museum. The products of Indian design schools are writing these words you read. There is greater value in shifting the mindset of design to be open to the external influences and new perspectives the industry claims to offer their clients.

Design has a future, its global and inclusive

Your future success depends on it.

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