Designers in the New Economy
While it may seem obvious to many, traditional economic structures are being upended and a new economy has emerged: top-down hierarchies have transformed into distributive ownership, centralized manufacturing to distributed production, intellectual property to open access, and the list continues. “New Economies” is an ambiguous, ever-evolving, catch-all term, for the emergent economic structures of our time– a term that can be defined differently by individual actors and will surely continue to evolve with time. However, whether it’s post-capitalism, Raworth’s definition of Doughnut Economies, or Jeremy Heiman’s definition of New Power Values, it is clear that many seek to elucidate the current economic structures in contemporary society with their own set of definitions and values.
Another interesting dimension of the contention in defining our new economy is the coexistence of both traditional and innovative economic structures and institutions; while the former still exist (and even thrive), they are increasingly being surpassed by their more innovative counterparts. In the paragraphs that follow I will argue that designers and creative professionals must be empathic participatory designers, systems thinkers and, perhaps most contested of all, generalist, in order to succeed in this new era of industry.
Creative professionals of the new economy must be highly skilled in emotional intelligence and practices of empathy in order to ‘design with’ instead of ‘designing for’. In the days of traditional design where ignorance was bliss, the designer was the ultimate mastermind, the expert. Their motivations were driven by aesthetics or a desire to problem solve, or “fix,” but with little awareness around the user. Enter participatory and user-centric design, and with it, a change in that mentality (thankfully). Through participatory design techniques like workshops and design-lead research, successful design has become more about co-creating with the user throughout the entire design process. A salient example of this shift can be seen in Design as Participation by Kevin Slavin; here, the author even moves a step beyond the concept of “designing with,” and suggests that the very act of design submerges a designer in the processes they are designing for, thus rendering themselves de-facto ‘users’. Slavin continues to argue that designers must engage in the complex adaptive systems in the world to reveal that designers, users, and everyone else, are all a part of these decentralized systems. Or perhaps more plainly, designers ultimately need to be systems thinkers, not designers.
It is no longer enough to create in a vacuum; we are designing, creating and living on the edge of consequence. With large scale forces like globalization, resource scarcity, and a pending climate collapse abound, anything someone creates — whether it be a product, a service, a policy — has a ripple effect far beyond its initial intended touchpoint. Designers need to be keenly aware of that impact and act as the ultimate system thinkers to address potential negative outcomes. Taking a queue from Meadows, designers should always be visualizing the artefacts they create in systems maps and asking themselves what kind of stock they’re feeding and how they are or aren’t supporting feedback loops. Of course, to affect the most change, they should be looking at ways in which they can transcend systems paradigms. The most effective way to think about these systems is through visualization and mapping tools; I argue these tools and methods should be second nature to the designers of the new economies. From traditional stock and flow diagrams, to service design maps, wardley maps, and theory of change diagrams, to name a few, flexible creative professionals are armed with a vast tool kit to zoom-in & zoom-out, and abstract and distill their creations.
While in the economies of yore generalists were disregarded as unwise, the system-wide view generalism supports is an asset in the creative pursuits of the new economies. Due to the continual emergence of ever-increasing systems complexity, it is no longer enough to be an expert in one field. The graphic designer can no longer live solely in their realm, as much as the architect and industrial designer can no longer live solely in theirs. IDEO, a leading, and arguably one of the the most well known, design consultancies is a perfect example of the positive impact generalism can make. IDEO started as a traditional industrial design and engineering firm focusing on consumer products in the 1990’s (designing the first apple mouse), then focused more on consumer experiences in the early 2000’s (arguably service design), and today, it mainly focuses on organizational design and management. Additionally the types of positions IDEO, and related firms employ are increasingly becoming more interdisciplinary and more design generalist, rather than traditional siloed positions.
While the economic structures of today are sure to continue to change and adapt to the emergent characteristics of the day, empathy, systems thinking and generalism will afford creative professionals continued relevance and success. Designers can no longer afford to look at themselves in isolation- in their role, nor in their output — and must be prepared to design with urgency, respect and awareness in these complex times. In the end, designers need to be less concerned with the product they’re creating and more with the systems with which they’re interacting.
EPSC, European Political Strategy Centre, director. YouTube. YouTube, YouTube, 19 Jan. 2017, www.youtube.com/watch?v=YrKNBRHrR_w.
Meadows, Donella H., and Diana Wright. Thinking in Systems: a Primer. Chelsea Green Publishing, 2015.
Raworth, Kate. Doughnut Economics: Seven Ways to Think like a 21st-Century Economist. Random House Business Books, 2018.
Slavin, Kevin. “Design as Participation.” Journal of Design and Science, 24 Feb. 2016, jods.mitpress.mit.edu/pub/design-as-participation.