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Design: A New Engine for Society

We're all designers now. This is the first post in design mind on GOOD, a series exploring the power of design by the editors of design mind....

We're all designers now.

This is the first post in design mind on GOOD, a series exploring the power of design by the editors of design mind. New posts every Tuesday and Thursday.

"Design, once narrowly defined as a marginal activity concerned with aesthetic appeal of a limited range of consumer goods, can now be seen to be at the core of all our conceptions and plans for our personal and collective social lives."

–Victor Margolin, author of "The Product Milieu and Social Action"

Our world is now riddled with what C. West Churchman referred to as "wicked problems": issues like climate change, healthcare, and education that are difficult to address because of their complex interdependencies and changing requirements.

Our day-to-day lives are also full of small problems and basic tasks that are becoming increasingly difficult to manage due to frequency and volume. For example, as healthcare moves towards a more consumer-oriented model, people will be asked to electronically track every aspect of their health. Add this to the complexities of managing a Netflix queue or digital photo library, or keeping computer software up to date, and you begin to get the picture. And these are just the simple tasks. We need new strategies for engaging with these complexities.

Whether it's in the creation of a car dashboard, a kidney dialysis machine, a mobile phone app that tells you where the nearest Starbucks is located, or a water filtration system for the developing world, designers are dealing with these problems and challenges on the front lines. This breadth and depth of their problem solving has forced the design industry to adapt to multiple knowledge domains and socio-cultural situations, and it has made designers into highly flexible thinkers. From Henry Dreyfus to Victor Papanek, responsible designers have always tempered their visions with:

• Innovative ways to generate new ideas by shifting people out of their everyday mindsets
• Socially conscious reasoning to see all sides of an issue
• Rigorous modeling, prototyping, and testing of solutions to balance thinking and reasoning

Nigel Cross, a British design professor and the author of Designerly Ways of Knowing, believes everyone is a designer because of the way we interact with the world. For instance, when we buy furniture, the choices we make are based on some plan of action defined by the constraints of space and budget. When we buy food, we consider a wide variety of combinations to complete our diet and satisfy our nutritional needs and sensory desires. Margolin refers to this activity as "combinatorial design." We make these choices without imitating others while achieving new and unique combinations of things, be they food or furniture.

But shopping isn't the only area where we can make design decisions. For example, what is the value of design action in the context of a PTA meeting, or a town hall meeting, or a meeting of the co-op board? In other words, can we harness the methods of successful design to improve the everyday actions of society? I think we can and to new effect.

The potential of design in supporting social and personal action resides in the democratic nature of its process. Design is good for defining a vision and then crafting a plan or roadmap to guide the realization of this vision. Visions with clear paths of implementation provide a beacon for us to collaborate efficiently and optimistically on large projects.

Take healthcare: There is a lot of language, debate, and potential policy thrown around, but few compelling visualizations of what an improved experience could be like. Hearing a list of potential cost savings to the American people read by a politician is not the same as seeing a prototype of a mobile phone app that securely holds all your medical data, or helps you schedule and plan your annual physical, or tells you what your doctor forgot to say during your five-minute office visit. Seeing a solution in action shifts the debate to the world of tangible interactions.

In this blog series we will explore design in the context of social interactions and day-to-day tasks to see how designers make things and the way they engage with the world to do it. Through this exploration I will demonstrate how anyone can see through the lens of a designer and create a vision. The goal will be to provide you with an actionable optimism and a means for understanding and navigating an increasingly complex world and allow you to be an active force in shaping our future.

Jason Severs is a principal designer at frog design and contributor to design mind.

NASA photograph courtesy JSC Gateway to Astronaut Photography of Earth. Snow cover shows the boundaries between built-up (gray) areas versus vegetated and open space (white) within the large city of Beijing (Peking), China. The Forbidden City is visible in image center. Astronaut photograph ISS010-E-18196 was acquired February 18, 2005, with a Kodak 760C digital camera with a 400 mm lens.

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