What role for designers? Should we still call this design? Join us for an open discussion.


Hi everyone,

We are organising an open discussion for the broad design community & Design & Critical Thinking members to make sense together of this more and more (if not already very) relevant topic (more details below).

🔥 Join us on Friday 22nd October at 6 PM CET / 12 PM ET / 9 AM PT 👇

What, if anything, can design bring to the solving of complex problems?
Fri, Oct 22, 2021, 6:00 PM: This is an open discussion for the community, based on a response to a Fast Company article (https://bit.ly/3lz8E9C) and a LinkedIn response thread (https://bit.ly/2YN59UA)

What, if anything, can design bring to the solving of complex problems? What role for designers? Should we still call this design?

The discussion is based on a response to a Fast Company’s article and a LinkedIn response thread to which there are two main characters of note: Don Norman and Charles L Mauro.

On the one hand, Don Norman argues for a change to design education, as few designers “are equipped to work in these problem spaces.” He follows by stating that “a combination of a deep understanding of people, technology, world history, and business are all required.” Given that design “training” is moving away from proper degrees into a more atomized skills-based model (learn UX design in 4 weeks), there is no question that design education, already unequipped to provide a more complete liberal arts education, is moving further from being able to provide the deep pan-disciplinary understanding required to equip designers to solve complex problems.

On the other hand, Charles Mauro suggests “DESIGN as a professional discipline will have almost no positive impact on actual complex problem resolution without a major rethink of where DESIGN expertise actually fits in the problem space.” And that fit, as Mr Mauro sees it, is in effect that designers “are there to solve intuitive and comparatively simple problems using unstructured and mostly intuitive methods. In the process things actually (mostly) end up looking better visually.” to which he adds: “Sorry, that is your role.”

In the end, we have two ominously similar views:

  • Norman: Designers are of no use in the solving of complex problems until education improves;
  • Mauro: Designers are of no use in the solving of complex problems and should just stick to making things pretty.

To summarize they agree: currently (most, if not all) designers are of no use in the solving of complex problems.

Exploring the tension through definitions

To begin to even address this I think it’s helpful if we define “design” temporarily between two poles. We won’t necessarily agree on the axes, or where on the axis we should be, but hopefully, we can avoid going too deep into that and simply allow this to frame our discussion.

A narrow definition

If on the one hand, we define design narrowly, in the context of disciplines such as graphic design, user experience design, service design or interface design, then we define design at the level of execution (as opposed to strategy). While this compartmentalizes designers in a potentially unrealistic way what it allows (even given the current state of design education) is that we can expect some level of expertise if someone is trained in a given design discipline.

There is a clarity in that role, for example someone might say “I am a graphic designer”, which provides a fairly clear idea of where their competency lies or the kinds of tasks they undertake and are compensated for day to day. It does however miss the fact that there is arguably a meta-knowledge to design, a way of thinking that spans the different disciplines and give designers common skills and mental models.

A wider definition

If on the other hand, we take a wide approach where, to quote Herbert Simon, “to design is to devise courses of action aimed at changing existing situations into preferred ones.” then anyone who devises such a course of action might be considered to be a designer. This wider definition is equally problematic as it allows for the possibility that “anyone” is a designer, which is a troubling position. I have a guitar, I can play a bit, but I am not a musician. Equally not everyone who “designs” by the definition above should be considered “a designer”. There is a fuzzy line that brings us so very close to the death of expertise.

Design lives without a framework of formal qualifications, and suffers for it. However proper qualifications mean little: there are bad designers with many qualifications, and good designers with fewer. Not to mention that we can debate whether there is objectively good and bad design and/or how one might classify it.

So either pole is problematic in and of itself. The first seems to more closely fit Mr Mauro’s position, the second more closely aligns to Mr Norman’s.

Some questions for consideration (or not…):

Is there a misplaced conceit in the design world about the role and usefulness of designers in addressing complex problems?

If we think there is a role for designers in solving complex problems from which pole are we better to approach the question?

  1. Do we establish the idea of a specific type of design discipline? For example do we need to create the role of “Strategic Designer” focused on systematic design particularly as applied to complex (social, political) processes. What does that education look like?
  2. Should we promote one or more design meta-skills (such as systems thinking) within design education that is/are not discipline-based, which form the basis of all design education regardless of discipline? Or should design be taught as a generalist liberal arts education with discipline-based skills being learned elsewhere, say through apprenticeship or short courses?

If a designer gains the knowledge that Norman is referring to and makes it into the boardroom are they still a designer, or are they instead an engineer or executive with a design background?

  1. Should we be looking to design schools to be the place that we go to get that knowledge?
  2. If not taught in design school where are they acquired?

What current skills, knowledge set, mental models or processes that designers have are useful in the solving of complex problems?

  1. What do we bring that engineers and pseudo-scientists don’t?

Interested in the topic? Not sure what it means to you? Join us to make sense of it together.

Design is what we all make it to be. Don’t be shy and join the conversation.

What, if anything, can design bring to the solving of complex problems?
Fri, Oct 22, 2021, 6:00 PM: This is an open discussion for the community, based on a response to a Fast Company article (https://bit.ly/3lz8E9C) and a LinkedIn response thread (https://bit.ly/2YN59UA)

Huge thanks to Marc Baumgartner for the introduction (original document here), for his role in supporting this discussion, and for his commitment to the Design & Critical Thinking community 🙌

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