The Strategic Role of a Designer for Shaping Radical New Meanings

Jasper de Kruiff & Patrick Leijte –

In this article we discuss how we as designers can and should play a crucial strategic role in shaping radical new meanings, by alternating between first and third person perspectives.

The need for radical new meanings

We are witnessing how long-established market leaders are taken by surprise by radical innovators that turn their entire markets upside down in a matter of months. This could potentially happen in any sector and with any product and does so ever more frequently. On top of that society is faced with a number of major challenges, including the increasing costs of healthcare, energy consumption and the global destruction of our ecology, all of which cannot be solved by incremental solutions.

While breakthrough innovation was previously regarded as a means to gain a competitive edge in well –established markets, it’s becoming increasingly evident that this type of innovation is an absolute necessity for sustainable growth, both business wise and for society as a whole. Designing for radical new meaning and managing this overall process is challenging and complex, especially once the products, services and systems become highly interactive and even intelligent. When done right however, they can lead to breakthroughs innovations as demonstrated in the case of Nest.

A case study: Nest

Nest is a company founded by iPod ‘Godfather’ Tony Fadell who have revolutionized the thermostat industry in a timeframe of only 18 months.[1] Despite its elegant looks and simple interface, the Nest thermostat does something fundamental that no other thermostat has done before: It values human behaviour and consequently becomes an object people cherish and actually love to own and use. Previous thermostats assume that people behave like robots and live their lives according to fixed patterns that change little over time, while in reality people’s lives are highly dynamic. Consequently, the Nest thermostat doesn’t use fixed preprogramed patterns, but responds actively to the current situation (through numerous sensors) and learns and adapts to usage patterns over time.

Figure 1 – Nest Thermostat

From analysing multiple interviews[1][2][3][4], it appears that crucial to this success was a thorough understanding of intrinsic human needs and desires, similar as Brown states[5]. By taking these human values as starting principle and ensuring that they are properly maintained throughout the process, Nest managed to nail the design on their very first attempt and completely redefine the meaning of a thermostat in the process.

Designers play a crucial role in this process, because of their ability to envision and investigate new meanings through a broader, in-depth exploration of society, culture and technology[6].Through their multidisciplinary background and human-centred approach, designers are not only able to discover, but also to value the potential of newly found meaning and thus inherently co-propose new strategies.

Yet the real value of these new meanings (especially in more intelligent products and systems) only becomes apparent after a certain amount of time, mostly when the product has been put on the market for some time. This can lead to quite unexpected behavioural patterns or even complete refusal on the market, as the product’s capabilities don’t match with these newly emergent patterns. So even though companies should invest in breakthrough innovation, the process is hard and the risks for failure are great.

Experiential Design Landscapes

One new method for dealing with these issues in a designerly way are Experiential Design Landscapes. In this methodology an infrastructure is created that ‘stimulates the creation of new, disruptive, propositions in a semi-open environment where these new propositions are used as agents to facilitate new and emerging behaviour.’ [7] In parallel, by studying and analysing these patterns, inspiration can be found for the design of future products, services and systems. This approach is very much human-centred: new meaning is discovered by proposing new concepts through experienceable prototypes over a longer period of time within near-real-life environments.

As an example, the city of Eindhoven opened an experiential design landscape in sports park “Eindhoven Noord” to facilitate the development of new concepts in the field of Health and Wellbeing.  In one case a new intelligent watch with GPS functionality was introduced to a group of high-level runners, which they could use to track their progress. At a certain moment one of the runners got injured and decided to give his watch to his teenage son, to encourage him to start running. Instead of analysing his own running behaviour he started to follow his son online and analyse hís behaviour, which resulted in very interesting dynamics in the relationship between father and son that could have never been foreseen by the manufacturer. This newly found meaning could then provide the input for a future iteration of the product.

Figure 2 – Nike+ Sportwatch GPS Powered by TomTom

Within such an EDL designers are able to discover and value such unexpected new meanings because they can alternate between a first person perspective, actively taking part as a multi-disciplinarian within the system [8] and a third person perspective to reflect on, interpret and assess the strategic value of such meanings.

Alternating between first and third person perspective

In first person perspective designers are in close contact with the actual people, but also with experts such as psychologists, programmers and researchers which Verganti calls interpreters.[6] Designers interact with such interpreters, but moreover they actively work together with them, by being in the system and adapting to different roles with our multi-disciplinary skills. We believe that only then and in correlation with a broader third perspective view (described below), designers can be used to their fullest extent.

In third person perspective, designers reflect, interpret and address the strategic value of new meaning together with managers. Designers can discover and value meaning and propose and discuss new strategies together with managers to guide the development of new products, services and systems that serve human needs. Typical managers are not trained for.[9] “Instead, they are trained and rewarded for being decision makers – to have alternatives presented to them from which they make choices by computing net present values, optimizing under assumed constraints, and trading off risks for returns.”

An EDL is a fine example of how designers can play a crucial strategic role in the development of radical new meanings. However, we believe that this strategic role of design is applicable to many other scenarios as well, such as multi-stakeholder partnerships and has value for companies ranging from small design consultancies to large international firms. To illustrate our view on our strategic value as designers in these varying situations, we will discuss two possible scenarios in more detail. In scenario 1 we take the position of a two-man design consultancy, whereas in scenario 2 we explain our role in a larger company.

Figure 3 – Model (own consultancy) (M)= Management (D) = Our roles as Designer (S) = Stakeholders (E) = Experts (H) = Humans (Square) = Design artefacts

Scenario 1: Own company

The above model visualizes the scenario that we, as two designers, start our own consultancy and work for a one-man design company. Starting points for a project (that define the initial project scope) could be various inputs such as the company’s long term vision, its (potential) clients, skill-sets and markets in which it operates.

In this process we as designers will work closely together and do not intend to specify our roles, nor the exact steps we will undertake beforehand, because the project scope is highly dynamic and the outcome of the project largely unknown . Eventually through our human-centred process in which we work together with external experts  (marketing experts, trend watchers etc.) and stakeholders (electronic manufacturers, distributors etc.), we will find opportunities  for creating radical new meanings that serve intrinsic human needs an desires. Initially, these will not be concrete product ideas, but rather strategic visions  for the company that will be further defined in close collaboration with the client. These new strategies allow us to reframe the project scope for future iterations, in which we will work towards a final proposition.

Figure 4 – Model (within larger company) (M)= Management (D) = Our roles as Designer (S) = Stakeholders (E) = Experts (H) = Humans (Square) = Design artefacts

Scenario 2: within a larger company

This model visualizes the scenario that we work as designers within a larger company. At first, we envision that a small group of experts within the company search for radical new meanings that serve human needs and desires. In contrast to the previous scenario, the roles in this model are more specified (programmers, psychologists, market researchers etc.) designers play an important multi-disciplinary role as a project leader. We keep a hands-on approach, actively taking part in the system and extensively working together with the various experts.

By discovering (first person perspective), reflecting on and valuing  (third person perspective) meaning, new strategies can be proposed and discussed with managers. This process creates new input that allows us to reframe the project scope. Eventually, when a newly discovered meaning seems promising enough more experts and departments can be involved in the innovation process. The role of the designer then changes to a role in which we ensure that the original vision of the project is maintained throughout the process.

In both scenarios our approach is practical, hands-on. We use what we like to call “design artefacts”, such as tangible business models, visual models and low-fidelity prototypes for communication, reasoning, testing and so on.


[1] Lacy, S. iPod Godfather Tony Fadell Finally Reveals His New Product: A Thermostat. No, Really. [online] [Cited March 3rd 2012] Available from World Wide Web: <>

[2] Lacy, S. Tony Fadell Demos His New Nest Learning Thermostat(TCTV). [online] [Cited March 3rd 2012] Available from World Wide Web: <>

[3] Patel, N. Inside the Nest: iPod creator Tony Fadell wants to reinvent the thermostat. [online] [Cited March 3rd 2012] Available from World Wide Web: < >

[4] Levy, S. Brave New Thermostat: How the iPod’s Creator Is Making Home Heating Sexy. [online] [Cited March 3rd 2012] Available from World Wide Web: <>

[5] Brown, T. Design Thinking. Thinking like a designer can transform the way you develop products, services, processes – and even strategy. Harvard Business Review, Boston, Massachusetts, 2008.

[6] Verganti, R. Design-driven innovation. Changing the rules of competition by radically innovating what things mean. Harvard Business Press, Boston, Massachusetts, 2009.

[7] Gent, S.H van; Megens C.J.P.G.; Peeters M.M.R.; Hummels, C.C.M.; Lu, Y. & Brombacher, A.C. (2011) Experiential Design Land­scapes as a design tool for market research of disruptive intelligent systems. 1st Cambridge Academic Design Management Conference, 7 – 8 September 2011

[8] Tomico, O., Heist, M van. Designing for, with or within: 1st, 2nd and 3rd person points of view on designing for systems. Not Yet Published.

[9] Boland Jr., R.J & Collopy, F. Design Matters for Management. In Boland Jr., R.J & Collopy, F. Managing as Designing. Stanford University Press, Stanford, California, 2004.

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