Bringing to bear a legacy of perspective on the transformations of contemporary design practice

By | July 19, 2021

Thanks to Tricia Wang’s recent article in Fast Company magazine on the unhealthy legacy of a strategy tool from ‘design thinking’, I read her links to Jesse James Garrett’s reflections on the developments in the practice of UX and Maggie Gram’s tracing the history of design thinking and the increasing capacity of design to its roots. That is, three different articles from practitioners that look at the legacy of their industry and its recent evolutions. I am forced to conclude that something has significantly changed in the practice of design in the past decade since I stopped documenting my observations on the transformations occurring in industry and practice.

Wang and Garrett both point to UX Theatre by spydergrrl (2018), a clear sighted observation on the watering down of principles and values that underlie the concept of holistic understanding of context and conditions and criteria for effecting transformative change even as the terms and concepts of User Centered Design (UCD) and UX become more popular. Gram talks about her design students remaining optimistic about their future, thanks to the very same popularization of design, even as we know her article will go on to damn the very source of this popularization.

Synthesizing these three articles, it seems to me that at some point in the past ten years, design’s visions for the future and its values and principles of human-centeredness – centering the dignity and respect that Buchanan talks about in his 2001 reflection in Design Issues – were either degraded significantly by the diffusion of design into every sphere or hijacked and subverted into meaninglessness. Neither of these two outcomes preclude the existence of each other as a reason. When design came to recognized as a powerful toolkit for addressing challenges in complex societal systems is probably also when it came to be recognized as requiring diffusion and degradation of its values and principles before it subverted the status quo preferred by the funders and financiers. It could not be allowed to go too far in disrupting systems.

Second, it seems as though UCD has reached the end of its line as a methodology and approach. Garrett writes:

The more seasoned and experienced a UX person is, the more likely they are to be asking whether realizing user-centered values is even possible under capitalism. These are definitely questions worth asking and conversations worth having as a community.

while Wang observes:

Part of the issue is that as design professionalized over the last decade into UX design within tech companies and beyond, user insights representing the voice of the customer  have not evolved to become a strategic input. Many companies outsource the user insights work to agencies (or what is internally referred to as “vendors”) because they either don’t have the resources to execute research or it’s seen as rote work. Product and engineering often treat UX insights as an activity to check off their list, not as a strategically foundational asset for the product roadmap.

Somewhere, the practice and outcomes of design, in the course of their popularization, became commodified. An Australian visual designer makes this explicit in her observations from the way ‘design’ evolved in South East Asia in the same past decade:

In the past decade, design processes have been dramatically productionised. Design services and what they produced became commodities. In other words, Design is a service and design deliverables are commodities.

Productionized or professionalized, the outcome is commodification of a service whose very function and nature was to differentiate commodities from brands or products – keeping distinctions of design practice from my youth of visual communication or product development – and where every design studio or designer strived to ensure that what they offered was a means to resist commodification of their client’s offerings. In my day, product designers made tangible products, today the label refers to digital products, and such designers have no qualms about calling themselves product designers doing product design without ever giving tangible form to its function, much less thinking about CMF. I might be talking from an even older and more obsolete point of view than young Garrett, given that I remember Schauer’s interview for his master’s degree, much less documented the emergence of his contemporaries in Core77, around the same time that Gram points to as the opening of the door of popular design thinking.

Without rambling on about the old days, I’ll try to simply capture the biggest change in the past ten years – the dominance of digitalization as the sphere for the practice of design, its implications for accelerated watering down of the values and principles traditionally taught in formal design education, since many of the designers in this sphere do not need such education anymore – a trend I first saw in May 2005, on my first blog Perspective, in a post titled “Changing Landscape of Design“.

I mention trends observed in early 2005 that point to both the commodification of design as well as the increasing dominance of technology oriented design practice and practitioners – back then, I called it UI since Garrett’s eventual popularization of the term UX was still underway. I observed in a note to myself dated 26th February 2005 that the transformations taking place in design were spearheaded by the digital designers, who tended not to have emerged from the traditional design disciplines nor necessarily educated in formal design methodology, legacy, and history.

That 16 years later, these very same pioneers in the digital design sphere would reflect on the increasing commodification and watering down of design’s principles and values in the practice and dissemination of design thinking is not only a validation of the original observations made on future trajectory of the industry and the practice of the discipline, but has implications for the education of designers in academia.

My recent forays into the literature of design scholarship raise questions about divergence in practice and industry as well as geography beyond the scope of this blogpost rapidly written this morning in order to capture the early sense of something greater than simply transformations in areas of practice distinguishing approaches to the possibility of a more philosophical divergence in underlying values and principles with more impactful implications on society and futures.

This conversation will continue.

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