Design isn’t important — and neither is your business
As a Swedish designer it is likely that some of the global brands I work with will make cars — which I don’t drive, I drive motorcycles — or adult diapers — which I don’t have a need for — or maybe they create beautiful luxury products I can’t afford or I just can’t ever imagine having the items in my own home.
Empathy towards needs is sadly underrated even though it is referred to in so much design writing. As a field, design gives us the ability to shape things from a position of knowledge, or at least with perspective, often gained through empathy. Further, without understanding context, the user, the goals of the producer and so on, we are blindly shaping something that perhaps serves no purpose other than to fulfill the (expensive) creative fancy of an otherwise downtrodden business department. At worst, it turns out as a nightmarish representation of a business model that is totally opaque for the user, with no meaningful value for him/her. Frankly, the user doesn’t give a shit about your business model if your business model isn’t the service or product that they explicitly buy, like AirBnB. But who are you kidding — you’re not AirBnB right?
Set the user first or go out of business. Full stop.
Those services I personally use, and whose work is clearly design-driven — like Klarna and Spotify — are innovators in their respective fields. Their fields, banking and music streaming, have strong momentum via the digital service economy. What they do gives me immense value and are certainly no products of board room design jams.
Yet one doesn’t have to be a Web 3.0 business to take advantage of this ongoing development. Even Volvo, makers of what is fast becoming an obsolete product (at least in terms of current forms of consumtion), see how their current users can gain something new from services like in-car delivery. They even try to innovate in car rentals and leasing to test markets that would otherwise get increasingly smaller for their primary product. They do this by enabling access through means and communication that makes sense to someone like me — a non-Volvo, non-car person — who wouldn’t normally consider their products or service.
Design from a holistic and experiential, contextual perspective is what it takes to be up-to-date. Not modern, not futuristic, not super-innovative — just plain being in the game and trying to figure out what people need and what their, in relative terms, few desires are. But somehow design still somehow gets misunderstood or misplaced in the chain of command. I think this is because
We — honestly — just don’t do very important work.
Will the real designer please stand up? No, Management, sit down please
This might be because firms, companies, and owners do not actually recognize or view their own product as being important to people: it’s “their” product which gets a life of its own, detached from other people. And if they do see it as important for others, they might feel in total control of all of its perceived aspects — they do not want their control or perspective on their product/service to be questioned. Questioning “their product” can unfortunately only turn personal when the product is not meant to satisfy needs of the others — those who pay their salaries. And, oh boy does design question a lot. Unfortunately, big-D Design is so often done already in the board rooms, or at executive levels, that the remaining design work could be seen as merely portioned out into the lower levels like crumbs swiped off of a table. What remains, when assumptions become dead-set and the scope gets locked-in, is simply no longer the important matters.
OK, time to cheer up. Let’s rethink this scenario from a wider angle: Design is a way of civilising and could therefore be seen as culture in the making. Culture is a kind of waste, which we create and consume in order to live, form, and live out forms of living. Culture is the wide and deep, but also sometimes shallow and coarse net formed by customs, agreements, our ideologies, our objects, and so on. It therefore constitutes an — ultimately — entirely arbitrary model of improving or embellishing conditions, as we constantly rearrange and rethink the importance of these cultural artifacts and forms in our lives.
Design as arbitrary improvement
The very arbitrariness of design as a practice should never be forgotten as we hone and work with our craft. The arbitrariness also makes design potentially hard to argue for. Much of the world keeps functioning, even by the standards of poor design.
Actually and concretely improving lives has been one of the core factors of design as a profession. Design can only contribute fully when we accept that there are needs that absolutely need improving: There can be objectively “defective” design and this needs to change. However, in our state of extreme well-being — in large parts of the world, although obviously not everywhere — design functions just well enough, and becomes an agent in subterfuge. But for what one may ask? What is it that is being improved? For whom?
Is a need always more important than a want? Consider how luxury and beauty are valued highly, even during conditions that seem to counteract it, like during times of war. Taking even “desire-driven” products seriously means that we try to equalize them on a human scale of emotions and drives. I believe that an unnecessary product can be important (under certain conditions), but only if we disengage it from the solipsism that a lot of corporate products suffer from. This is the solipsism of not contextually understanding your product or service and is a great reason why people hate big brands who often get caught looking dehumanizing and insensitive. Even unnecessary products are parts of our design culture(s) and need to behave respectfully and be created with high standards. This means that designing a tent for refugee camps and developing a high-end luxury product should have exactly the same designer dedication to the “problem” at hand: people, use and context first.
The narrative of design/technology as being somehow teleological towards some kind of irrational “perfect state” implies that continuous improvement will lead to a utopian situation where needs are effortlessly taken care of and the remainder consists of pure pleasure. In a much more pragmatic sense I believe it’s more realistic to view the overarching ”goal” of the design process itself as being inherently self-centred, cyclical and provisional. Design evolves, not to a greater or truer form, but in response to life, living(s) and interactions, precisely like culture does in the greater scope of things. This is a direct response to the idea of ”final” design, or perfect forms, as understood by early philosophers such as Plato.
Design as a way to improve conditions for everyday life — such as improving the often weird, obsolete interfaces seen in industry — or to provide constituents with understandable, effective voting platforms, or better irrigation tools in countries facing famine, drought or starvation — all of these are valid, humanistic goals. However, again, much of what we as designers do is not close to this very concrete level of egalitarian improvement.
Sometimes leaving things be is the correct option, but we are ill-suited to improve systemic errors like those we see in so many forms in daily life — from politics to user interfaces — by not attempting a level-headed change. I’m not going to be so cheesy as equating design to change, but design is indeed predicated on methodical, responsive iteration.
So, on the one hand we are not always (perhaps never; perhaps only in few cases) allowed to design with broader strokes in mind. On the other hand, because society and most of our daily concerns work somewhat well in both practical and meaningful ways, design becomes invisible — not in the sense of being so good it disappears, but that it becomes very hard to precisely point to the value of design when only incremental gain seems to be had when investing in design.
Business and design becomes important the moment they fulfill both needs and desires for actual people, in actual living conditions. Great business and great design becomes real only when they do it well and in a manner that takes these people and conditions seriously, and don’t treat them like faceless customers who just get thrown the fastest-to-market MVP or cheapest implementation.
Designers and business people share the same goal: they want to provide people with things they love and need.
Design as fluid, living culture
I believe that only by accepting design, and with that, also culture, as arbitrary, fluid, alive — a marvelous matter to form and reform, equally physical and conceptual — can we begin to truly see much of our own work as really meaningful. If the stakes are indeed as high as I have presented them here, then very little design gets a passing grade. Certainly my daily design work would utterly flounder! For our part we are therefore culture-makers rather than pursuers of the “true” intent of design. As culture-makers, values such as reciprocity, empathy and broadening of views should be a form of guideline for everything we aim to create. In that way, even the odd website for a random business client can potentially elevate itself into being more than just sprinkle, embellishment, visual eye candy, fanciful flair.
We are enjoying life on a planet steeped in cultures of design that have shaped civilization over millenia. Even the lowest kind of design, when providing at least some critical physical and psychological fulfillment, is part of this broader civilizing process. Civilization means, in this context, well-being at a level that is not merely sufficient nor acceptable — it means excellent. It is completely man-made, and is therefore also entirely unnatural; human curiosity, however, is natural. Naturally then, we as designers would wish to be part of envisioning how the things we do routinely everyday could positively and truly affect the situations we work in — we understand that business is a design concern, because it affects everyone in touch with the things we are involved with.