Social design, organization design, system design and design thinking overall…. the biggest trend being service design. User centered and user inspired design has set the stage for a bit longer already. These are topics that industrial designers are more and more dealing with. But how can the core competencies of designers be set on these areas, or do they need to change? What can designers do better (and therefore sell it) than other professionals? Evaluating myself, my education and career directions make this a question of high personal interest.

Let me give an example: My latest school project is an elderly care service design case for the tiny but affluent city of Kauniainen. Eight student teams are working towards different solutions. Looking at their process and listening to their ideas I have hit at least on two arguments: Design and designers need to act more social than perhaps ever before. There is also a distinct opportunity for significant design, a term that I will try to explain in a moment.

Our project teams are in the process of defining their focus by exploring and talking to different stakeholders. One of the biggest drivers so far seems to be in improving socialness, encouraging informal peer-to-peer networks and building a distinct local community feeling. Have you ever heard of these ideas in other areas than elderly care? I bet you have, for they seem to be much in vogue right now. The emphasis on socialness is of course supported by the megatrend of ‘let’s share this’ in technology and information. What this entails is that designers find themselves more and more often as mediators of people and their relationships with others. The design of objects becomes central and peripheral at the same time!

A clear reason for getting into ‘bigger’ questions than where to place that power switch is that we, as persons, want to contribute for the greater good. This kind of significant, or responsible design has been defined many times over from environmental, equality or other perspectives both within and outside the field of design. The issue here is how designers can actually make a significant contribution – without biting off more than we can handle. The nature of design is in making the world that is to come but, let’s face it, you can do that only by being super consistent, knowledgable in the area you want to change, and by being very persistent. In the case of our elderly care services we actually make a good deal of shortcuts to save time in not knowing too much about health care and eg. legislatory aspects. This means that some of our designs may be very easy to shoot down when we present them. The true deal is that making a concept presentation actually only starts the game of negotiating your ideas into the real world.

Interested in reading more? Have a look at this critical article on the threat of becoming a “free-floating generalist” from 2010 by Kevin McCullagh. In an earlier article from 2007, the same designer, manager and author had listed the cross-sectorally winning assets of designers like this:
– interpretation skills
– ability to make the abstract tangible
– synthesis building
– plain old resolution
While these points might be valid the true test is in being able to show them convincingly to others. As a second proposal McCullagh proposed four strategies to ride the wave of changing proffession descriptions: Having an agile perspective for opportunities, spotting gaps, building connections beyond your own natural spheres, and being active about teaching yourself.