Loading ...

I’m hosting a beehive on my roof in Fort Greene, Brooklyn. Beekeeping (of European honeybees, the ones that have been mysteriously dying off) was just made legal in New York City this spring at the urging of local beekeepers, removing honeybees from an official New York City list of forbiddens that includes tarantulas and ferrets. I’ve also suddenly developed allergies to the trees in my neighborhood. Chosen for their disease resistance, cities have historically planted hardy male trees but their choices have included highly allergenic pollinators. In large quantities, these regal verdant canopies screw up the natural balance. As a result, spring in New York was almost unbearable for many whose immune systems were taxed. And that’s why the honeybees are on my roof; local raw honey and pollen from bees builds up the immune system.

With the wrong kind of stewardship, trees, bees and other natural resources run amuck, which can ultimately lead to calamity for our tiny planet. The world watches helplessly as reckless decisions—like those that lead to the massive BP Gulf oil spill and the Massey coalmine collapse—decide our fate. Do you, as I did in those instances, think in horror and despair, “Why weren’t they prepared?”

Cities could obviously design more balanced ecosystems, the typical tangle of bureaucracies notwithstanding. BP and Massey could have avoided disaster. We know that. And, while it’s easy to say their judgment was clouded by corporate greed, what’s probably more true in all cases is that they lack a holistic systematic design process. For instance, if the planners had started with a user-empathy phase as prescribed in design thinking,1 they would surely have unearthed the potential problems; the disastrous and costly ramifications of taking shortcuts and of not investing upfront in a sustainable strategy. They would have, at the very least, been prepared for the very worst. But the user-empathy phase is the opposite of a shortcut, it’s the initial phase where all is considered, including ditching the project and taking left turns. Time-consuming. Nervous-making. Deep-thinking. Pondering long-term effects is anathema to the corporate mindset of growth and profit; if it isn’t broken, don’t fix it. Well it’s broken. So now what?

If design thinking is not the master chef of the corporate stew, is it even an ingredient? Has the world started to recognize the importance of design? Back in 1971, revered industrial designer Victor Papanek wrote, “All that we do, almost all the time, is design, for design is basic to all human activity. The planning and patterning of any act toward a desired, foreseeable end constitutes the design process. Any attempt to separate design, to make it a thing-by-itself, works counter to the fact that design is the primary underlying matrix of life.”2 This concept fell on deaf ears in 1971: Design was still the artifact, not the act. A noun not a verb.

The designer’s lament, “everyone is suddenly a designer,” is not a putdown. It’s not a fad. It’s been this way all along. It’s reality. We’re all just catching up with Papanek. BusinessWeek's World’s Most Influential Designers (perhaps a more honest title would be World’s Most Influential People We Happen to Know Who Understand What Design Is) might puzzle readers of this magazine. Included are only two graphic designers—the legendary Tom Geismar and Ivan Chermayeff, partners in Chermayeff and Geismar. No Glaser, no Sagmeister, no Scher, no Vanderbyl. Sorry! Similarly, the writers of BusinessWeek’s Best Innovation and Design Books of 2009 included economists, entrepreneurs and academics. Few professionals that readers of Communication Arts would call “designers” were considered important enough to even cite.

Has “designer” become so ubiquitous as to be meaningless? Many designers think they are not like the population at large. Terry Irwin head of the design school at Carnegie Mellon says,“I’ve had arguments with designers who don’t think anyone else is designing but them. They tend to not be collaborators.” She continues, “Design is a new discipline with many specialties and subspecialties—that is what we do. The problem is that debates can happen in different territories and miss the point of each. When you have a debate as a communication designer with an engineer, they see communication as a piece of what they do, not the main activity.”

Tom Geismar concurs, “It’s always been confusing. People don’t know what we do. It’s insufficient to call us graphic designers but at least it defines us. I judged work from the painting, sculpture, photography and graphic design departments at Yale recently and there were so many overlaps from so many different parts of the school, it was hard to tell who was what.”

If you go by the dictionary definition (planner), God is a designer: Maybe that’s why BusinessWeek, Fast Company, Harvard University and other business entities have glommed onto design recently.

A SNOOTY BUSINESSSome graphic designers see what they do as a combination of skill and strategy while others are just naval gazers. In reality, effective graphic design is both a craft and a discipline requiring concentrated strategic thinking. It is a commodity. Artistic. Unverifiable. Undervalued. On the other hand it’s an intellectual pursuit. Analytical. Verifiable. Highly valued. Go to the public library or a bookstore. Look up design and you will be sent scurrying in many directions. Chaos and extreme emotions hover around design, partly due to a lack of clear definition, but also because of the hodgepodge of “design professionals” out there.

The business press can be quite disparaging of graphic design. Forbes published an article last year in which they referred to graphic design as a “snooty business,” and design firms as “entrenched.”3 The magazine then introduced CrowdSpring as a more affordable alternative. With a similar frustration, Forbes wrote, “Why I hate the new Penguin Classics typographic covers... these aren’t covers for book lovers; they’re for graphic designers."4 This sadly is not an unfair criticism.

It’s time to acknowledge the reality. Many graphic designers refer to themselves as “problem solvers.” And yet they may have the same deficit as corporations: They lack a systematic holistic design process. If you’re not part of the solution, you are a problem-maker.

PROBLEM SOLVING 101: THINKING THROUGH DESIGN THINKINGMark Randall of World Studio, himself an unusually thoughtful and engaged designer, speaks for many a seasoned design firm principal when he says, “I’m filling out FedEx slips. When would I find the time to completely transform my studio’s process?”

Many small design firms are probably closer than they realize to having the mix they need for an effective team to implement a design thinking process. Here is a checklist of ingredients needed for a successful team:

•  Empathy. Mistake number one is thinking you are the audience. Empathy is the desire and ability to put yourself in someone else’s shoes without thinking they are just like you.
•  Size. One hundred people cannot design anything. Most designers already work on small teams. Randall says, “Avoid layers of bureaucracy. Smaller teams are more invested in the team, communicate better and have more fun.”
•  Diversity. The most effective team represents the world at large with a balance of visual and non-visual thinkers, complementary skills, cultural backgrounds. The balance also helps avoid competition within the team.
•  Communication skills. Experience designer Nathan Shedroff says, “People can be in violent agreement. They may be on the same team and, in fact, be saying the same thing, but not have the communication skills that allow them to effectively cooperate.”
•  Perspicacity. A balance of skills, worldviews and backgrounds promotes clear-sightedness—the opposite of groupthink, tunnel or silo thinking.
•  Trust. A small non-competitive, diverse team can build trust. The process and goal can remain in center stage only when egos, ass-kissing and power-grabbing are in check.
•  Talent. Talent doesn’t just mean you can draw. It means you can use your mind creatively, innovatively. Talent, when harnessed, leads to perspicacious thinking.
•  Intellectual ability. Wrapped in wisdom and healthy skepticism. Challenge the assumptions.
•  Curiosity. The confidence to go off-the-beaten-path to unearth the truth is an important attribute. Randall says, “I often get asked by students what I’m looking for in an employee, and I say they need curiosity and a sense of humor.”

“I would add wisdom and youth to that list,” John Bielenberg of C2 says, “Mix up the ages. Youth has a different perspective than maturity in many ways; 26- to 28-year-olds are flexible thinkers—able to make connections. Most innovations are made by people at those ages. The synapses tend to calcify later in life.”

Once you have the right team and a project in mind, process comes into play. There are many approaches to design thinking and it’s best to personalize the process so it works for you.

Susana Galarza developed her thesis recently using design thinking while a communication design graduate student at Pratt. A citizen of Venezuela, she wanted to see how she could help her impoverished homeland. “I guess you could say my family in Venezuela, my advisors at Pratt and my classmates were my team.” Her focus was how to intervene, tackle it as a social problem, get into the midst of it. 

THE BIG PICTUREGalarza developed a design methodology that works for her as a visual thinker. “I needed to understand how the people worked. A lot of times human behavior is not given the importance it deserves. Too often we work on solving the wrong problem. Part of my first phase was to understand everything they had tried in the past.”

ANALYSIS“In doing this, I realized the people in my village lacked the social connections, the network they needed to rise up out of poverty. They have all the elements—job skills, services—but it all needed to be connected. I erased all my misperceptions and started from scratch. My question was, ‘How can you come up with a new framework to help people become entrepreneurs?’”

CONNECTING THE DOTS“I created a map of sticky notes and connected the dots. The problem looked different after this phase and had new boundaries. The redefinition of the problem unveiled opportunities, which became the foundation for the strategic plan. Impoverished people are commonly defined as not having access to the right opportunities and products. However, I found that they also need to rely on a strong social network that can provide support and access to such opportunities and products.”

CREATE THE PLAN“I started to see opportunities for creating two-way relationships. I looked for more feedback at this point. I saw the weaknesses: While the people had the skills, they were often unreliable. I came up with the idea of designing uniforms to create ‘group’ identity and empowerment. I gave them titles to help them feel more important. I designed a Web site, made contracts that the people could sign. My strategy was to increase their reliability.”

IMPLEMENTATION“A lot of designers don't get a chance to follow through—they make a design system and are out of the picture.” Galarza says, “It’s up to us to get out of our well-designed cocoons. We have to connect with more people, take on more, help shape the client’s mission statement, let them know we’re here as strategists.”

Galarza is taking her design and plan back to Venezuela. “The next challenge is to translate it so they can understand it. I expect problems, but I’m prepared to address them.”

RETEACHING THE TEACHERSPratt’s Deb Johnson, head of the Center for Sustainable Design Studies, has arranged for a conference this fall of 30 art and design schools from across the country to be held on Pratt’s campus. “The focus is sharing ways to bring sustainability into the classroom as a critical layer of thinking, alongside things like function or aesthetics,” Johnson says. These Pratt “fellows” will come with assessments of the state of sustainability in their schools. Johnson continues, “We’re looking for deep strategies, to integrate sustainability. We’ll discuss individual challenges. Over a year, there will be a coaching process to follow up.” At the conference, Johnson will share her experience at Pratt, which has taken a leadership role in sustainability in education. She says, “We have a crash course for teachers, that helps them to integrate sustainability into their own professional work, then it will trickle down into the classroom. My goal is for no student to leave Pratt without understanding the implications of their actions. Our core course uses systems thinking, science, philosophy and economics. We put an object in the middle. We analyze the science around it, the materials used to make it. Not just aesthetics. It’s a foundation course.” For all this to make a difference, those who hire graduates of these schools must also embrace sustainability and systems thinking; otherwise, the knowledge and skills they bring to companies and firms will be wasted.

C2 REBOOTBielenberg and partners Erik Cox and Greg Galle at C2 rethought their process during the recent economic downturn. They moved in the direction of a design thinking phase development. “I’m always interested in new ideas. How can design be done better? Very smart people can be human. There is a tendency to overthink. I am not very proprietary. Groups can come up with innovative concepts but execution has to be owned by someone. The designer has to be on the team.”

Bielenberg continues, “We have definitely seen a change in the scope of our projects and an increase in our fees. Usually our projects are not initiated by the marketing departments; we are now almost always working with top leadership teams that can include the CEO, COO, CFO and CMO although marketing is almost always involved. Our process has pushed us up the ladder into a more strategic role but designed execution is critical to make ideas ‘live in the world.’”

HOT HOT HOTMaria Giudice founded Hot Studio, an experience design company, thirteen years ago. She doesn’t think of herself as a graphic designer. She says, “It’s too narrow. And I’m not an executioner. I’m more like a co-creator, collaborator, co-conspirator, looking at many sides of the box.” Giudice observes, “Graphic designers are typically trained to execute in school, not to think in systems, not to think downsides, upsides. And if you don’t think, you can really screw up the system.”

Hot, which now has a staff of 40 with offices in New York and San Francisco, often develops long term relationships with clients and gets asked to help envision a company in the future. Hot’s approach is co-creation. Giudice says, “We all think very differently, we get many more ideas through collaboration.5  Hot has four basic phases based on the concept of systems thinking:

•  Discover: gain insight
•  Strategy: create the bigger picture that design will fit in
•  Design: develop a roadmap to execution
•  Build: execute, iterate

BP'S FAUX BRANDINGAfter a major merger and acquisition, CEO John Browne knew it was time for BP’s core brand to change. In 1997 Landor Associates in San Francisco was selected as the design team to lead that process. Browne was putting his legacy into place. BP was branching out into renewable energies because oil was unsustainable. Prophetically, while the sunflower (helios) branding was a bold and heroic move on both BP and Landor’s parts, it lacked credibility. BP’s track record did not warrant a spanking-green brand image. But Browne was determined to make a sea change at BP so he was reaching for a new future for energy. He saw the helios as a change agent.

In response to Browne’s brief, Landor (and Ogilvy New York) also presented BP = Beyond Petroleum. The helios was the big visual message of their commitment to sustainability and Beyond Petroleum was meant merely as part of an internal program. In fact BP was warned not to use it publicly. However, within two years Browne felt that enough people within BP were embracing the new brand identity to use Beyond Petroleum in advertising. A lot of the top people were not on board, including the oil division; this new brand was in a precarious situation when, in 2007, a personal scandal led Browne to step down as head of BP.

Designer Margaret Youngblood, who is currently a partner in Trinity Brand Group, was at Landor in 1997 and worked on the rebranding. “I was captivated by BP’s mission to pursue renewable energy.” But when Browne left, that mission went with him.

Don’t most consumer companies seek the same message of “change agent”? It’s expected now, yet its impossible to be totally green and remain commercially viable. Think plastic containers and petroleum products in general; we are all being green-washed, all the time.

Youngblood, who was radicalized by her time in the corporate sector, is despondent about the oil spill, “The BP situation breaks my heart. It’s a disaster for the environment, the people, the employees of BP. Everyone. I believe when BP launched its mission in 1999 to seek alternative renewable energy sources that were less harmful to the world, they were and, I hope, still are committed to that. Their hope was to not only inspire their company, but to inspire and motivate the world to find solutions ‘beyond petroleum.’ But this disaster has revealed how unrelenting focus on progress and short-term financial results quarter after quarter is in direct opposition to the need for increased commitment to the health and safety of all employees and the environment within which they work.” Youngblood continues, “I don’t believe in working with companies unless I believe in their mission. We have to take responsibility.” We can only hope something incredibly good comes from the BP tragedy—that the pendulum will swing the other way.

STARTING SOMEWHEREAIGA executive director Ric Grefé is a pivotal leader in the graphic design profession. Gaby Brink, president and creative director of Tomorrow in Berkeley says, “Ric told us sustainability needs to be in our DNA.” Brink decided that perhaps AIGA should have a clear manifesto regarding sustainability for designers.

Grefé suggested that there were enough manifestos; the real challenge was to provide clear guidance to designers about how to consider the implications of design in an even broader context, where “sustainability” refers not only to the environment, but to civilization, adding economic, social and cultural dimensions and drawing on a panoply of existing statements of principles.

This energized Brink as well as Nathalie Destandau, who has a background in sustainable management and is also at Tomorrow, and fellow designer Phil Hamlett. Building on the AIGA’s Center for Sustainable Design community, this team assembled designers from many disciplines to craft tools that clarify what should be expected of responsible designers and allows for their broad engagement in sharing their successes and practices.

In that respect, The Living Principles strives to provide good clear information so that designers may achieve perspicacity, but the true measure of the success of The Living Principles will be enthusiastic participation by the widest range of professionals, students and academics. AIGA has taken the lead, but the larger community must “own” this movement. And AIGA has invited other design organizations in as well as limited its own visibility to achieve this.

The Living Principles are seen as complementary to The Designers Accord, of which Tomorrow and AIGA are adopters and fervent supporters. Mohawk, a paper company that has moved purposefully into sustainable practices, has become a much-appreciated partner and funder in helping graphic design find its new footing (and relevance) in this new world. We have to start somewhere. We have to improve and add to what has been done. We have to take responsibility. That is the mandate.

DESIGN IN A TIME OF MASSIVE CHANGEThe wind picks up with hurricane force when there’s about to be a cold snap on a hot summer’s day. Turmoil is a precursor to change: We are seeing social and environmental dysfunction around the world like never before. Giudice observes, “Things have to die before they get reborn. All the systems have been breaking down. They have to be reimagined. It will take generations.” The good news in this is where the designers become relevant again, as systems thinkers, reimaginers. But to do so we all have to “go back to school,” learn about the real world and learn to think and design in accordance with its needs.

WISDOM OF THE AGESBiomimicry as the term implies has become a rich source of designs, processes, strategies as the natural world’s inner workings are revealed to us. Janine Benyus of the Biomimicry Institute says, “It’s the conscious emulation of life's genius; 3.8 billion years of research and development are available to us if we only look at how nature has solved problems, creating without creating waste for instance. How does nature make the most of things? Nature works completely in ecological systems.” Look at corporations, especially those that depend on the earth’s resources. How could biomimicry improve their systems and designs?

Honey is the only food that never goes bad. And it’s good for you. The preservative, beeswax is the other bee product of great value. There is no waste. Honeybee hives are all over New York City now, on rooftops, in gardens. Bees need no guidance from us, only good stewardship. All their actions have a purpose with each bee playing a very specific role within their ancient system. I am humbled by these tiny, vulnerable creatures, these design thinkers, which predate man by twelve million years. We can learn from them, develop good systems, become better stewards of our earth so we can all thrive on it for another twelve million years. That is the mandate. ca

1. See Part 1, in the May/June 2010 issue of Communication Arts.
2. Design for the Real World.
3. Forbes 1/22/08 “CrowdSpring aims to slash the cost of graphic design work—and democratize a snooty business.”
4. Forbes 3/4/10 “Covered: Penguin Classics’ Pretentious New Book Jackets.”
5. www.hotstudio.com presentations, “Don’t Go it Alone.”

DK Holland writes about design and teaches in two MFA design programs in New York, one at SVA and one at Pratt. She is an advisor to Project M and Design Ignites Change. Holland has been the editor of Design Issues since she started it in 1990. She is the author/producer of many books on design as well as Branding for Nonprofits. She is the producer of CitizenME, which creates transmedia tools that engage students in understanding how to become proactive citizens. Holland lives and works in her tiny nineteenth-century restored Italianate house and garden in Fort Greene, Brooklyn.

With a free Commarts account, you can enjoy 50% more free content
Create an Account
Get a subscription and have unlimited access
Already a subscriber or have a Commarts account?
Sign In

Get a subscription and have unlimited access
Already a subscriber?
Sign In