Design Thinkers vs. Design Keepers
Over the years, our society has constructed a “designer” paradigm where design is embodied and idealized – even romanticized – within an individual. This idealization was created in part from cultural values, craftsmanship, and traditional media practices. I entered the design field in the mid 90’s drinking the “individualism cool-aid” found in popular design culture, believing design to be a “black box” of mystery: stuff goes in… stuff happens… and design comes out. Most designers (including myself) perpetuate the myth that design needs no explanation – “my title, my education, and my experience (portfolio) are qualifiers of my role.”
Up until the end of the last century, our culture endowed design (the verb) upon the individual (designer). This view rose from the long-established craft of design. Like most craftsman, designers internalized their skills and processes, learning from peers and the available tools specific to their craft. The need to explain their craft to others was unnecessary – much of their knowledge was contained within the trade, becoming tacit and intangible. Design-service industries, like advertising, further reinforced design as a mysterious process by explaining design to society (and their clients) as a “creative” act. Design conferences popped up, design literature appeared, and those people who could explain to you the difference between a sans-serif font and a black-letter font became popular. Even today the discourse found in design communities and education supports design values of self-creation and authorship, focusing on the individual as the “keeper of creativity”.
The problem with this view of design – is that it inhibits innovation and fuels society’s excuse that non-designers can’t create. We need to rethink what designing means, and consider separating the embodied values from the people we call “designers”. A good designer doesn’t keep his processes under lock-and-key. A good designer has transparent rationale, design language, and accountability for design decisions. He/she invites others to participate in the creative process. This designer mediates expectations and risks from stakeholders. A good designer has empathy for others and teaches participants to think like him. Organizations that wish to be innovative need more design thinkers, not design keepers.
We live in a time when change is continuous and swift, and it takes all people within an organization to create and communicate. Sure there will be people who are needed to understand accounting and finance. Sure there will be people who are privy to marketing trends. Sure there will be a need for a few visual designers to understand visual communication – but all are needed to understand what it takes to mediate risks associated with the act of creation. Creativity isn’t owned by a specific person or role. Creativity is found in the rationale and processes of creation. These processes create a language of understanding within an organization which all people can understand and participate in.
Imagine a department within an organization where anyone can walk through the doors and present an idea. Within this department idea contributors feel “safe”. There is no one who tells another person their idea sucks. There are just transparent processes and organizational “languages” that help people communicate. People who interact with this department become critics of their own ideas. Participants understand the constraints associated with available resources and production methods. Understanding begins to disseminate and all within an organization become connoisseurs of “ideas”. Organizations, not individuals, begin to hold knowledge. Cultures form around creativity. Everyone begins to design – when we start believing that designing isn’t something owned by designers.