Co.Design

Why Co.Design Believes That Design's Big Moment Is Now

What makes design such an important discipline in today's world? Designers are the only ones who specialize in melding disparate technologies into a single whole that solves problems.

[Last week, the Industrial Designers Society of America held its yearly gala, which culminated in the presentation of the Industrial Design Excellence Awards. Co.Design’s very own Belinda Lanks was on hand to deliver a speech that we co-wrote. Here it is.—Ed.]

In the last 20 years, with a regular rhythm, we’ve all heard that design had finally arrived. That the discipline’s time to shine was now. But the decisive moment never quite seems to come. Today, even though design sits in a loftier position thanks to the example of Apple and Oxo and Target and others, designers still frequently say that they’re not accorded real decision-making power.

But here’s why Fast Company thinks that there has never been a better time in the last 50 years to be a designer. Today, integration, rather than raw technology, has become the pressing problem of our world. From the dizzying pace of gadget advancement to the complex supply chains that create our carbon footprints, the problems we face can seldom be solved by pure innovation. For the most part, we have the raw technology we need. But its impact is blunted because it seldom works together, to the best ends. This is what designers, above all else, are good at. If you’ll bear with me for a minute, I’ll give you the best example I can think of, in the form of Steve Jobs.

He is the paragon of a design-minded business leader. So much so that we forget that his vision nearly ran Apple into the ground. It was his vision, in the 1980s, that netted computers that demanded enormous price premiums for their design, while actually having less capabilities and features. But 20 years later, his model of focusing on the user experience above all else won out. Consumers began to realize that all the features in the world didn’t matter, if they didn’t work together elegantly. And finally, they were willing to pay for it.

[Steelcase’s Node Chair, which is designed to allow students to easily join up for group work]

Many other industries and technologies are arriving at the same point. The problem is no longer making a new widget, but finally making them work for us. The winners from tonight all share that recognition of the end-to-end experience of using something, from Fuseproject’s eyeglasses for the poor to GE’s CAT scan machines to medical record management by Artefact to Steelcase’s Node Chair.

And most of the winners we honor tonight solve problems more complex than any that have ever existed. Consider: Many of you think every day about designing apps and experiences for smartphones and tablets. And while you’re doing that, you’re facing the challenge of compressing the world’s most advanced feats of computer engineering—functions that would fill an entire office building 50 years ago—onto a screen as small as your palm.

What I meant to say is: Design doesn’t progress like science or mathematics. As our culture learns and grows, designers don’t respond by winnowing themselves into tinier and tinier disciplines. Instead, their job is to pull the world back together, from its many fractured parts.

And the world is eager to hear how each of you do it. At Fast Company, we’ve seen Co.Design, our design site, grow to reach 1.2 million readers a month in its first year. More than anything else, that’s a testament to how many people are watching everyone in this room, and how many people realize that it’s designers rather than CEOs who hold the keys to innovation today.

[Top image by Daniel Novta]

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2 Comments

  • keith

    I've been saying this same thing! We've reached a clear point in computer technology where quality is more important than quantity of features and a low price.

  • Craig Hermanson

    I've been telling my design students much the same thing... that “Future Shock” and “Option Paralysis” caused by too much choice (google ‘barry schwartz ted’) are making Design increasingly important for success.