What is so special about designers?

Anouk van Ranst, Sina Kazemi, Ken Chen

What is so special about designers?

Our interpretation of the goal of this module could be summarized to one question. What is so special about designers? Our challenge was to position ourselves in the current business environment. An environment in which companies and organizations are starting to require the designer to go beyond the traditional specialized function of a designer and enter into a strategic decision-making position. The position that is usually occupied by: industrial engineers, innovation managers, MBA graduates, politicians, philosophers, chess players and even marketers. So what is it about designers that make them preferable against all other disciplines?

We plea for the power of the designer as a thinker and most importantly as an actor, doer and maker. The designer has the ability to go beyond consulting, conceptualizing and tinkering, and can make what is need to be done, happen. This power is what makes the designers standout and qualify as a strategic decision maker and leader. In this space given to us on the World Wide Web we present to you the thought process and the arguments for our statement.

We are three designers with different cultural and educational backgrounds. We have followed different paths that have brought us to the current moment in our designers’ career at ID. Anouk, who was born and raised in Belgium, has finished her Bachelors at the Design Academy and worked as a consultant for different companies in the Netherlands and abroad. Sina, who moved to the Netherlands ten years ago from Iran, was trained an Industrial Designer at TU/e for both his Bachelor and Master. His interest in business and entrepreneurship has also led him to get involved in consultancy for designing consumer electronics in the past. Ken, a Chinese Interaction Designer moving to Eindhoven to continue his academic development, has been working as a freelancing designer on digital products for businesses and startup teams from US, Switzerland, Sweden and China.

Different backgrounds in design education and culture makes our personal perspective towards designing slightly different. Nevertheless, we are all designers and we share skills and characteristics that connect us. To better define and describe this common ground and to eventually find out the added value that differentiates a designer we turned to an example. This example, the Estonia case, contained in all our views the properties that make a designer.

An Example to Relate to

When we look at this case we see a complex problem that requires to be addressed from different levels, from socio-behavioral level to technical and financial levels. We also see a small team of people who start engaging the problem with limited means. Due to this complexity and the limited means they cannot exactly plan, foresee, or even choose the path that brings them to their goal; they are engaged in an uncertain and ambiguous process. Nevertheless they manage to embrace the complexity and find a point to start. Having found the starting point the team kept on and most importantly reached their goal, which mattered the most.

How to deal with complexity and ambiguity

Dealing with ambiguity, and embracing complexity is the ability. This ability is especially relevant in an environment that not only expects the designer to find a solution, but also demands him to define the problem. This shift in the operating environment of the designer was evident in the talk and consultancy that we had with the designers from Fabrique and Van Berlo studios. Both designers pointed towards the fact that their clients invite them more and more to get involved in multiple levels of decision making, from product’s aesthetics to strategic positioning.

We believe that our ability to engage with ambiguity come from certain characteristics that often are relate to a design thinker. Tim Brown describes the profile of a design thinker as below:

Empathic.

We are broadly introduced to different disciplines, from engineering to business, arts and social sciences. We are familiar with methods and tools that put us in the shoes of the user. We have the ability to take different perspectives. In an ambiguous and complex process we can change perspectives and address issues on different levels.

Experimental.

To find better solutions for complex problems, we experiment, explore and play creatively with constrains, while doing so we know that experiments can fail. We see errors and failures as part of an innovative and creative process that generates knowledge; knowledge that we use to navigate in an uncertain environment.

Integrative thinkers.

More than being analytical, we are critical and holistic. We are eager to redefine the problem and address crucial points that produce novel solutions.

Collaborative.

We know that we cannot solve complex problems alone. We engage people from different disciplines. We have developed communication skills from visualization to documentation and reflection to make the collaboration efficient and effective.

Optimistic.

Next to our rational we allow ourselves to trust our intuition, and we engage in iterative processes that help us to quickly identify opportunities and threats. Trust in intuition and our iterative approach allow us to stay confident and optimistic in uncertain and ambiguous circumstances.

Although the design thinking seems to be the right way to find solutions to complex problems, knowing the solution does not equal the solving of the problem. In fact the part that spoke to us most about the Estonia case was the fact that they manage to do it. They built commitments and led towards the goal. The leadership in that project inspired us most. And design thinking did not characterize the designer as a leader, or as someone who can make it happen. Realization of the solution is the point that we believe a designer becomes special. People trust us not only because we find solutions but mainly because they know we can solve it.

The exception that we can make.

As Saras Sarsvathy describes in her concept of effectuation to successfully manage an entrepreneurial process, Or in other words to make it happen, a designer needs to be able to form a network of committed stakeholders that are necessary to realize the solution. This brings us to the capability of a designer to envision.

By implementing visualization skills we are able to communicate and engage people into the project. This will result in trust and creating commitments. By expertise we are able to prove that we are capable to deconstruct the envisioned goal and thereby reconstruct it and enroll it to all different expertise needed. We like to call it the ultimate power of combined and interdisciplinary skills. The empathy natural to the designer gives this a holistic natural feel which comforts the assignor and gives you the funding and trust you need to complete the project. Creating this belief will add a natural gesture of energy and passion within almost every team, the outcome.

Let’s Rock!
Move yourself into the following jobs, make it happen!

By screening the web we have found several very different job opportunities, all with direct or indirect relevance. They were selected by our interests and backboned by our believes gained by previous statements.

Sources of Knowledge and Inspiration

  • Analysis of the idea bank of the citizens’ initiative “let’s dot it! My Estonia”, PRAXIS Center for Policy Studies, 2009
  • Brown, T., ‘Design Thinking’, Harvard Business Review, 2008
  • New realities, New roles for Designers., Essay Competition, Design Academy Eindhoven, 2011
  • Sarasvathy, S., ‘Effectuation: Elements of entrepreneurial enterprise’, Edward Elgar Publishing Inc, 2008
  • Snelders, D., ‘Useful fabrications: Four stories about design for business’, proceedings of the joint Nordcode / IDBM conference, June 2012, Helsinki and Stockholm

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