The design profession in a changing world

Envisioning the future is a problematic enterprise, given the cacophony of competing visions that describe how the world could or should be.

This puts designers and the design professions in a difficult situation. Although there are difficulties in predicting exactly what the change would be, not many question the fact that the practice of design is changing.

How can we react to this change?What we call industry is now very different to the early years of industrial design. The main question is no longer how to produce something as cheaply or as efficiently as possible, but rather to find new and more creative ways of making a market.

In many western countries, much of the traditional industries have also ceased to exist, and moved to countries with cheaper labour costs. Design became a way for countries and companies to find new and more creative ways of doing things rather than to save costs.

Studying design requires that you keep up to date with new technology

“A set of new and current skills is a strong foothold into the market”

The role of design has also changedCompanies are moving from mass customization to personal participation and production, and a strong DIY culture has emerged. Design is increasingly used as a way to make it possible for people to express themselves, rather than for the designers to express their own approach.

As the design profession develops and is put under more strain from the surrounding society many designers are feeling anxious about losing the core of what they actually are: creative designers.

Much of the creative and artistic development is now also connected to a very critical stance to society and societal issues, and art (and design) once again, becomes a way of taking a stance.

The addition of new skillsFor the individual designers, a set of new and current skills is a strong foothold into the market. When the CAD-tools first became used in design agencies in the early 90s, many young designers were hired because they knew how to utilize the new technology, unlike their older peers.

At the same time as many designers are talking about new skills, many are also questioning the way we think and developing new trains of thought. Increasingly, design is seen as not only serving the needs of our businesses, but also determining and working towards the greater good for society and government, education and the environment. 

Traditionally, the ability to approach larger complex issues has been viewed through the concept of ”wicked problems”. The notion is that there is an entire class of social system problems, which are ill-formulated, where the information is confusing, where there are many clients and decision makers with conflicting values and where the ramifications in the whole system are thoroughly confusing.

A designer needs to make people think differently about their environment

“What if the problem to solve is just the way that the population is thinking?”

Designers are encouraged to ask the right questions to start tackling these issues. These questions could be:

  • What role can a designer play in a collaborative process of social intervention?
  • How might the public’s perception of designers be changed in order to present an image of a socially responsible designer?
  • How can agencies that fund social welfare projects and research gain a stronger perception of design as a socially responsible activity?
  • What kinds of products meet the needs of vulnerable populations?

We are better off if we actively react to change rather than deny it or wait for it to happen. 

There are many different avenues of design that we can walk down in the future. Designers are taught that there should always be a problem to solve. What if the problem to solve is just the way that the population is thinking? Why shouldn't a designer also have the responsibility to make a difference in the way of thinking and not only in the way of using products?

Making the new areas tangible will make them easier to discuss and we can now start debating whether this is the direction we as a professional practice want to go in or not in industrial design.

Anna Valtonen
Rector of Umeå Institute of Design