On Changing the World
While Paying the Bills…
Jon: Bruce Sterling’s really done it this time—he
claims that not only are technologists full of hot
air, but so are designers. Recently, I was at the
IxDA conference, and the buzz was about the
ability to effect behavioral change at a cultural
level. Robert Fabricant, Dan Saffer, and even John
Thackara all claimed that the designers’ role is to
pursue massive change. Is this just a lot of hot air?
Richard: I certainly hope not. I wholeheartedly
endorse Elaine Ann’s arguments in this issue that
design has a major role to play in bringing the
world out of the financial crisis.
Roger Martin—dean of the Rotman School
of Management and someone I’ve often referenced—agrees. During his appearance at the
Commonwealth Club in San Francisco last
November, I asked Roger to tell us how greater
use of “design thinking” might have prevented the
world financial crisis. A part of his response was
that designers would have looked at the big picture
and designed a mortgage system that was “
holistically elegant,” unlike the one that failed. The creators of the existing system turned a blind eye to
very stupid features of the system; designers would
not have done that.
Jon: That’s all well and good, but—specifically
with the massive change or “wicked problems” type
of argument—the U.S. government doesn’t seem to
care, or see much value in design or designers. It’s
a bunch of lawyers and lifer politicians, and there’s
not a lot we can do to get any sort of nonlinear,
abductive thinking in the mix. I’m wondering if all
of these huge issues, many of which were brought
about by large corporations, are going to be left to
the large corporations to fix on their own.
Richard: There is good reason for pessimism.
What would you need to see happen to become at
least a little more optimistic?
Jon: I believe in the transformative power of
design, but I’ve also watched “design thinkers” take
an exceptionally reductionist view to difficult problems. Climate change simply isn’t something that’s
going to be “solved,” in the same way that poverty
isn’t something to be “solved.” Wicked problems are
defined by Horst Rittel as a class of social problems
that is not binary. To be optimistic, I need to see
an indication that the larger “we”—designers, on a
global scale—can actually do this type of work and
pay our mortgages. Because that’s ultimately what’s
stopping the designers I know and associate with
from diving head on into problems of this scale; they
can’t pay the bills when they stop building widgets.
Richard: This issue contains articles calling
for the abandonment of obsolete conceptions of
usability and user-centered design, consistent
with a shift occurring in the world toward service
and sustainable design. A shift that, because of its
nature, should involve designers in work that takes
a broader view while paying the bills.
In upcoming issues, we plan to focus more on
how to change the roles design and designers play
in companies, with an upcoming contribution of
this nature from Roger Martin.
Some have called for Obama to create cabinet-level positions focused on innovation and design,
or for companies to shift their focus to transformation rather than innovation and design. Do such
proclamations do any good? Should you and I take
some sort of related stance via interactions, or by
doing so, would we only be adding to the hot air?
Jon: Yes, I suppose that would be just more noise.
We need real action—activist work, the type of
work Tad Hirsch talks about, or gaming work as
described by Andrew Hieronymi. More and more,
I’m coming to the conclusion that we can’t take the
wickedness out of social problems because humans
are inherently as complicated as the problems
we’ve created. Perhaps we should set our sights
much lower, and focus on the banal, the comical, the thoughtful, or the beautiful. These design
opportunities are more immediate, and are more
immediately solved. Sterling ends his piece quoting
Charles Eames: “Design is a method of action.” I’ll
quote Eames, too: “Choose your corner, pick away at
it carefully, intensely and to the best of your ability,
and that way you might change the world.”
—Richard Anderson and Jon Kolko
© 2009 ACM 1072-5220/09/0500 $5.00