From blind optimism to sober responsibility: how design has changed


Co.Design’s founding editor, Cliff Kuang, talks to us about why he started the Innovation by Design Awards and where he sees the design industry heading next.

Ten years ago, Fast Company introduced the Innovation by Design Awards (IBD) for a simple reason: to showcase the power of design, not just to other designers, but to company leaders hunting for their next competitive advantage. For decades, design had scant influence at most major companies. But players like Apple, Target, and JetBlue proved that good design was good business, and before long, every company from Google to Ford to McKinsey was snapping up designers and proselytizing the value of design. By recognizing the best design-driven innovations, IBD sought to deepen the impact designers had on business and society.

This year, as we celebrate the awards’ 10th anniversary, we are more steadfast than ever in our assertion that design can be a potent force of change. The crises of the past year have underscored the imperative of designs and design systems that solve problems, elevate communities, and save lives. The urgency crosses disciplines. We sat down with Cliff Kuang, Co.Design’s founding editor and the author of User Friendly: How the Hidden Rules of Design Are Changing the Way We Live, Work, and Play (MCD, 2019), to talk about why design awards matter, the biggest problem facing designers, and how the industry can respond to the challenges of today in the service of a better tomorrow.

Fast Company: Why did you start Innovation by Design?

Cliff Kuang: When I started Co.Design [in 2010], I was recognizing the idea that businesses should care about design. People in the design community had been saying that for many, many years. But before, they only had a few examples: JetBlue, Target, and, of course, Apple. By the time we were writing about this stuff at Co.Design, that had shifted.

You basically saw every business, in some way, had to have some meaningful response to what was happening in design, partly because Apple changed people’s mindset about consumer expectations, convenience, and supportability. People now had to actually opt in to digital ecosystems. If you didn’t, you were dead in the water. So businesses were having to respond on multiple fronts to a changing cultural landscape. That made design a lot more important to the normal course of running a business.

But there was still a huge matchmaking challenge that business had with the design community. So the thought was: What if we could say to business, “Here’s some of the best design that’s happening out there. Here’s what you should be anchoring your expectations and your aspirations around in terms of what design can do for your business. Secondarily, here are the people you should be hiring. This is what talent looks like.”

Third, we wanted to show how design is actually solving some of the most urgent questions that society is asking of itself. The design community is riddled with awards. But there needed to be a brand associated with the awards so that designers could walk into a room and say, “This is a thing that I did” and have that brand be recognized [by business leaders]across the table. I wanted to use the brand of Fast Company to help give credibility to designers and help them tell their stories to business.

What is the value in having an awards program that isn’t just focused on, say, digital design or graphic design or architecture, but is honoring all of those things at once?

For that, we have to thank the broader conception of design thinking. I know that phrase has become problematic because there’s been backlash about its misappropriation and its misuse. I’m sympathetic to a lot of the arguments, but the thing that IDEO made a great argument for was that whether or not you’re designing a space, a physical product, a digital product, or a service, fundamentally, all of those things actually differ only in the end point of their expression. They do not differ in the kind of mindset that you have to bring to the problem-solving. They do not differ in terms of the kind of qualities that you need to bring to that problem, such as empathy and understanding of who the user is.

It’s almost like IDEO created this grand unified theory of what design is. Whether or not you’re a service designer or an industrial designer or a digital designer, you had to use similar processes, similar modes of thought, similar things like needs-finding, framing a really rigorous user problem, experimenting with your solution, getting feedback cycles in which you improve that solution, and uncovering both latent and explicit needs.

The logic of having all those things expressed in a single awards program is that no matter what type of designer you are, you’re joined by a broader philosophy about how the process of artifact-making should respond to the problems of the world.

What were some of the big themes in design when Innovation by Design launched?

You saw threads of what was important and innovative in society at large express themselves through the entrants and winners over time. So initially, it was the rise of mobile. You had a lot of designs refocusing all the complexity that you saw in, say, desktop experiences and rethinking them and migrating them to the more focused and constraining problem of how you get this stuff on a mobile phone. But then you had the rise and redefinition of social media, in which you started to see social mechanisms being built into a lot of existing product footprints. Social mechanisms were being thought of as integral to what the life cycle of a product was. You saw sustainability rise. A lot of the themes that were the subject of conversation in culture and business would express themselves naturally in the projects that we were seeing.

In retrospect, you actually saw a lot of the naivete at the time, too. We were all, as a discipline, blithely chasing a lot of these social mechanisms without a sense of what the potential downside effects would be. You could look at the Facebook “Like” button and you could say unabashedly, “This is the thing that changed the world for almost certainly the better.” And now we just can’t do that anymore. The things that we celebrated are now things that we are probably re-interrogating.

In that era, there was also this strong component of design for social good. In retrospect, this idea of designers coming in from the outside to understand and address the problems of the cultures in which they were not native, we would probably have a lot harder time with some of those efforts. The design awards, in many ways, were reflective of both optimism that we have in these different spaces, but also the kind of blind spots that we have, too. They are naturally a part of the conversation that we’re having as a society and they’re subject to the same sort of limitations.

It’s not because of bad intentions. It’s a process of self-education and improvement. Even as we have to think more critically about the things that we might award and judge, the designers themselves are having to think more critically about their effect on the world. Because one of the things that was so empowering, that designers were almost drunk on in the 2010 era, was this idea that design could have impacts at massive scale. Examples like Facebook and Google and Apple really proved to designers that what you’re doing is on the scale of politics or education or any of these big systemic influence makers. And there was kind of a giddiness that was associated with that, whereas now I think there’s a much more sober sense of responsibility that comes with that.

Design, the discipline, is changing even though I don’t think that we’ve codified it. There is no design thinking for what it means to be a responsible designer yet. There are no universally accepted and followed practices and tools. People are trying to create them, for sure. People are out there ideating and inventing new ways of working that actually account for some of these things and some of that innovation.

Was there a turning point for you in terms of thinking about design in this new way?

Yes. [The spread of misinformation on Facebook] was the first intimation that designers aren’t just designing buttons, they’re actually designing systems to incentivize certain behaviors, and that creates certain behaviors simply because of the fact that they exist. This realization, “Oh, shit, we’re not designing products, we’re actually designing feedback loops for society, capital S”: That was an Oppenheimer moment for design, as Alan Cooper put it. At first it was, “Oh yeah, I did this thing and it felt great putting it out in the world and can you believe we did it?” Then it was, “Oh, shit, what have you done?”

There was a kind of reckoning in the design community that it’s not enough to design a product. You actually have to think about the system into which you’re designing, the system that you’re then creating because of what you put in the world. This most often gets critiqued and expressed in terms of social media. But I do think that there are a bunch of hidden assumptions that we didn’t know that we were making, but that design, ultimately, needs to lead the way in showing a different path forward.

This past year was one of tremendous crisis and upheaval: the pandemic, the racial justice movement, the economic crisis, the political disaster under Trump. What role does design play in addressing all of this?

Can design address the problems in our society? It depends on how you define the word design. Can a shiny new app solve the problem that we have with not trusting the government? I don’t think so. Can a shiny new car solve the problem of climate change? I don’t think so either. But can the actual habits of mind and processes that drive design, can the attitude about humility and experimentation in the face of people’s real lives, does that have a role to play in solving all the problems that we have? Absolutely. Self-evidently.

In my book, I write about how Finland basically rewrote its constitution to allow for social experimentation using the design thinking model. They want to figure out how to do things like provide universal childcare or better health benefits. And what they do is they go on a needs-finding expedition, they try to internalize, and then they try to put out solutions they experiment with and iterate on. And you had to change the Finnish constitution because there used to be a law saying everybody has to be treated the same way, but they changed the law to allow these limited experiments so that the design thinking process could work. That’s just like a little example of how you can use these processes to improve things that don’t actually have artifacts as you might historically think about them.

I used to say a lot that design is what makes technology matter to people. That idea of translating invention into something that matters to people is still the work of designers. That was the work of designers in the ’30s when the discipline was first being created. It’s still the moral obligation of designers today—to make sure the things they are trying to make desirable are in fact the things that we need as a society and as people. So there still needs to be that translation.

Has your definition of good design changed since you founded Innovation by Design 10 years ago?

The number-one problem that all design still faces is just solving a problem nobody actually has. I used to go through every single entry, and that was the main thing that I was always looking for. Now I’m even less obsessed about the beauty [of something]and more concerned about the need that it addresses. I also ask: Is this going to work? Is it going to effect the change that it seeks in society? And how much has somebody thought about the actual mechanism and theory of change beyond the expression of the design? What is the theory of change? The role of a good designer is to look at the tools that they have available and figure out what is actually going to work.

About Author

Suzanne LaBarre

Suzanne LaBarre is the editor of Co.Design. Previously, she was the online content director of Popular Science and has written for the New York Times, the New York Observer, Newsday, I.D. Magazine, and Metropolis.

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