When most of us think of the word "design" -- if we think of it at all -- we imagine eccentric fashion, or expensive plastic toasters, or shiny new cars. That's because America has long celebrated objects. We're a culture that, for nearly a century, has enjoyed the convenience and status of owning things. Our economy has been driven by the production of things, our government measures progress based on the average cost of things, and things give us a visceral and obvious measure of success.
But our world has changed, and things no longer represent a strong measure of success or target for our efforts. From a business perspective, producing things is largely a march towards "commodity hell," where competitive offshore manufacturing massively undercuts profit. From a cultural perspective, we seem to be collectively demanding more from small and large brands -- asking for connectedness, personal experiences and emotional value. And from an engineering perspective, technology has crept into every nook and cranny of our world, producing a constant sense of the unexpected and a nagging feeling of unpredictability.
This triangulation of technological advancement, the "experience economy," and the offshoring of manufacturing has recast the word "design," and positioned design as a fundamental discipline for managing the complexity of the future. Simply, designers humanize technology. Designers are trained to embrace chaos and complexity, to hold multiple and often competing ideas in their heads at one time, to be flexible and nimble in the face of changing constraints, and most importantly, to visualize concepts, systems and services that don't yet exist. Designers tell stories about how the future ought to be.
This is a discipline that's basking in unprecedented glory within technology circles. GM's introduction of 1500 tech experts in Austin is heavily focused on simplifying -- humanizing -- their software applications. General Electric has embraced design as a core part of their global initiative to connect people and machines in meaningful ways. Startups in the valley recognize that design is the perfect force for driving digital product and business strategy, and the respective funders of these startups recognize that design both identifies latent needs and helps shape value. The constant refrain is that design is a scarce resource: designers are like unicorns -- nearly impossible to find.
But there's a subtle irony to this perceived scarcity. While design in practice has shifted from being about things to being about value, empathy and storytelling, our gross perception of design hasn't shifted with it. For our magazines and television shows still describe designers as visual magicians and celebrate them as rock stars, emphasizing their creative output as highly stylized things. This serves to isolate design, to position it as an exclusive career that's for only the small talented few who were lucky enough to be born with innate skills.
And nothing could be further from the truth. For many of us -- perhaps even all of us -- are born with the abilities to empathize and tell stories, to dream of futures that don't exist and to visualize new ideas. It is only against a constant drumbeat of STEM-focused primary education do we learn to embrace only the rational, to focus only on analytical thinking, to ignore and temper emotion, and to reduce problems to root causes -- to seek explicit causality, rather than broad ambiguity.
Employers are demanding a workforce that can engage with complicated, ill-formed problems. Executives want individual contributors that can embrace volatility and unpredictability, while crafting narratives of the future. Brands are realizing success when they try to empathize with -- rather than understand -- their customers. This -- not the production of beautiful things -- is what designers do best, and it is the value they bring to organizations. Producing stunning creative output it only a tiny part of what it means to be a designer, yet aesthetics continue to be the only part that we herald as valuable. But it's these other skills -- empathizing, systems thinking, storytelling -- that describe a successful career in design.
The educational paradigm in the U.S. prepares masses of students for well-contained, well-defined, logical problem solving and systematically teaches students to ignore lateral, illogical or emotional thoughts and feelings. Yet it's precisely these thoughts and feelings that are now in-demand by the Fortune 500 and global 2000, under the guise of "design" or "design thinking." While design is a job, it's also a way of thinking about the world. There now exists an opportunity for the American workforce to embrace design as a broad form of liberal-art. We need to move beyond a celebration of things, and recognize the power of systems, emotions and stories.
Jon Kolko is Vice President of Design at MyEdu, and the Founder and Director of Austin Center for Design. His work focuses on bringing the power of design to social enterprises, with an emphasis on entrepreneurship and large-scale industry disruption. Jon's most recent book Wicked Problems: Problems Worth Solving, is available for free here.
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