DYPDC Center for Automotive Research & Studies and Association of Designers of India recently organized a lecture at the Mahratta Chamber of Commerce, Industries & Agriculture – MCCIA, Pune, on Thursday, September 01, 2011
The lecture was conducted by James Woudhuysen, who is a Professor of Forecasting and Innovation at De Montfort University, Leicester. A St Paul’s School scholar and physics graduate, he has a knack of registering trends before other people, and offering counter-intuitive proposals on what to do about those trends. The only things James does not forecast are the weather, the stock market, the horses and your own personal destiny.
James helped install and test Britain’s first computer-controlled car park in 1968, wrote about chemical Weapons of Mass Destruction, The Economist, 1978, identified the user interface as the key issue in the design of IT, 1981, advised a top US telecommunications operator to deliver the Web over TV, 1993, reorganized worldwide market intelligence at Philips Consumer Electronics, 1995-7, forecast today’s obsession with work-life balance, 2000, influenced UK government policy in favor of the mass production of housing, 2004.
James has been published in German, Danish, Spanish, Japanese and Chinese. About the future, he has consulted or given keynote speeches for 50 of the world’s top corporations.
Read on to learn more about the lecture and the issues that were covered:
The Next Trend in Design
In April 2011, one of the foremost American advocates of Design Thinking (DT) pronounced it a ‘failed experiment’, and instead advocated two new concepts of relevance to designers. Given the speed with which designers both adopt and abandon intellectual trends, it’s worth asking: where do such trends really come from? How can we forecast the next one? Most important: how can we make a simple, convincing, intelligent and un-faddish new argument for design, which absorbs those merits that DT has, but which moves designers on toward a more practical and yet more ambitious practice?
Well: influential pieces of thought leadership typically begin, in design as elsewhere, as more-or-less marginal academic musings. The examples of the concept of ‘stakeholders’, and of behavioural economics, suggest that intellectual trends only gain popularity when their advantages in the subjective realm of ideas seem to be given relevance and substance by new and objective social conditions.
To forecast the next trend in design, designers therefore need to situate today’s bestsellers on ideas in a careful historical context, and subject them to an equally careful critique. That way, they can synthesize their own, independent view, the better to impose it, as best they can, on the future – rather than allow the future simply to impose on them.
For designers and design managers, having an opinion about trends in design has always been important. In pre-war America alone, industrial designers such as Henry Dreyfuss, Walter Dorwin Teague, Raymond Loewy and Norman Bel Geddes positioned themselves as knowing a thing or two about the future. Fashion design, too, has long been oriented to color forecasting, and trend forecasting in general. Finally design managers have often pronounced one trend dead and upheld another one. Still, it is a bit new to do both of these things, and then say that a third designerly worldview deserves a book.
A cursory inspection of trends in the handling of design trends, then, reveals a certain relativism of outlook. Anything goes, pretty much: one projection may be as good as another, and much depends just on this or that design manager’s point of view. In other words, design managers both adopt and abandon intellectual trends rather quickly nowadays. Before we suggest what the next trend in design should be, therefore, we should first ask: just why are ‘trends’ so trendy these days?
Of course, when designers such as Loewy or Bel Geddes pushed through ideas about the future to clients, there was always an element of arbitrariness about their views. In their time, style was of unrivalled importance. The subjective approach of great designers had yet to give way to more organized conceptions of design management, or of the future. However for all the realities of global production today, both design managers and celebrity designers still lack a sensible compass to steer them toward The Next Big Thing in Design.
Perhaps, really, two trends in the handling of design trends are at issue here. On the one hand, and certainly over the past 15 years or so, the growing impulse for companies, design managers and designers has been to cast the future in terms of design for corporate social responsibility, ethics, lowering adverse impacts on the environment and – above all – lowering emissions of CO2.
When designers put forward a broadly Greenish interpretation of the future, as a future of sustainability, they suggest a trend of planetary significance. This story of the future is more imposing than other grand narratives in design, such as Modernism, Post-modernism, or an orientation to users.
Formally the scale of the trend predicted here – The Future is Green – looks large. Also, advocates of this point of view feel that, when they uphold an acceleration of that trend, they are design activists who are morally right and who will have history on their side. However, the relentless and repetitive subordination of all goals and most other anticipated trends to the demand for sustainable design suggests that something is wrong. Steering professionals to The Next Trend in Design has been done with a compass that is stuck. Here the future is always just an extension of the present. The trend is: redouble efforts to save the Earth – against which all other trends, whether objective or hoped for, are of little moment.
On the other hand, the willingness of the design world to proclaim and then drop over-familiar and ill-thought-out lists of many ‘new’ trends is today very high. Here the compass spins around. Often described as ‘futures’, and emboldened by the multiple options of scenario planning, the future here is variable, protean, and hard to pin down. Interestingly, too, the spread of multiple, pluralistic conceptions of the future is expressed in the activist form of manifestos for design (though not for design management). Since 1883, more than 60 design manifestos have been published; and, confirming the ‘depends on your point of view’ mentality, the trend is for more manifestos to be published each year. No fewer than 35 have come out since 2000.
The desire to mould the world is commendable, but the lack of training most designers and design managers have in the analysis of trends doesn’t help. Worse, design managers in particular have a weakness for taking on new management doctrines in an eclectic and far too cosy spirit. Particularly in the US, where Tom Peters and Robert Waterman Jr’s In search of excellence (1982) popularized trendy catchphrases for corporations, design managers have drawn upon bestselling management books as an inspiration for thinking about the next trend in design.
In 1986, just a few years after Peters and Waterman published their book, Business Week ran a cover story on business fads. The cover alone shows how capricious thinking about trends can be – both with mainstream managers, and with design managers.
At least Business Week had tongue firmly in cheek. Yet given the alacrity with which design managers uphold and then forget about future trends, it’s worth asking: where do such trends really come from? How can we forecast the next one, and be sure that it won’t simply be a transient fad? Most important: how can we make a simple, convincing, intelligent and un-faddish new argument for design, which absorbs those merits that DT has, but which moves designers on toward a more practical and yet more ambitious practice?
How to know when marginal trends move into the mainstream
Influential pieces of thought leadership typically begin, in design as elsewhere, as more-or-less marginal musings. Two examples, one in the sphere of management and one in the sphere of economics, suggest how marginal intellectual trends come to gain popularity. That only happens when their advantages in the realm of ideas seem to be given relevance and substance by new developments in the real world.
The example of stakeholders
When he was George Bush’s deputy secretary of state, current World Bank president Robert Zoellick gave a speech on China in 2005. He called on China to go further than diplomacy in international affairs and instead become a responsible stakeholder, capable of working with the US ‘to sustain the international system’. Here, ironically enough, the ‘stakes’ alone suggest the force that the idea of stakeholder has acquired. It is used in the management not only of corporations, but also of international affairs.
It is used in design management, too. One of the unwritten rules in DT is that managers of design projects should, for greater clarity, seek the participation and support of stakeholders. Now, our interest here is not to question the concept of different groups having a stake in a design project – even it does tend to imply a rather harmonious account of power and influence in the corporation. Nor can we go into the privileged place that DT accords to users when compared with other alleged stakeholders, such as suppliers, retailers, and employees in R&D, or employees in marketing.
No, our interest in stakeholders lies around the intellectual history of the idea and, particularly, how it only gained mass recognition when the moment was ripe for it.
Now at the University of Virginia, R Edward Freeman is one of the pioneers of what is now known as ‘stakeholder theory’. As he wrote in the California Management Review in 1983, the original idea of a stakeholder emerged in a somewhat obscure way:
‘The stakeholder notion is indeed a deceptively simple one. It says that there are other groups to whom the corporation is responsible in addition to stockholders: those groups who have a stake in the actions of the corporation. The word stakeholder, coined in an internal memorandum at the Stanford Research Institute in 1963, refers to “those groups without whose support the organization would cease to exist”. The list of stakeholders originally included shareowners, employees, customers, suppliers, lenders, and society.’
In its inception in 1963, therefore, ‘stakeholder’ appeared only in a memo at SRI’s offices at Menlo Park, California.
So the idea has been around a long time. How can we trace its current force? As R Edward Freeman says, the stakeholder concept developed only slowly during the late sixties and early seventies’. However in1977 the Wharton School of Business began to research the concept. By the late 1970s, R Edward Freeman says, strategic management processes had to take account of ‘nontraditional business problems’ in terms of
‘[G]overnment, special interest groups, trade associations, foreign competitors, dissident shareholders, and complex issues such as employee rights, equal opportunity, environmental pollution, consumer rights, tariffs, government regulation, and re-industrialization’.
Here, in implicitly referring to the corporate and social priorities, and the tone, of the era of President Jimmy Carter, Freeman does a good job of suggesting how the concept of stakeholders moved from memo to the world of ‘management science’.
Pressures from the world of objective circumstance gave some ‘legs’ to what had previously been little more than just a subjective idea. The idea of stakeholders, however, was still confined to academia. Despite Freeman following up his 1983 article with a book that became the Bible of stakeholder theory, the Reagan years proved inhospitable to stakeholders. The idea had to wait for the ‘feel your pain’ sensitivities of President Bill Clinton (1993-2001) and Prime Minister Tony Blair (1997-2007).
A key year for the mainstreaming of the term stakeholder came in 1995. In Europe, the environmentalist lobby group Greenpeace managed to embarrass Shell into dropping its plans to dispose of its Brent Spar oil buoy in the North Sea. This episode vividly confirmed how firms need to think about constituencies beyond their shareholders, their managers and their direct customers. In Britain, in the same year, leading British economist Will Hutton devoted a whole chapter of his bestselling book The State We’re In to ‘stakeholder capitalism’. Hutton called for the participation of responsible trade unions in regulating capitalism, and praised Europe as a patron of environmental standards, rules of governance, and thus ‘the stakeholder company’.
In America, it was again in 1995 that we find Bill Clinton referring to stakeholders, and significantly he does so around two key issues: science and technology, and the environment. In a 29 March message to Congress on science and technology, Clinton warmly refers to
‘the forums and workshops that have drawn in thousands of experts and stakeholders to help develop priorities in areas as diverse as fundamental science; environmental technology; and health; safety; and food research.’
Within a week, Clinton was talking stakeholders to Congress again. Referring to the Environmental Protection Agency, a regulatory body, he said:
‘EPA is embarking on a new strategy to make environmental and health regulation work better and cost less. This new common sense approach has the potential to revolutionize the way we write environmental regulations. First, EPA will not seek to adopt environmental standards in a vacuum. Instead, all the affected stakeholders ¬– representatives of industry, labor, State governments, and the environmental community – will be involved from the beginning.
After 1995 the stakeholder perspective became integrated into US government thinking.
Search for the word ‘stakeholder’ through the entire archive of the American Presidency Project’s excellent record of public papers. The results are suggestive.
Number of mentions of the word ‘stakeholder’ in the public papers of US Presidents, 1994-2010
Number of mentions
1 4 1 4 7 7 12 3 3 2 3 2 8 7 7 1 24 35
94 95 96 97 98 99 00 01 02 03 04 05 06 07 08 09 09 10
William J Clinton George W Bush Barack Obama
Not too much reliance need be put on these numbers. Nevertheless the broad upward trend is clear enough. Even with George W Bush, a Republican, use of the term ‘stakeholder’ grew toward the end of his office; and with Barack Obama, use of the term goes into overdrive.
The first lesson of this brief intellectual history of stakeholder theory is simple enough. To predict the next trend in design, design managers need to set up an apparatus to track both mainstream and peripheral trends, bearing in mind how changing times can give to previously peripheral trends a mainstream status.
The second lesson ought to be clear too. Design managers make a mistake when they bandy about management categories like ‘stakeholder’ without ever interrogating the category. If they want to predict the next trend in design, they need to examine the changing history and contemporary salience of categories like ‘stakeholder’. For example, Sir Martin Sorrell, the chief of the marketing services multinational WPP, noted as early as 2002:
‘Well over 50 per cent of what we do for our clients in advertising, media investment management, information and consultancy, public relations and public affairs, branding and identity, healthcare and specialist communications is now directed at internal audiences. Making sure that internal audiences are onside is critically important in ensuring strategic and structural messages are transmitted to customers, clients, suppliers, investors, journalists, analysts, governments and non-governmental organizations.’
Well: is tomorrow’s chief audience, or stakeholder, for communications design really an internal one?
When they next try to relate a project or programme in design management to future trends, design managers would do well to think about the past and the future evolution of key categories such as ‘stakeholder’. Even the meaning of a category such as ‘innovation’ has changed enormously over the years. The chief thing that design managers can do to create the Next Trend in Design is to develop a balanced but critical spirit in relation to the received categories of management, innovation and design.
The example of behavioral economics
In 1970 the British artistic all-rounder, George Melly, memorably described the increasing domination of Britain by pop culture as a ‘revolt into style’. We can again, but more briefly, explore the interplay between ideas and circumstance by looking into the revolt into style conducted by behavioral economics in recent years. This is a worthwhile exercise, for one thing design managers can be reasonably sure about as a trend in the future of design is for society to have growing obsessions with behavior, decision-making, psychology and the brain.
In October 2008 Alan Greenspan, once head of the US Federal Reserve Bank, testified to a packed meeting of the House of Representatives’ government oversight committee. He admitted himself shocked by the Credit Crunch that had been encountered that year, and conceded that he had been partially wrong simply to leave the regulation of some financial instruments to the market. At that moment, as Duke university economics professor Dan Ariely has suggested, belief in the ultimate rationality of humans, of organizations and of markets crumbled – definitively.
The inroads made by behavioral economics on the conventional sort, however, began well before Greenspan’s mea culpa, and at the strangest of places: the conservative RAND Corporation, a Cold War forecasting house based in Santa Monica, California. There, in 1961, Daniel Ellsberg began his later career as an insider dissenter in Washington by flouting some standard axioms. He proposed that, when making a decision in the face of ambiguity, a person might not go ‘maximising a linear combination of pay-offs and probabilities’.
That proposition had the potential to subvert the status quo in economic theory. Later on in the 1960s, two Israeli psychologists, Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky, went further down the path taken by Ellsberg.
By 1979, after Kahneman began collaboration with the American economist Richard Thaler, he and Tversky outlined just how oddly people make decisions in the face of certainty, probability, losses and gains. Part-funded – strangely enough, once more – by the Advanced Research Projects Agency of the US Department of Defense, Kahneman and Tversky’s paper used the responses of university students and staff to hypothetical choice problems. It attacked the ‘rational choice’ axioms of economic conduct applied by Nobel economists Milton Friedman and Kenneth Arrow, describing ‘several classes of choice problems’ in which preferences ‘systematically’ violated those axioms. The paper effectively overturned the neoclassical framework in economics, and helped win Kahneman a Nobel Prize in 2002.
The Nobel Prize meant recognition for those who had discovered the irrational side of decisionmaking. But for this idea to be propelled into the world of mainstream economic discussion, a whole upheaval in the world economy had to occur, in the shape of the Credit Crunch. Only since 2008, when the US economists Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein published Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness, has the idea really grown that the state’s job is to act as a paternalistic ‘choice architect’, nudging feckless and irrational consumers and taxpayers to make ‘informed decisions’.
The special role given to irrationality in decision making had been entertained in the early 1960s, and gained Nobel Laureate status in 2002. But the Byzantine structure and eventual collapse of Wall Street around 2008 was necessary for this previously marginal intellectual trend to become the stuff of conversation all over the West.
Critiquing bestseller books on ideas can let you control the future
To forecast the next trend in design, design managers must mobilize their critical faculties. They need to situate today’s bestsellers on ideas in a careful historical context, and subject them to an equally careful critique. That way, they can synthesize their own, independent view, the better to impose it, as best they can, on the future – rather than allow the future simply to impose on them.
A short summary of and argument with a bestseller on trends, Mark Penn and E Kinney Zalesne’s Microtrends: the Small Forces Behind Tomorrow’s Big Changes (2007) may help. Penn, worldwide chief executive of the PR firm Burson Marseller, is a long-time pollster and larger than life: he has been a key adviser to leaders as varied as Israeli prime minister Menachem Begin, Bill and Hillary Clinton, Bill Gates and Tony Blair. His book sets about identifying ‘small, intense subgroups’, complete with ‘needs and wants unmet’. In this cause, its basic thesis is simple:
‘The very idea that there are a few huge trends out there, determining how America and the world work, is breaking down. There are no longer a couple of megaforces [sic] sweeping us all along. Instead, America and the world are being pulled apart by an intricate maze of choices, accumulating in “microtrends” – small, under-the-radar forces that can involve as little as 1 per cent of the population, but which are powerfully shaping our society.’
For Microtrends it was the default of just 1.7 per cent of US mortgages that, by precipitating the Credit Crunch, brought the whole US economy down.
Microtrends errs because it treats the influence of marginal trends in an unmediated way. We find here a distant echo of our old friend, the butterfly in the South Atlantic that waves its wings and suddenly Affects Everything. What Microtrends neglects is a key ‘megaforce’: society’s growing fear of risk. In the years before 2008, that fear made the US as a whole and US firms prefer what economist Tyler Cowen calls ‘dubious financial innovations’ to technological innovations. So it was failures in the productive parts of the US economy that gave mortgages the sway they had. America’s money economy stretched way beyond the means of the real economy. Leading-edge, world-beating designs and technologies, long fielded by America over a broad front, were not generally seen as a tradition worth renewing. With the exception of its triumphs in the Internet, Cowen writes, the US was ‘missing out on a lot of innovation’.
Microtrends ignored all this. Instead, from ‘cougars’ (older women who date younger men) and on through 81 other market niches, the bite-sized demography of Microtrends gave millions an influential capsule guide to a superficial kind of trend-watching – not just in the US and the UK, but also in Germany and Japan.
The moral of this tale for design managers is straightforward. Small trends can come to be important, but they depend on other, mediating trends for this to happen. More broadly, design managers would to well to collect and suspect more forecasts of the future and to be particularly discriminating about bestselling books on ideas.
Five principles that can assist in the future
Looking at the state of design and designers today, there are five principles that can assist in the future. We say principles because though these are neglected in much of today’s discussion on design, they were important to 19th century founders of design, and could do with debating today. We also like principles because, when animating particular positions on design and in design management, they represent an activist and designerly effort every bit as imposing as the efforts trumpeted by those who advocate Green design, and those who are always outlining new manifestos for design.
Principle 1: Improve basic design skills
The rise of Chinese, Korean and Indian designers has very clear implications for their Western counterparts. The basic skills of design will be more a world commodity in future – a bit like accountancy skills have long been part of the taken-for-granted baggage of business. As a result, designers the world over will have to be very good at differentiating their basic skills from those of other designers.
What do we mean by basic skills? At the very least, we expect the ability to
1. Draw and visualize design ideas, with or without the help of IT
2. Make prototypes that take account of functional, technical and cost requirements
3. Execute design ideas with a strong eye to aesthetics.
Although it downplays the significance of style, Tim Brown’s account of DT rightly stresses the importance of visualization, and of prototypes. However the accent above is on active, thoughtful skills of the hand. Even literacy, numeracy and communication skills are not here, because we are talking about the more fundamental talent of designing.
In pursuit of really high standards in the manipulation of materials and media, the good design managers of the future will welcome the end of superstar designers. They will be skeptical about the more elusive claims of DT – and about the more elusive language used by design schools. For many years, we have had plenty of poor theory in design, design management and design schools. The least we can demand of the Next Trend in Design is that we revive interest in the practical craft, or trade, of designing.
All around the world, and even in Asia, there is a cultural sense of drift – in the realm of design, too. But designers must, to deadline, physically and/or electronically implement their ideas for those ideas to be judged, no matter in which court.
One can be tolerant about different design solutions. But make no mistake: tolerance, in design management as elsewhere, involves the exercise of powers of discrimination. Some design portfolios are good, but too many are not nearly good enough. The struggle for better basic skills in design means making judgments about design.
It is time that the design world revived design’s basic bias to action. It is time that the design world was tougher with itself about its core competence.
Principle 2: Design for lower prices
There is no need to overdo the issue of inflation today. It is true that, in 2011, rates of price inflation were buoyant in many parts of the world. But as inflation today has neither the scale nor the pervasiveness that it did in the early 1970s – the period of ‘stagflation’, when rates of inflation in the West were
Rates of inflation, selected countries, July 2011
S Africa 5.4
Despite the mixed picture on inflation, design managers would be wise to put a special emphasis on achieving quality, but at a low cost.
Countless companies and customers across the world have been forced to tighten belts and count the pennies. When design managers propose solutions that slash lifecycle costs, clients sit up and take notice. While DT is rarely interested in cutting costs, it is a great way to create measurable benefits for firms and for users.
In fact there is more to design for lower costs. As the London-based strategist Robert Bau has pointed out, lowering costs is a ‘Productivity strategy’. To qualify as a genuine Next Trend in Design, cutting costs will means a commitment to design ideas and practical systems that improve productivity, convenience, and the use of time.
It is the business of designers not to make more work, but to obviate more work. In this context, the idea that designers should work with labor-intensive technologies in the pursuit of ‘green jobs’ – making expensive, environmentally conscious goods and services for the middle class – deserves critical scrutiny. Recycling, for example, should be done through efficient, mechanized processes, not as a personal labor of penance. Similarly, employing manual laborers to ‘weatherize’ homes is not as robust a solution as designing and building a new round of zero-emissions nuclear reactors.
Designers and design managers should take pride in making goods and services that work well, but are as cheap to buy as possible. Design managers always need to keep their feet on the ground, in the real world of customer preference; and that kind of preference very much includes a preference for low prices.
Principle 3: Deepen internationalism
While Asian designers know quite a bit about Western culture and design, Western designers know too little of the East. That has to change. Whatever the flaws of DT, its orientation to users of design, if consistently followed through, must mean a fight for greater insight into the East.
In part, the need to know more about and uphold the achievements of foreign designers stems from the exigencies of globalisation. Western firms such as Johnson Controls International, Lego and Albert Heijn are becoming adept at getting various parts of the design process handled in the East. A city such as London can play host to design studios drawn from Nokia, Nissan, Samsung and Yamaha, while the rest of the UK hosts design teams from Black & Decker, Herman Miller, and Tata. In Japan too, a company such as Panasonic has globalised its management of design: whereas, in the past, Panasonic’s Japanese offices designed pretty much everything the company made, today Japanese teams develop just 10-20 per cent of the items that Panasonic sells in emerging markets.
Internationalism in the management of design is a realistic response to the way the world economy works nowadays. Yet it is more than that. In the quest for discrimination in design, for great basic skills and low prices, the internationalist design manager will have little time for cross-border double standards. Everyone in the world deserves the very best that design can bring.
Once more this principle demands a critical attitude toward current developments. Take, for example, the trend toward reverse innovation, where lessons from low-cost designs aimed at emerging markets are touted as the way forward not just there, but also back in the West. Now if famous examples set by General Electric are to be believed, there is much for the West to gain from the East here. GE’s $1,000 handheld electrocardiogram device for rural India and its $15,000 portable, PC-based and ‘software-centric’ ultrasound medical imaging machines for rural China are now sold in the US, where they are stimulating new applications for such machines.
This transfer of innovation from East to West is fine so long as neither the East nor the West loses sight of the need to pursue the very best technology and design solutions – everywhere in the world and, sometimes, regardless of cost. In 2003, Clayton Christensen eloquently spoke up for ‘good enough’ ink-jet printers as an innovation that disrupted the up-market world of laser printers made by incumbent companies. Christensen upheld products that were cheap, simple, convenient, small and portable, even if their performance was low. Yet if ink-let printers have their place in the firmament of properly designed products, so do laser printers. With Asia and Africa in particular, internationalist design managers have a duty to spell out the limitations of second best.
In the developed world, government and non-governmental organizations, educators, media and design commentators like to bring the Third World weak technologies. The British government and Body Shop founders Gordon and Anita Roddick have backed wind-up radios. From the Schumacher Centre, near Rugby, in the West Midlands of the UK, the charity Practical Action favors hand-operated water pumps. In Miami, Florida, the One Laptop Per Child Association and in Cambridge, Massachusetts, the OLPC Foundation have since 2005 been on a ‘long march from radical theory to reality’ to ‘create educational opportunities for the world’s poorest children by providing each child with a rugged, low-cost, low-power, connected laptop with content and software designed for collaborative, joyful, self-empowered learning’.
No doubt the intentions behind these projects are good, but hopefully they do not herald the Next Trend in Design. Design managers must recognise that these measures are no substitute for decent national and international systems of electricity supply, irrigation, and computerisation. No ‘Transition Town’, dedicated to dealing with the challenges of climate change and ‘peak’ oil, can give Africans the energy they need. No amount of good design can make a mosquito net truly effective against malaria. The Next Trend in international Design cannot be condescendingly to impose dumbed-down designs on the South and the East. That would be to lower standards in those regions, and, inadvertently or not, to make their future evolution slow and narrow. For developing countries to embark on more emancipatory options will not be easy; but that’s a prospect for the future much less utopian than to go on believing that ‘appropriate’, or ‘intermediate’ technology is the way out of their difficulties.
It is not hard to read the United Nations’ Millennium Development Goals as unambitious. It is wrong to reflect those Goals with questions for developing countries such as ‘How might we find low-cost alternatives to wood-burning stoves in urban slums?’, or ‘How might we create an infant incubator that does not need an electrical supply?’. If this is Design Thinking, it is a very shallow kind of thinking. The relevant question for developing countries is, rather: ‘How can we explain the case for, plan and help do the design detail of working, maintainable national systems for energy supply and transmission that are every bit as powerful and universal as those in the West?’. From the holistic point of view so beloved of DT, it ought to be obvious that, in developing countries as elsewhere, energy infrastructure ought to be there not just to relieve the plight of poor families, but to dynamise large organizations.
Principle 4: Uphold science and technology
What the world needs now is more science and technology, not less. Every design manager should take that to heart. Where, after the 2011 nuclear accidents at Fukushima, Japan, were the clear-eyed maps integrated with charts of radiation? Where, after more than 10 years of the Human Genome Project, are the memorable graphic images of it, images that both explain and capture the popular imagination? When did designers last give Mendeleev’s Periodic Table the inspired treatments it has had from the American comic singer and mathematician, Tom Lehrer (The Elements, 1959), or the Italian writer and chemist, Primo Levi (The Periodic Table, 1975)?
The Next Trend in Design could be about ensuring that new recruits to corporate design functions are properly curious about science and technology. Yes, designers need to learn more history, social psychology, forecasting. But they make a mistake if they affect, in the manner of DT, to be superior to science and technology. If they are not attracted to the romance of research and development (R&D), or to the contribution it can make, they cannot be designers or design managers fit for a new century.
Designers and design managers need to open up to corporate R&D departments. The remaining skilled experts in white coats that the West can muster deserve a fervent collaboration, not a dismissive competition. These people are not geeks, techies, nerds, or code warriors. They are subject to budget cuts, are often heroes, and must be learned from. At the same time, designers and design managers need to eschew both glib technophilia and glib technophobia. They should interrogate the boosterish market populism of Wired in IT, and of Grist in matters environmental. But they should question, too, the pessimistic advocates of a ‘steady state’ and even a ‘degrowth’ economy.
Designers and design managers need to adopt a discriminating attitude toward the new technologies, just as much as they strike the same posture in relation to all other phenomena relevant to their professional practice. Yet they do also have a duty to explain and advocate far-reaching scientific research and open-ended technological experimentation. In the West, pressures to delay, take fright about or underfund science and technology deserve resistance. Design managers need to know who their friends are, and should improve their knowledge of scientific and technological trends.
Principle 5: See older people as quick learners
Despite DT’s emphasis on end-users, the literature that surrounds it is weak on older people. Yet in Japan, Italy, Germany and even China, design managers will meet an ageing population in the years and decades to come. In the UK, the number of years that 65-year-olds can expect to live without a disability is rising very rapidly:
Years English 65-year-olds can expect to be free of disability, 2002-8
2000-2 2004-6 2006-8
Males 8.9 10.2 10.5
Females 10.4 10.7 10.9
How should designers make the best of these kinds of trends?
The real point to grasp is that older people today are not ‘just as young as they feel’. It is too trendy to think this, and too vague. This view neglects the very real physiological changes that set in once the human body turns 40 years old.
On the other hand, it is also too superficial to confine older people to a stereotype that sees their atrophied experience and experiences from the past as the key to their specificity. It is nice that certain British retail chains employ old people because of their generation’s familiarity with how to put up a shelf, or because of their experience of an earlier, more civil kind of customer service. Yet experience, Oscar Wilde’s novel The Picture of Dorian Grey (1890) suggests, is by itself of no ethical value; it is simply the name we give our mistakes. What count are not just experiences of the past, but also the ability to learn from these, and from mistakes, so as to navigate the future adroitly.
Today’s older people possess not just experiences, but also an enquiring outlook. Through their experiences, older people can often find solutions for tomorrow’s problems faster than young people. Design managers could start an excellent Next Trend in Design once they make a proper, neither starry-eyed nor patronising estimate of the talents of older customer. They should take seriously, too, the talents of older workers who use new designs in the workplace, and the talents of older designers as employees.
In this article we have tried to give a hint of where trends come from. We have also given some guidance, if not about how the next intellectual trend will shape up, then certainly, in a spirit of activism, about what design managers ought to be encouraging as trends in design.
The Next Trend in Design should, we have argued, be back-to-basics, counter-inflationary, internationalist, pro-technology and pro-older people. This argument is based on today’s realities, but seeks to go beyond them. Discontent, Wilde remarked in A Woman of No Importance (1893) is the first step in the progress of a man or a nation. Equally, in the Maxims for Revolutionists in his play Man and Superman (1903), George Bernard Shaw observed:
‘The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man.’
Tough though it may appear to be, the perspective set out here could form a simple, convincing, intelligent and un-faddish new argument for the discipline of design itself. Here’s why:
First, the perspective puts the accent on the visual and functional execution of design, in a way that anybody from senior manager to person in the street can recognize.
Second, it tries to make purchases cheaper, and sees a role for technology in helping that process along.
Third, while it can cheapen products and services, the Next Trend in Design refuses to cheapen the lives of people in emerging markets.
Fourth, the Next Trend seeks a powerful new alliance with scientists and technologists who want not to ameliorate disease, but eliminate it; who want top-class infrastructure for all, not Band Aid measures that work around the lack of infrastructure; who want the best, not second best.
Last, the Next Trend in Design orientates to senior citizens as active powers, not as passive victims.
With this Trend the compass for design has neither got stuck in stop-the-world environmentalism, nor has gone spinning through any number of fanciful design futures.