It’s interesting to see how design as a discipline has been evolving over the last decade and a bit. 16 years ago, when I started my design engineering course at Delft University of Technology as a bespectacled youngster, there was a strong emphasis on designing physical products for mass manufacturing. During my time at the university it became clear that the role of design was changing. New master courses were established: Design for Interaction and Strategic Product Design, which focused on the two directions in which design was developing at the time; optimising the user experience and using design as a strategic influencer. Taking a look at the present, these topics couldn’t have been more spot on.
A few months ago I attended the Design Management Institute conference in Amsterdam. In presentations, panel discussions and chats over coffee I was struck by the mix of positivism and caution. Yes, design has now a seat at the table which is great, but how will design as a discipline handle this responsibility? Design is no longer the cocky designer, the black-rimmed bespectacled artist that crafts a vision alone in his studio – design is now integrated across different business units, it’s being held accountable, it has to show impact on the bottom line, design has to show a healthy Return On Investment. Design is now much more involved in all aspects of business, adding value to user experiences, making services relevant and easy to use through Service Design and showing business executives via Design Thinking how a focus on understanding the user can create new, exciting propositions.
At the DMI conference many influential design managers from various industries shared their views and experiences. What would not have been possible 16 years ago happened: a designer (with black rimmed glasses!) with a track record at major design shops was enthusiastically talking about his current role at a big management consultancy. He explained that skills and values designers find important, like empathy, a user and usage focus, visual communication and a strong vision to provide guidance throughout complex developments, are now seen by the big consultancies and their clients as paramount for success. This value is also shown by the many acquisitions of design firms by larger consultancies and corporations, like Fjord by Accenture and Adaptive Path by Capital One, a US bank. Also, design agencies understand that perhaps the biggest impact can be delivered by being more involved with their clients, even up to the point of becoming part of them, like the Adaptive Path example.
In my current role as a consultant within Cambridge Consultants I often collaborate with consumer and market researchers and product and industrial designers, being involved from initial insight discovery all the way up to detailed concept design. In our approach to concept development (watch the movie on this page to find out more) we use a process phase called Translate in which we immerse creatives and engineers in the consumer or stakeholder context and start shaping ideas for new experiences or propositions. The above mentioned ‘designer’ skills are important in being able to conceptualise novel and exciting experiences, and to support and drive their development in a commercial environment.
In almost every project aiming to create such novel experiences I believe that certain things are needed to make this happen:
A sound basis
Without a good understanding of the proposed user’s behaviour and its context, concept generation will not be able to produce relevant and resonating concepts. Also, understanding the commercial and market environment is crucial to be able to produce viable concepts that fit the business strategy. The above insights need to be ‘discovered’ and will be the foundation on which we can start building ideas.
A large part of being a designer is bringing to life the intangible or invisible. Taking something that’s just a seed of a preferred future state and being able to craft this into a vision that is understood, excited and will provide clarity moving forward. The vision will need to include clear statements about what benefits or experiences we want to provide to whom. And this goes beyond analysing existing situations, opportunities or needs. Great visions are showing a better future, not just selecting an existing one.
Creative technical solutions
To create breakthrough concepts it is important to go beyond the obvious and use the experience and expertise of both commercial and technical experts. This is about pushing ideas to the boundaries of what’s physically possible, but having the assurance that this can be realised; much smarter and efficient than just dreaming up blue sky options!
Having been involved in a large variety of concept generation workshops and projects, it is clear to me that there is a role for ‘design’, far beyond the confines of a typical product design studio. And maybe things have not really changed that much. 16 years ago, my professor was a balding man in a black t-shirt with the typical designer glasses, sharing his strong aesthetic vision with confidence. He clearly had business and consumer understanding as he knew that by ensuring people would love to use the product there would be a good return on investment for the manufacturer. Not so dissimilar of what we are trying to achieve today…
Tomorrow I will ditch the contact lenses and put my black rimmed designer glasses on – 20:20 design vision guaranteed!