In my humble yet vaguely informed opinion, it will be design that saves the world. I don’t know how it will actually do it — what the grand idea that fixes the absurd mess we’ve made for ourselves will be — but I can almost guarantee that when that beautifully simple idea is first suggested, there will be a designer at the table. They might not be the one who speaks it for the first time (they’ll more likely just be glad someone else finally made it to the finish line they’d been pointing at for the last five hours) but they’ll be there. In their absence, the proposed ideas would have been logical. But with their presence? They stood a chance at being revolutionary.
I can say this with some degree of confidence because the firm I work for — Designworks — specialises in using design to solve problems, and what we’ve recently seen is a shift in the magnitude of the questions we’re helping our clients to answer: from strategic to existential. As a design-thinking led consultancy for some thirty years now, we’re well-accustomed to being involved in our clients’ ‘big picture thinking’. But we now have the great fortune of occupying a niche that’s grown to become the focus of what seems like the entire corporate world. I believe this is because of the approach we take. We’re less interested in ‘creating value’ than we are in asking the right question.
“Why do you exist?’”
Whatever industry you’re in at the moment, chances are you’re looking over your shoulder wondering what tech, competitor or other disruptive threat is about to make you redundant. Will you spot it before it smacks you between the eyes, takes out your share price and talent pool on the first ricochet, steals your customers and pirouettes off into the sunset with your dreams? Who knows. So, in response, you either start frantically spending on advertising to ‘remind people you’re there’ and why they should give you money, or you realise the only way to secure your right to exist in an exponentially evolving, totally disloyal world is to stop playing the ride-out-the-storm game and start asking the right question.
“Why do I exist now, and why should I do so tomorrow?”
Very recently, we took a team of our best thinkers (and me) to meet a potential client whose industry was staring down the barrel of a threat of this scale. For more than a century their business has held a near-monopoly in an industry sector essential to the survival of all the other ones. This industry was founded in innovation by people with immaculate coats and long white beards and has evolved steadily ever since in response to the needs of the population. Hurrah! Put your pension in that! However, in the last couple of years, a new technology appeared that is rapidly approaching a point where the only thing keeping it from total annihilation of the industry is its price. Not just this client, but every company involved in this industry, in the entire world. Progress can be cruel, but at least collapse is often mercifully quick.
Now, what would you expect a relatively conservative, century-old business to do in these circumstances? Take the longview and try to ride it out? Sell to an over-enthusiastic private equity firm? Or hire a strategic design agency to help them figure out what might be possible if they start thinking freely, unencumbered by the boring old tenets of legacy, feasibility and budgets? No. Definitely not.
But they did, and thank heavens they did.
From one angle, they have no viable product, so have nothing to sell — rendering them irrelevant.
From the other angle, they have a hundred years plus of knowledge and expertise that can be applied to all aspects of their industry beyond the basic product. They are the best placed company to help make this new technology a viable and profitable business, rather than just a sparkly new piece of tech. They have a new role to play, in a new world.
This meeting left me feeling more confident in the future of the human race than seeing Elon Musk’s Falcon 9 rocket hovering 250m above the ground with the grace and delicacy of a ballerina. It helped me to see a positive shift in attitude — the world is changing, let’s change too.
Innovation punishes the slow. It’s no surprise we’re seeing another cycle of businesses investing in in-house creative in an attempt to capture design as a corporate competency. The largest design team in the world is now at IBM, and even CapOne is now seeing itself as something of a design-led firm. What on earth is going on? Nothing untoward. It’s just the world waking up to the fact the design process is a way of generating more brilliant answers to problems than you need. Invest in design and you’ll not only solve the original problem in a unique, refreshing and unforeseeable way, but you’ll find yourself with castoff ideas with their own potential. It’s a truly viable alternative or, at the very least, a partner to the scientific method.
Design and, more specifically, ‘design thinking’ has gone from a buzzword employed by depressed management consultants to a widely accepted and applicable approach to solving the biggest existential threats faced by the business world.
And since the business world is the one that’s both the biggest contributor to the problem and the holder of nearly all the capital and IP, it’s a bloody good thing that they’ve started asking the designers what they should do with it.
So now we, as designers / consultants / marketers, need to turn this fundamental question on ourselves. Our industry is changing faster than ever (okay, algorithmically-generated logos aren’t going to put many studios out of business for a good while yet and there will always be a need for pure graphic design) but we now have an opportunity to use our skills to create the conversations that might just change the course of humankind. It’s not just an opportunity — it’s an expectation. Design and strategy have become co-dependent.
So, if you’re reading this as a client then good for you, you’re already looking in the right places. But if you’re reading this as a designer, please stop for a moment and have a think about the strategic significance of what you do — the impact that you can have upon the world. Your thinking, your freedom to put pen to blank paper is the greatest tool we have to fix this accident of evolution. You only need to ask yourself, every day, a simple, single question:
“Why do I exist?”
Then go and do something amazing.