Twenty Years in Design, Pt 2


Integrating co-creation into business

“When designers even subtly change the framing of the problem they set out to solve, they change the nature of their practice” (Breslin 54).

As you move through the orders (see Richard Buchanan’s 4 orders of design on previous post “Twenty Years in Design, Pt 1“), the outcomes begin to change from very concrete ones, such as Graphic Design (first order) and Industrial Design (second order), into more intangible outcomes, such as Interaction Design (third order) and Organizational Design (fourth order). This newer third and fourth order work has a high focus on how people interact with the world around them, such as in service design, and form systems of behavior and purpose, where problems no longer have specific answers, and the art and practice of design must instead focus on finding acceptable solutions within a set of constraints.

There is no better example of the limitations of usability testing alone than seen with the release of the iPod in 2001. While most of the competition had started releasing mp3 devices years prior, the iPod was, by all measures, late to the game. Yet, it had not been a haphazard choice by Apple – it was a calculated move to release it within the crosshairs of wider internet access and broadband speeds capable of handling larger download sizes. 

Though there were a multitude of reasons why the iPod was so successful, one major factor was that it went well beyond a limited focus on the user’s specific ability to operate it – rather it answered to the user’s total experience: the frustrations of slow download speeds, the annoyances of how long it took to find the right song, the desire to purchase individual songs vs whole albums, the fear of downloading a virus, to name just a few. The iPod’s holistic, integrated platform (between the device, iTunes, etc) was a clear example that successful products did not happen inside a bubble; organizations would need to understand the environment and experiences of their users beyond operational objectives if they wanted to stay relevant and innovative in an increasingly competitive market. 

But, usability could be easily tracked, studied, and proven. It was data obtained via timers, yes or no answers, and check boxes, and could be illustrated on a spreadsheet or a pie chart. Capturing experience was a little tricker. Studying it required asking the right questions, to separate between what the user thinks they want, versus what the user actually wants (or needs). It was a murkier area to explore, and definitely more risky.

Almost no field was more prepared to aid in this transition than designers, who had been using iterative processes of questioning, understanding and testing, both in academic and professional settings, for many years. Though practicing designers knew they could support efforts to capture experiences, others outside the design community were not sure what that work looked like: how did this type of approach differ from traditional methods being used in business settings?

Enter the 2008 article “ZIBA Design and the FedEx Project,” published in Design Issues, by researcher Maggie Breslin. The article studies how ZIBA Design performed work for FedEx that went well beyond the scope of traditional services provided by a product design agency. It was a great “starting point for thinking about how design works in practice when it moves from conventional areas of communication and industrial design into human interaction and organizational change” (Breslin 41). Their work was first to understand the customer’s reality when interacting with FedEx’s physical spaces and technologies, as well as how the customer defined FedEx’s brand, and then set this against FedEx’s impressions of its own spaces, technologies and brand. They created a series of visual maps to chart these various overlapping impressions and experiences.

These maps helped correlate the experiences of the users to the expectations of the organization. The gaps were studied and co-creation teams were used to determine the best ways to bridge the gap: “Waning is our image of a skill-specific designer working in a solitary studio, emerging with unexplainable, but somehow knowable, greatness” (Breslin 42). The evolution of the designer had begun, and some results were in: Designers were redesigning, not only their role, but also what it meant to create a product or service, by shifting an organization towards a product or service, not delivering one from the top down, with little value placed on the stakeholders in between. 

These early successes created, perhaps naively, an eagerness to employ design-led strategies and processes without a true appreciation for the designer’s toolkit or design thinking’s methodologies. In his introduction to the Winter 2008 Design Issues, “Design and Organizational Change,” Richard Buchanan writes: “Enthusiasm alone, however, will not be enough to sustain interest in design, particularly when the concept of design as a discipline of thinking and making is still widely misunderstood or poorly understood” (Buchanan, “Introduction” 3).  One major component lacking clarity was how to best track and measure design-led initiatives to determine their return on investment: “The European commission recognizes that … measuring design in statistical terms remains problematic, since evaluation is costly and designs contribution cannot easily be extracted from the broader commercial context” (Whicher et al. 47). So while the ZIBA case study illustrated how co-creative, design-led strategies were being applied, wider audiences, including senior leadership and c-suite executives, as well as business more broadly, still needed evidence that it could positively influence an organization’s bottom line. Designers would need to make a case for carving out a “seat at the table” with CEOs, CFOs and other senior executives.


How far have we come?

“A lot of people in our industry haven’t had very diverse experiences. So they don’t have enough dots to connect, and they end up with very linear solutions without a broad perspective on the problem. 

The broader one’s understanding of the human experience, the better design we will have.”

– Steve Jobs, 1996

As Steve Jobs so accurately predicted in 1996, designers have now spent years working with a diverse set of organizations and brands, in different sectors, where understanding the nature of the business’s operations, goals, market, and end users is a required aspect of the job. As a result, designers are equipped to study experiences and consider the connections between all these moving parts. 

The design community can now pull from a wide variety of evidence pools to showcase the success of employing design thinking methods, from a one-off project, to the operational approach of an entire organization. Illustrating these accomplishments, The McKinsey Report and Forrester’s Total Economic Impact of IBM’s Design Thinking Practice have illustrated how design-led initiatives impacted the bottom line – sometimes in staggering ways that go well beyond expectations. (An upcoming post will perform a deeper dive into how these reports address our need to understand the ROI of design.) New design-focused positions have started to open up for designers that go beyond traditional applications of form and function inside of the communication department, and new tools have been developed to support these roles, such as service and culture mapping. Designers have applied the design thinking framework with success across the for-profit, public and non-profit sectors, and a multitude of books (such as Design for the Greater Good and Design, When Everybody Designs) showcase the possibilities designers, and design thinking processes, can achieve across many different kinds of industries.

“As much as we want to let our natural world go undisturbed, a design-focused approach must be taken if our open lands and wildlife are to have a sustainable future. As values, access, and financial incentives evolve, design can bring in the human element, fueled by science” (Wogsland 42).

There are a multitude of case studies illustrating this shift in design, but one of my favorites is “Environment, Meet Design” written by Andrea Wogsland, the development director for Return to Freedom, a nonprofit wild horse conservation organization. In this article, she describes how design thinking has aided conservation efforts, and showcases a number of examples of how a grassroots, human-centered approach helped bring people with various interests together across communities to frame and develop solutions to conflict. All is not warm and fuzzy, however, she warns: “In the environmental sector, design is still searching for a seat at the table” (Wogsland 41). She also describes 3M’s former Chief Design Officer Eric Quint’s journey, whose role it was “to translate design into science terms and to present the design process as a partner in the discipline of science” (Wogsland 39). Despite his, and others, efforts to bridge these fields, we still have a long way to go (Wogsland 41).

Designers must listen to these calls from our proponents across the discipline divide and reach out – we will need to be able to speak about both the tangible and intangible benefits design can bring to groups who have come together to solve wicked problems, such as conservation. Though we have witnessed wider adoption of design leadership positions (Wilson), we still are facing many challenges – design ideologies in conflict, the need for reform in design education, a continued lack of understanding as to what designers do, and a cloudy sense of what design leadership is (and should be) responsible for.

The next evolution in design work will again begin by looking inward. Like those who have challenged the status quo over the last twenty years, designers must reflect on our current positions and find inspiration by those who have pushed the boundaries of their roles to explore and apply design in more meaningful, integrated ways – from first order, communication-based work, to forth order, system level work. 

Not all designers desire, or are cut out, for these types of holistic, system-focused design work; those that want to must have highly crafted soft skills as well as be adept at seeing patterns, making connections and turning tacit information into explicit knowledge. Design Cybernetics is a field of design that has recently become popular, as it accounts for the physical, technical, biological and social systems integrated into today’s most challenging and critical issues (such as sustainability, homelessness, or education reform).


Designers must play a role as designated interlocutors, acting as connectors between both ideas and people, where we use our powers of synthesis to discern and extract the most important moments of human experience, and translate it into actionable data. As the McKinsey report reflects: “…’T-shaped’ hybrid designers, who work across functions while retaining their depth of design savvy, will be the employees most able to have a tangible impact through their work” (Sheppard et al.) Thus, form and function will always be essential considerations at the root of work for designers. But considerable thought will also need to go into addressing how best we can prepare for and perform in these hybrid thinking roles that are, and will be, needed. 

If you visit, as one example, you can witness the ways all the orders of design have come together in new, exciting ways. From the delightful, engaging visuals and informative, user friendly website, to the development of their Center for Behavior & the Environment, you can see clearly the successful use of design from 1st through 4th order. This nonprofit program challenges traditional climate change tactics by adopting a people centered approach, which incorporates various fields of science with design thinking methods to tackle complex problems related to the climate. We are asking: How can businesses across all sectors employ similar concepts, using design (and designers) to drive innovative ideas, support initiatives, and help measure their success?

The last twenty years has shown us how design and design work has come of age; designers have more opportunity now than ever before to explore and apply design in exciting, deeper ways. There is still work to do, and designers play a significant role in our own transformation, as we seek to strike a balance between our creative, “messy,” curious-driven selves, and our action-oriented, data-driven, strategy focused selves. We must continue to ask: What if? What’s next? What else do we need to know? Why is this important? How best can we relate, support, translate, connect?