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Enlightened Innovation:
5 Keys to Promoting Thoughtful Design Leadership in Education

By Xanthe Matychak and David Morgan



The setup
Design Schools are the new Business Schools, according to the October 9, 2006 issue of BusinessWeek magazine. Traditional business models are failing in the face of global competition, and American companies are scouring design schools for design-innovators to lead them into the twenty-first century with creative strategies. Great. But the question is, where will these young designers lead us? Will their skills in systems thinking and problem solving simply be exploited to make more money for bottom-line corporations? Or will these innovators find the courage to weave a conscience into their design solutions for corporate America.

And will they know how?                  

Traditional business models are failing in the face of global competition, and American companies are scouring design schools for design-innovators to lead them into the twenty-first century with creative strategies. Great. But the question is, where will these young designers lead us?

Enlightened Innovation
The goal of Enlightened Innovation is to unite values with design practice to address a set of criteria that is often referred to as The Three P's—people, planet, and profit. Many companies have Corporate Social Responsibility programs that address The Three P's (or at least two out of the three), but they are external from business practice and are often managed by PR departments. The Enlightened Innovator finds ways to integrate CSR with business practice while maintaining its PR punch.

The skill set of the industrial designer allows a unique perspective for this kind of problem solving. "What's fascinating about design as an occupation is that you're a bit of a boundary-spanner; you've got some knowledge on such a broad spectrum of disciplines—from manufacturing, to production, to marketing—and can have some influence across all of those different areas," argues Joshua Handy, Director of Industrial Design at Method Home, an environmentally responsible business, and one of Fortune 500's fastest growing companies of 2006. "Design is very much at the core of what we do here. And the companies that are going to make it into the future are the ones adopting this approach." This multidimensional path strives for an efficiency that can both benefit businesses economically and create responsible business practice that is good for the environment and society.

 

Design Education
So how can young designers prepare to contribute to this changing face of business and industry? Many design programs are sending their students to business classes in order to learn the language of corporations (the most creative thinkers will get nowhere if they can't communicate with the people they will be working with). But how can young designers learn not only to speak this language, but to expand upon its vocabulary toward the goal of implementing Triple P strategies?

Design educators can help. Administrators can help. Students can help. Businesses can help. For everyone who wants to do good but feels overwhelmed by the question of where to begin, here are some starting points.

"As an educator and strategist, I am more optimistic than I have been for a long time. We are beginning to 'get it.' But do designers feel an urgency? Are they ready to leave styling and take on the job of designing a world for over nine billion?"

1. Start early. Dr. Mary McBride, Managing Partner at Strategies for Planned Change in New York City, states, "As an educator and strategist, I am more optimistic than I have been for a long time. We are beginning to 'get it.' It is a question of time and talent." But she cautions, "Do designers feel an urgency? Are they ready to leave styling and take on the job of designing a world for over nine billion?"

Design students may believe that in their future jobs they won't have the authority to address important issues. So they need to be encouraged in class. It's wrong to assume that freshmen cannot handle social issues on top of their other work. But if ethics are presented as an additional subject, they may seem overwhelming. In his article A Foucauldian Analysis of Environmental Education, David Gruenwald argues that uniting values with practice is a necessary component to the success of socio-ecological education; students must be encouraged at an early stage in their education to develop their values right along with their other skills (drawing, 2d, 3d, software, etc.).

Dr. Bruce M. Tharp, Assistant Professor in the Department of Architecture, Interior Architecture + Designed Objects at The School of the Art Institute of Chicago, integrates these ideas into his pedagogy: "In my experience, students are not only capable of discussing these issues, they are eager. At SAIC, my sophomore level studio class must design an object to address a 'suffering event,' and my introductory graduate studio class must design for an activist or non-profit organization as a (speculative) client. These are classes in which students are learning basic design skills and principles, but within ethically-principled contexts."

In projects like these, where design students are encouraged early on to tie their own design experiences to their values, they are also developing the power to be that much more convincing in corporate conversations. And that much more human.

Designers don't have to be number crunchers per se, but they need to understand that an enlightened analysis calls for a wider scope of considerations than those of traditional marketing analyses.

2. Encourage students to ask why.The late cultural critic Neil Postman argued that our technocratic culture is so bedazzled by its technical ability to address the question of 'HOW do we make a product?' we have forgotten to ask 'WHY?': In Technolopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology (Knopf, 1992), he writes,"Alfred North Whitehead summed it up best when he remarked that the greatest invention of the nineteenth century was the idea of invention itself. We had learned how to invent things, and the question of why we invent things receded in importance. The idea that if something could be done it should be done was born in the nineteenth century...It also came to be believed that the engine of technological progress worked most efficiently when people are conceived of not as children of God or even as citizens but as consumers—that is to say, as markets." And this is reflected, of course, in education. Eleonore de Lusignan, a junior in the Industrial Design program at Rhode Island School of Design, argues that "Design schools put stress on the human factors of design; this should involve not only the physiology of our users but also the environment in which they live. Our design process is too focused on how to make a product for a person's lifestyle. Instead, we should be asking ourselves why our products are beneficial for our users and their environment."

At the winnowing stage of a project, students should create lists of both positive and negative consequences of their proposed solutions, and a brutal list of 'why' and 'why not' to make their designs. Then they can make informed choices about whether to move forward on their project, or to explore alternative avenues. Asking 'why' helps students tie their designs back to human concerns and can be an efficient strategy for analyzing product development and resources.

3. Consider lifecycle and true cost analysis for every product. If young designers are going to sell their enlightened innovations successfully, they will need to understand and be able to communicate the environmental, social, and economic advantages of their proposals. In product design, the analysis might be as simple as understanding a design's input-to-output ratio. How do the amounts of natural resources, energy, distribution costs, and waste management measure up to the benefits afforded by the use of a product? Designers don't have to be number crunchers per se, but they need to understand that an enlightened analysis calls for a wider scope of considerations than those of traditional marketing analyses.

"This [type of analysis] has proven very useful to students, by creating a clear reference point for considering the full lifecycle of something they may design," states Steve Belletire, Associate Professor of Industrial Design at Southern Illinois University Carbondale and co-creator of The Okala Ecological Design Curriculum. "In short, it helps change the way they think about the design process and their role within it."

4. Learn to present. The art of information design and promotion is critical to the success of Enlightened Innovation. If design students don't have time for graphic design electives, they should invest in good graphic design books for the studio library. Design students should practice simple and convincing presentation techniques; they should design and display visuals that exhibit thoughtful projects, well...thoughtfully, employing enlightened analysis as part of the project's central impetus, without preaching...and without making it into a rote deliverable.

"Anyone who is a communicator using visual form—two or three dimensions—should understand how data clearly flows and also how this flow is made graphic and understandable. Without clarity, the best ideas in the world are two- and three-dimensional gibberish," argues Steven Heller, co-chair of the School of Visual Arts MFA Designer As Author Program. Presentation practice will arm design students with the communication skills necessary to be convincing in future leadership roles.

5. Recognize the opportunity; start big. Corporate America is inviting designers to the table, and invitations—at least the good ones!—are chock full of opportunities. Designers can take advantage of these opportunities by insinuating their concerns (call them priorities) about people, the environment, and responsible corporate strategy into their initial meetings. In education, that means encouraging big questions right from the get-go, so that the bars are set high. It is part of the designer's role to help set the agenda for any design engagement, as long as the arguments are made with an informed perspective. And asking the big questions first will set up an ambitious scope and a positive intention. Not a bad start.

 

Final thoughts
The opportunity is real, but so is the danger: Will tomorrow's designers have the desire—but not the skills necessary—to steer enlightened business strategies? Our challenge in education is to provide for them experiences that will create and refine a value-based design education with the confidence that they will be able to promote this approach throughout their professional years.

 


 

Xanthe Matychak is a designer and writer living in upstate New York. Her paper, On the Aesthetics of Sustainability, was recently chosen to be presented at the 22nd annual conference of The International Association of Science, Technology, and Society. Reach her at ehtnax[at]yahoo.

David Morgan is a cycling vegan fanatic, who lives and rides along the Erie Canal. He is a professor of industrial design at the Rochester Institute of Technology.