12 Jul 2020

Design of What!? (My)Design journey from the shop floor to the director’s chair.

Gabriella Martins

You probably remember some story focused on a character (or group) that intends to make the audience “buy” a specific point of view about some historical event or moment. Like Saving Private Ryan, Titanic, Homeland, etc (Hollywood loves that). By building the arch, the author exposes the audience to a specific context making them believe that this is historically accurate then, it’s the truth, the only possible truth.

Now you are probably asking yourself: “Ok…but what does it have to do with strategic design?!” Well…a lot and not much actually. It’s just a disclaimer to what is about to happen in this post 🙃

Living the Design History

Let me introduce myself, the story character. I’m a designer and I came from one of the most traditional Design schools in Brazil, at Art & Communication Centre of the Universidade Federal de Pernambuco (yep, there is already some tradition in design and yep, there are traditional Design schools in Brazil)

By traditional Design school, I mean that we take a very long time studying and lucubrating the role of the designer in the society, the history of design, anthropology, sociology, the philosophy of the design and all. Besides, of course, playing with scissors, collages, plasticine, painting, woodwork and doodling.

As any Design School, Bauhaus was kind of the base. But as any modern Design School, it was needed to incorporate the digital, the research, the tactical, the business.

A thing that didn’t change much in this 101 years of design teaching: Every designer will hear, at least once in their lifetime, one or both of the questions below.

What exactly is Design?!

And your design, is it the design of What?!

These questions and variations of them. I bet we all hear them, but especially now, not many of us can give a short straight answer. And I confess I make part of the majority.

Design is a subject that redesigns itself faster than you can say UX. As Design loves to be cause and consequence of each Zeitgeist, the spirit of each time.

So, take popcorn and follow me on the very long curly answer.

(My) Design journey from operational to the strategic level.

So, there I was, a naive kid choosing to study product design (spoiler alert: it doesn’t mean the same as today). In my first job, I used to work as a product designer in a glass factory. Yes, making bottles and cups.

Meaning I was in the middle of the tug-o- war between the marketing team and the engineering team. Fun.

I’ve learned a lot from this experience. About engineering, about marketing and how these both VERY strategic pillars struggle to find common ground. If you also put in the equation other departments like finances, quality assurance, purchasing, production planning and logistics…well the thing becomes a Tower of Babel. Easy peasy, it’s like riding a Cerberus, the mythological 3-headed dog.

Don’t get me wrong! I am not saying no one knew what they were doing, quite the opposite! As they all knew pretty well what they were doing (in their department), the design was exactly in the middle, trying to mediate everyone’s points of view and needs.

I’m talking from my experience but it’s possible to observe it in so many companies, everywhere and of every size. And this is how the design works on the operational level. We (try)follow the directions of the tactic/strategic level, to (try to) create beautiful, functional and meaningful artefacts (physical, visual, digital, etc). So fluid and organic written, so full of friction and frustration in reality.

As more complex, the World turns out, less linear the operational design becomes. In the last decades, we all can agree with it, we have been running with scissors toward complexity, in the economy, environment, services, products and…life.

Thus we can observe 3 movements in the design at organizations and economy:

  1. The Operational Design Team becoming almost a mini-organization inside the organization itself (even when is a one-person team), illustrated by the emergence of what nowadays called “product designer” (UX Planet has this nice piece about it), a holistic professional that holds together the product-service-system projects having above and together with them a swiss knife of design competences like UX design, UI design, artefact design, service design, frontend, etc. As the project becomes like a little company, the designer holds more responsibility and power what can (and will) bring up questions from the project itself to impact the “mother” company strategic decision.
  2. Design Thinking. DT( in short words) is a kind of “design to non-designers” as a tactical ability. Designers are, in any sector, project experts. What we do in school and professional life is building our toolbox to make ideas come true. Some people put inside their toolbox some woodwork competence, others the creation of characters to games, others to know how to draw garments and some the creation of services’ touchpoints. But in every toolbox, there are some basic tools: exploring problems/scenarios; creating possibilities and planning solutions. And, besides all the post-its and canvas used on DT workshops, this is what is being taught and spread outside the Design Universe, having tools to problem-solving and to opportunity taking…. And now, what we were all waiting for, the 3- movement, the wave I’m surfing for a decade:
  3. Strategic Design. Well well well. For illustrative purposes, let’s keep the surfing metaphor: Imagine a beach in the ’80s, there are surfers with different kinds of boards, shortboards, longboards, bodyboards, some are self-taught some had fancy training with famous surfers, but all of them were surfing. This was the design market some decades ago and, as we talked before, it was a less complex work, focused on graphic, fashion, motion or (industrial) product. It was not a simple job ( not at all, with little computing power, any project should take too much from the designer’s finest abilities). But it was a less complex craft than today. Oh! And at the beach, there was also the windsurfers (the architects) yeah they use boards but they are more like riding flatboats than catching waves 😜

The time goes by, the technology evolves, the surfers learn new technics and they note they can surf waves farther from the shore, catching them from where they born, taking the best of the ride. Invading the space of the jetskiers (business executives), wakeboarders (consulting and business services) and their old fellas, the windsurfers (here is just a payback 🙃). Here one learns from the other, new players emerge in this scenario, and 💥 we have now the kitesurfers, they catch waves and… fly! we have the stand-up paddlers that love flat waters, go a long distance but also can catch a good wave as any longboarder; and now there are the skimboards, running from the beach jumping to face the waves and the bodysurfing with their minuscules and powerful one-hand-boarders (yeah, this is a thing), these both are metaphors to how these days any operational designer from any background can find tools to work on the strategic level, especially in startups and SMEs.

This is Design at the Strategic level today. It is everywhere now, it is taking its pride of place inside the C-Level of traditional executive hierarchical organizations; a good part of the famous design companies are becoming more like business consulting companies; huge multinational consulting and business services players are opening or purchasing design firms and spin-offs (The Board of Innovation published this Innovation Consulting Market Overview); and the craft, the design craft, it’s redesigning itself again, its schools and its toolboxes.

Coming back to myself. How I started to surf these waves?!

I had a great opportunity, 10 years ago, to study at a global design centre that was consciously and unconsciously discussing it, the Politecnico di Milano. There I got in touch with the subjects of Product-Service-System Design, Design-Driven Innovation, Business Model Generation, Open Innovation, etc. Besides all the novelty of names, some of the concepts were not so new to me from my Brazilian experience, which can evidence the global trend emerging that time and that now is ubiquitous.

These concepts were a mix of Design, Business, Engineering, Art, Economy, all together and from every background, focusing on questioning how things are done, breaking glasses and projecting new scenarios. From that time I could never again see the design role as the same, as limited to an operative aesthetical box. I was hooked. Coming back home I got in the design masters (of the research kind ) and I became almost obsessed to study about these relationships of the design with business and particularly, with the economic environment. (I will talk about later about my Innovative Territories thesis).

In parallel, I experimented a lot, business models, digital fabrication, project-based education, etc etc.

And this is how the Werkbund was born, a strategic design company that is designing itself (again) as a solution to design new, potentially innovative, realities.

And the answer to those 2 questions?! You may be asking. Let’s try.

In my opinion, the design is more a world view associated with a group of abilities and competences to rethink and remake systems, services and artefacts. All that can be learned by anyone (abilities which should be taught from pre-school) because knowing how to solve problems should not be an exclusive matter of trained designers.

And my Design, it is the Design of What?! …Ask me tomorrow maybe I will know.

Thank you for reading our story, we hope it brought you some good!