Bruce Nussbaum is a luminary in the business and design fields, as well as a professor at Parsons the New School for Design and an occasional contributor here at Core77. A year-and-a-half ago, Bruce famously declared that design thinking was dead. We had the chance to sit down with Bruce and see how his thoughts on design have evolved since then.
Core77: How has your thinking about design thinking changed in the last year-and-a-half? Now you're hearing business professors talk about design thinking as the new thing and a year and half ago you said it was dead!
Bruce Nussbaum: Well, that's what happens when you're there at the beginning of a concept and you live through it, you see it mature, and you believe that it is now a wonderful foundation for something else. Then you come to a place like Harvard where they're sort of discovering design and embracing design thinking. My reaction to that is that it's wonderful because for this situation, for this time, for them it's great that they're understanding the power of design and what design can do, not just in terms of objects, but in terms of relationships, experiences and education. For here, it's great. For those of us who've been inside, we're trying to push the envelope and move forward and Harvard will embrace that too as time goes on.
Does this mean that design thinking is enduring? Or that there's kind of a lag time between these concepts emerging and their adoption down the road?
Yes, well, government is just beginning to adopt design, much less design thinking. But there are institutional lags, cultural lags, there are all kinds of forces at work. There's the force of fad. I remember when design was hot and then not and then innovation was hot and it's kind of peaking now. You can see more and more creativity is moving up that S curve. And creativity is getting hotter and hotter. My book is coming out on "creative intelligence," which will have its moment. To me, they all become scaffolding for other ideas. You're moving down and evolving one's thinking about all of this, whether you call it design, innovation, or creativity. We're all in that same space and trying to do a better job of understanding the phenomenon and the process and most importantly the practice.
When I moved from Business Week to the New School at Parsons, that really changed things for me in terms of my frame and I wanted to be more inclusive. Design is very powerful, it's very particular, and it involves a small number of people. Everyone feels that they're creative and everyone probably can be creative. I just found over the years that when you talk about design, people lean back a little bit and will be a little wary and they'll hear you out. But talk about creativity and they'll start telling you about their kids and they'll talk about how when they were in school they did that. Or they'll talk about their job and you'll tell them, oh, that was very creative. They'll say, Really? And the fact is what they were doing is really creative. So it just brings everybody into the conversation, that's why I went there.
They're still talking about design, design thinking, focusing on user needs or the experience. That's just the tiniest, tiniest bit of what we know in anthropology and sociology about what I consider the most important thing, which is engagement. That's what it's about. How we engage with products, how we engage with services, how we engage in a social way and it's the design of that engagement which is so powerful. And that's what Apple used to do so well. It was that engagement that we had, the meaning we found in that engagement, which they seem to be losing.
Why do you say that Apple is losing that engagement? What was that shift?
Well, the map thing was a disaster. The latest iteration of iTunes is pretty problematic. Perhaps the most important thing is the promise of things to come. In the book, I talk about aura. I want to bring back aura. And the reason I want to bring back the concept of aura is that it is quintessentially about engagement. Aura is this thing that beckons you, that pulls you in, that you have an engagement with, and that very often is an emotional engagement. I would argue that there is such a thing as simulated aura, that you can in fact create aura, that you can create an engagement with people. I have a friend who just bought an Apple Mini. She loves it! And she looks at the Mini the way prisoners will eat their food, she circles it. If I were to get between her and her Mini, she'd kill me! That's aura, that's passion, that's emotion. That's the power of engagement.Do you think that that aura will be achieved, not just through design but what you call creative intelligence? How do you use creativity to do that?
I think creativity involves a number of practices, a number of rituals, a number of ceremonies. That's why I was saying that design thinking is wonderful for what it is, but it doesn't go deep enough. Going to a restaurant is an incredibly important design problem. David Rockwell has designed half the great restaurants—and he designed ceremony. It is the ceremony, it is the interaction, it is the Hello's, the seating, the way that the food is served, plus the beauty of materiality of the ambiance, the spectacle. All of that is part of design. But I found it easier to talk about creative intelligence, creativity, in that manner. Ritual and ceremony are deeply important and it's something that I think in implementation, design thinking got away from. It got very non-material. And I think one of the key competencies that I talk about in the book is the return of the material. The making culture is key. You learn by making, you learn by doing, and I want to really pull us back toward that making culture, toward the materiality of tangibility, which I think has always been key to design.
I think in the past few years especially we've seen that rise of that maker culture, especially in a place like New York City, specifically neighborhoods like Williamsburg and Bushwick.
Definitely. You see it in fashion, you see it in food, now you're seeing it in digital fabrication. You're really seeing it in jewelry now. Times change, values change. We need to go back and embrace that maker culture. In education, you've got to bring back shop, you've got to bring back art. Art and shop have to be key to the way we learn and to prepare us for what we do.
Is there a way to achieve that physicality, that maker culture, with something digital? Is there a way to have that handmade aspect or will digital always be separate?
Just in terminology, digital fabrication tells you that there's now an integration of the two. When you're designing an interaction, when you're designing an engagement, these days it most always will involve a digital aspect and a physical aspect. It doesn't have to—sometimes it can be one or the other. But there are so many products, there are so many things that in fact are integrated. We're 30, 40 years into the digital revolution, we're finally beginning to humanize it and integrate it into the physical world, into our physical world. And we're getting closer and closer to integrating it into literally our physicality. Especially the last 20 years, everyone's been brought up on Macs. They've learned how to make again through the computer, through digitalization, through that world and for many people, maker culture has come first digitally and now it's being expressed in a physical form. Making really needs to be part of design again.
So, big picture—where is design headed? 10 years? 15 years? 20 years?
A couple of things. Designer as entrepreneur—let's talk about that. They're still talking about designers and big business, and that's still the pervading paradigm. But we're looking at more and more designers becoming entrepreneurs. The designer as businessperson, the entrepreneur as the core of the economic system—I call it 'indie capitalism.' I think this will remake American society and bring us back to where we want to be. A year ago, we had the rise of the Tea Party, you had the rise of the Occupation. Not much in common, except they both love Steve Jobs and hate big business. Fascinating. If you want to cut through this twentieth bullshit debate between liberals and conservatives, the way to do that is through entrepreneurial capitalism. And the way to do that is to bring design right to the center of this, right to the center of start-ups, because that's where you make jobs, that's where you have a vibrant new economy. For me the real issues that we face, certainly in the business community, how do you scale? How do you go from creativity to creation?
The other area is there has been so little design in our education and in our health services. Whether it's design or design thinking, we're just beginning to go there and what we need is not more money spent on these things, we need smarter thinking and design really has so much to contribute. You see these little examples, like last year a bunch of Parsons students joined with Memorial Sloan Kettering on redesigning the chemo experience. It's an awful experience. You get nauseous, you throw up, you go into this room with a bunch of strangers, they hook you up, then you got to go home! They got these students together, they did the whole design thing and said, Put them in the neighborhood, you don't have to go to the hospital. Make them feel comfortable, like Starbucks, get them out of uniform, put a little coffee there, hook it up so that you can put some music on, surf the web, whatever it is then people could walk home. DUH! They're doing it, they're rolling them out. You begin to move all the way through the medical system with ideas like that and it's revolutionary.
Dave Seliger is a Postgrad Fellow in Logistics and Ext Affairs at the NYC Office of Emergency Management. He has extensive experience helping firefighters, police officers, and disaster responders improve their services through design.