Riding the flux: Opening new doors for design

Kevin McCullagh

If design is a continent and its disciplines tectonic plates, we live in seismic times! As the ground shifts under our feet, we scramble for a clearer view of the emerging landscape. As the world changes, design changes. How should designers best prepare for the inevitable new openings? Where is the unexplored territory? Where will the action be?

When it comes to imagining what the design industry might look like in 10 years’ time, let’s assume that competing on cost and sticking our heads in sand are non-starters. The two remaining options seem either to be very, very good, or to be ahead of the curve in finding new work that employers and clients will pay for. Or preferably to be both!

When I asked the author Virginia Postrel for her observations on the design industry, she reflected that she found ‘designers, as a profession, have a peculiar combination of arrogance and insecurity. One minute, they’re declaring that they have uniquely appropriate skills for every problem, and the next they’re worried that people without the right credentials are using design. As a writer, I find the fear that too many people are practicing design pretty funny. Writers don’t go around complaining that too many kids are getting taught to write and too many people are practicing writing without the proper degrees.’

Just as a crack writer like Postrel is in demand, design supremos will always get good work. However, by definition there can only be a relatively small number of virtuosos in any field, so let’s look at how designers can prepare themselves for a changing world.

Ebb and flow

Before we explore some flux riding strategies, it is worth stepping back to take the long view. Design has always existed in a state of flux, although it has developed through periods of relative stability and rapid change. Take product design: in the twenties early pioneers like Marcel Breuer, Peter Behrens and Walter Gropius in Europe; and Henry Dreyfuss, Norman Bel Geddes and Raymond Loewy in the USA transferred know-how from architecture, theatre set design and window dressing. As the new discipline established itself over the following decades it largely revolved around the creation and specification of mechanical objects. The jolts to the profession between the fifties and nineties were largely provided by new technology. Plastics and other new materials, and manufacturing processes like injection moulding broadened horizons in the fifties and sixties. The incorporation of electronics into products in the seventies and eighties started to challenge the link between form and function. The introduction of CAD in the nineties dramatically affected the way designers worked and communicated. This proved to be only the first of many shifts as design went digital. As more products incorporated electronics, interaction design was founded as an offshoot discipline. This in turn paved the way for many product designers to hitch a ride on the web design boom of the mid-nineties.

The pace of change has not slowed in the noughties, but what makes it more head-spinning is that the changes are less tangible and more multidimensional. How do we make sense of the rise of design strategy, user-centred methods, celebrity designers, design-art, structural packaging and service design? How do we deal with the challenges of the sustainability agenda, off-shoring and the raised expectations of business and government?

The general stance of designers towards this period of instability is one of fear and paranoia. Top of the gloom charts is the opening up of design to global competition. In his bestseller ‘The world is flat’ the globalization booster Thomas L. Friedman quotes a vivid Microsoft maxim on the number of geniuses in China: ‘Remember, in China if you are one in a million, there are 1,300 others just like you.’ The economic side of this equation was underlined for me a few years ago when a Shanghai-based designer paid me the backhanded compliment, ‘Your work is very good, but we do nearly as good for a tenth of the price!’

Globalization has reduced the number of manufacturers to relatively few behemoths, and multiplied the amounts of designers pitching for jobs. The era of product design as practiced by a small band of gurus in Milan, London, Munich and New York is long gone. There are now thousands of competent product designers around the world able to ‘give good form’. Design as ‘styling’ or ‘form-giving’ has become commoditized; and competing at this level is already a tough low-margin slog.

While those hide-bound by the past batten down the hatches, the wise remember that change throws up opportunities as well as challenges.

If we shed the blinkers and see the world differently there are many positive shifts, like the mainstreaming of design in business and the public sector, which offer glimpses of a chance to drastically expand the frontiers of design. A good place to start is by taking a wider view of our know-how.

Hidden assets

A big mistake designers make when evaluating their career options is to focus too narrowly on their most obvious and tangible craft skills, such as sketching, software skills or styling abilities. Widening their focus to include more indefinable cognitive talents can broaden horizons.

For example here are four intangible assets that good designers share:

1. Interpretation

Many designers are multi-lingual in different fields; many are fluent in consumer trends, marketing, manufacturing, and technology – corporate polyglots if you will. This familiarity with functions across the organization and the ability to translate and make connections between them is a much-underrated talent.

2. Tangibility

Many firms are plagued by articulate and persuasive ‘smart talkers’ who sound good in meetings, but get bogged down in abstract complexities. Whether it be by capturing a thought in a meeting with a sketch or quickly lashing together a physical or digital mock-up, designers are good at ‘making it real’.

3. Synthesis

Not only do designers specialize in being generalists, they tend to be good at making new connections, pulling together threads from different fields and integrating them into a new whole. These latter day renaissance men and women are in demand by strategy departments, who prize the ability to tackle complex problems through synthesis and expert assumptions.

4. Resolution

Some of the smartest execs get bogged down in the messy process of implementation. Good designers are smart at turning knowledge into action – they solve problems, resolve tensions, draw tangible and practical conclusions, and hit deadlines. Designers live by real world constraints. As Charles Eames put it, ‘Design depends largely on constraints’ and good design often means ‘the best you can do between now and Tuesday’!

It should be noted that these assets come into sharper focus within the context of cross-functional teams.

Flux riding strategies

Game changers map out future opportunities by exploring the interplay between their current know-how and potential new applications for it in a changing world. Here are a few habits of design’s trailblazers:

1. Adopt an agile perspective

Groundbreakers have an ability to see the world as it actually is and how it could be. They scan the horizon for defining moments and get busy.

An inspiring example of such discipline-busting ambition can be found in Anomaly, the three-year-old NYC communications agency, which was founded on the observation that the traditional Ad agency model was heading south. It has grown to 80+ staff by breaking many of the old creative and technology boundaries. For example it approached PayPal, the electronic payment company that is owned by eBay, asking if it had considered enabling consumer transactions by mobile phone. It had, but didn’t know how to make it work. Anomaly, with its rare mix of talent and audacity, helped PayPal to launch its ‘Text to buy’ service in 2006, allowing consumers to buy items like DVDs and shoes by simply sending a short code by text message. Having generated the service concept, developed the enabling software and set-up the server facility to process the orders, Anomaly now takes a cut of every purchase. That is what I call thinking differently.

2. Spot gaps

Another approach is to look out for disconnects and schisms. Bill Moggeridge helped found Interaction design after being shocked by the primitive interface on the first laptop that he had designed.

In a much smaller way, the most interesting work we do at Plan could be described as ‘problem framing’, and answering questions like ‘how do we make sense of this?’ and ‘what should be done?’

3. Make new connections

In his book the ‘Medici Effect’, Frans Johansson encourages innovators to ‘live in the Intersection’ where different ideas, concepts and cultures meet. ‘The Intersection represents a place that drastically increases the chances for unusual combinations to occur’.

For instance, animators at Pixar take acting lessons. Steve Jobs, game changer No.1 and then CEO of Pixar, explained why in its first annual report:

‘[increased processing power] frees our animators from drawing so that they can concentrating on acting, breathing life into their characters as they move. This allows Pixar to hire animators who may or may not excel at drawing, but are brilliant actors. Our animators even take acting lessons’.

How do you go about making new connections? Quit navel gazing for one – break out of your network of work and college mates, meet new types of people and discover new perspectives. Now you’ve got ‘Wii elbow’, drop it and learn something really new.

I for one like to hire folks with a broad range of interests and who have switched fields at least once. Just as learning a foreign language gives you the confidence and knowledge to learns others; switching fields gives people the assurance and tools to tackle new problems.

4. Teach yourself

Definers of new fields are often self-taught and have a broad range of knowledge. Charles Darwin once said: ‘I considered that all that I have learned of any value to be self-taught’. Thomas Edison was a voracious reader, and Steve Jobs and Bill Gates both dropped out of college to experiment with new ideas in the real world. The application of knowledge begets new knowledge.

On reflecting on the lessons he has learned over the years, Tom Dixon, who taught himself how to design and make; learned about quality by working with Italian furniture manufacturers; understood logistics as design director of Habitat; and now, as part-owner of Artek, is focused on redesigning business models.

Expand the industry

‘There is no one future waiting to happen’, as Gary Hamel once put it, ‘the future is something you create, not something that happens to you’. If we can shake off our static mindset, the seismic shifts taking place could offer a chance to grow the design industry so that there is plenty of room for us and the Chinese.

First, globalization is not a zero-sum game, while some traditional jobs will wither or get off-shored, many new ones will emerge. Just as they did in the UK in the nineties when more service jobs were created than industrial jobs were lost.

Second, we have the know-how to contribute far beyond traditional ‘designer’ roles. On top of this, the popularity of design has drawn a wider range of talent into the industry over the past decade. We need to build on this not only by innovating how we do what we do, but also by boldly branching out through old disciplinary boundaries and defining high-value new ones. Design will have to go through some growing pains and learn some new lessons to get there; but new times demand new know-how.

Finally, and most crucially, we need leaders who can seize the moment, define the new roles and make them happen. This will require the skills that are in short supply: entrepreneurship, the art of persuasion and the telling of new stories that will breathe life into these new openings.

The future is up for grabs and the big prizes will fall to the early pioneers. The trick is to spend less time thinking about what we do now, and more time on what is changing out there in the world and what we could do about it.


Kevin founded Plan in 2004. Before this, he was a director at product design consultancy…

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