At the recent DMI conference in London, Geoff Mulgan, once Tony Blair's ex-strategy advisor and now a leading social entrepreneur, politely explained how 'social designers' had 'entered his space'... and failed. The reasons he gave were their naivete, their lack of knowledge about the public sector and their inability to effect change. While this caused some squirming in seats, it was a refreshing moment of critical, but constructive, feedback from a real power broker.
Social design is one of the new problem areas that designers have started to explore over the past decade, as the scope of design has expanded and the old disciplinary boundaries have blurred. Other new fields include service design, systems design, organizational design and design strategy. These interventions into new and more complex problem areas are sometimes called design thinking.
Whatever we call them, they present both opportunities and risks for design's trailblazers. The opportunities include a chance to expand the design industry into new, higher value disciplines. A risk, as Mulgan suggests, is that designers over-stretch themselves and damage their long-term prospects in these emergent domains.A risk is that designers over-stretch themselves and damage their long-term prospects in these emergent domains.
The opportunities and the risks around design thinking got me pondering, in turn, about the whole idea of the T-shaped designer. First devised by the management consultants, this model of an individual's, team's or company's know-how was adapted to design and popularized by IDEO in the noughties.
In design, the T's vertical element consists of a vertical stack of deep design expertise, which is typically acquired at college and honed through years of professional practice. Some of these capabilities are general design skills such as creativity, sketching and visual sophistication. Others are specific to a particular design discipline: for example, deft handling of surface geometry (product designers), the finer points of typography (graphic designers) and mastery of the interplay between light and space (interior designers).
The emphasis of the T-shaped model however is usually placed on the generalist horizontal beam. Capabilities here include a big-picture perspective; knowledge of other related disciplines such as marketing, production and distribution; and the ability to facilitate work across organizational silos. These tend to be developed by some more senior designers 'on the job.' These lateral competencies are the ones that have enabled some pioneering designers to edge into new problem areas.
Pioneers of the design profession have hit a major stumbling block: a weak vertical stack of capabilities that are relevant to their new discipline or problem area.
Diminished vertical stack
Mulgan explained that in 'social' design, designers are one of many rival providers claiming to have the right approach. NGOs, management consultants and service user groups all compete with social designers. Here the latter group, like many other pioneers of the design profession, have hit a major stumbling block: a weak vertical stack of capabilities that are relevant to their new discipline or problem area.
The consequence of this weakness is that social designers are left to compete primarily on their generalist 'horizontal' competencies - strategic perspective, cross-silo facilitation and the ability to synthesize. But there are plenty of other clever people out there who, in these areas, are just as strong, if not stronger than most designers. After all, designers are not the only ones who can run a workshop.
Designers should also be worldly enough to recognize that they do not hold a monopoly on creativity. Let's not confuse visual creativity with more general creative problem solving that is often required in these new domains. Anyone who has worked with a successful entrepreneur, for example, will know at how many different levels they are able to solve problems.
New problems areas require new knowledge, craft skills and methods:
Knowledge of traditional design disciplines and industry sectors was never designers' strong suit. Ignorance of production techniques and of wider industry dynamics has long been tolerated. However, this slack approach to mastering the subject matter of a new domain can quickly lose designers credibility. As Geoff Mulgan noted, social designers, blissfully unaware of their new domain's historical background, have often proposed ideas that were tried and failed decades ago.
Traditionally what designers lack in knowledge, they make up for in craft skills. Whether it be sketching, modeling, detailing or rendering, designers take an inordinate amount of pride in honing key techniques over many years. Unfortunately many of these very skills have limited use in the new design domains.
Instead, new ones are required. At Plan, we have identified some of those required for design strategy that designers are mot taught at college: they include analytical thinking, the formulation of strategic frameworks and knowing when and how to use narrative structures. These new skills are not always as tangible as the traditional ones, but still take coaching, time and practice to master.
While designers are not particularly 'process driven', there is a tendency of the design pioneers to place a little too much confidence in the design (thinking) process as an all conquering magic-method to crack every problem - from a new detergent pack to climate change. I've covered this issue of designers believing their own hype before. Nevertheless, they still need to put more effort into innovating how they design when they operate in today's new contexts. Not every problem can be cracked in a brainstorm.
Without a strong vertical stack of capabilities that are relevant to their chosen problem domain, designers stop being designers - and join the legions of free-floating generalists.
So I would submit that without a strong vertical stack of capabilities that are relevant to their chosen problem domain, designers stop being designers - and join the legions of free-floating generalists.
Building the new verticals
Some exciting new opportunities have opened up for designers. But to take advantage of them, we need to do some deeper thinking on the new problems, our transferable know-how and what new capabilities we need to work on. Even the most cocksure designer would admit that there are some problems that are best left to others more able to tackle - pension reform, for example. So what are the characteristics of problems that present fair game for designers? What is it about a design background that gives designers an edge over other providers in these new fields? What new competencies does the problem area require that designers will need to build?
I don't have the answers, but these strike me as some of the right questions to be asking.
The T-shaped designer is still an illuminating model. Yet as the example of social design and design thinking shows, serious designers should think twice about playing up their horizontal skills, and instead get down to the tougher but ultimately more rewarding work of consciously defining and building the new verticals for emergent design disciplines.
Kevin is founder of Plan, a product strategy consultancy based in London that helps companies work out what to do next. As a leading product strategist, over the past 20 years he has consulted for clients including: Samsung, Ford, HP, Lenovo, Mars, Nokia, Orange, 02, P&G, Shell, Unilever and Yamaha.
Before founding Plan in 2004, Kevin was director at the product design consultancy Seymour Powell, and set up one of the first dedicated design strategy teams in Europe.
With a background that spans design, marketing, engineering and social forecasting, Kevin is never short of an opinion or three. He writes, speaks curates and chairs conferences on design, business, and society. He has been published and cited in international journals, including Business Week, FastCompany, Design Management Journal, Core77 and Blueprint. He teaches at CASS Business School in London, and is a visiting fellow at his old design faculty at Northumbria University.