Everything you see has been designed – sometimes, as Steve Jobs once said, ‘by people that were no smarter than you’. If you look up from this screen, almost everything you see is the product of the force of human intelligence to generate a solution for human needs. If you are inside, you will first see the more obvious objects of design: a telephone, a cup, a desk light, a building opposite, a computer, a chair, and even clothes. But don’t forget the intangible, sometimes hidden, products of design, such as word-processing software, computer circuit boards and chips, telephone SIMs, even the order of books on the shelf, not to mention images, documents, lists and reminders. Anyone can adopt the design thinking mind-set.
Look around you
Looking outside, you might think that natural things like trees were not designed, yet these objects often are planned, propagated and pruned by human design. Stepping back again, you might also agree that nature itself was designed with a purpose by someone or something, be it God, Allah, or Gaia, the Greek Goddess of Earth. According to chemist James Lovelock’s ‘Gaia hypothesis’, life does not merely react and adjust to changing conditions; it also positively shapes and designs conditions to its own advantage. Lovelock’s hypothesis rests on the premise that none but the deities above could have designed the elegant system that pumps toxic carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere and sequesters it in plants and underground, thus allowing life-giving oxygen to flourish on Earth.
Everywhere we look, we are immersed in a world of designed stuff, what Gold calls ‘the plenitude’. Count how many designed objects there are in your kitchen. Every appliance, every utensil, everything is composed of tens, hundreds, even thousands of other designed things. Each piece of stuff satisfies some desire, and it requires yet more designed stuff. Cereal demands a spoon, a television a remote. Stuff called media compels us to buy more stuff. Look around you and imagine how many things are solving your pains and frustrations. Design reduces pain. Design satisfies need. Design creates value. Design changes behaviour. Design even regulates our behaviour.
Throughout history, designers have applied the human-centric creative process to build meaningful and effective solutions. Monuments, bridges, automobiles and subway systems are all end products of the design process. Design thinkers were part of great deeds in history even before there was such a profession. More than mere inventors, designers saw customer needs that others did not, and they crossed the frontiers of imagination to make new connections and insights. They are great mavericks of the past that inspire us today. Here is a smattering:
- In the early 1900s, husband-wife designers Charles and Ray Eames analysed human needs and constraints before designing their famous Eames chairs, which continue to be in production even now, 70 years later.
- 1960s dressmaker Jean Muir was well known for emphasising how her women’s fashion felt as well as how it looked. For example, Muir placed pockets at hip level to encourage the wearer to hold her shoulders back confidently.
- Steve Jobs created the first-generation iPad before a market for tablets even existed. He didn’t make things his customers wanted. Rather, he created things that moved people to say, ‘I want one.’
- Thomas Edison realised early on that his light bulb invention was little more than a magic trick. Yes, it satisfied deep human needs. But what was truly impressive about Edison was not the invention itself but how he imagined an entire industry of power generation and transmission.
- George Lucas reinvented an entire movie industry through his know-how, ingenuity, flair, storytelling and business acumen by bringing together sculptors, camera operators, filmmakers and artists to use new cameras and miniature modelling to augment reality in Star Wars.
What unites all great design thinkers is what famous American architect, systems theorist, designer, and inventor Buckminster Fuller called ‘anticipatory design science’, which he defined as human practice that would align men and women to the conscious design of our total environment, making Earth’s finite resources meet the needs of humanity without disrupting the ecological processes of the planet. What nobler cause than to use design for a sustainable environment. Nobel laureate Herbert Simon agreed: ‘To design is to devise courses of action aimed at changing existing situations into preferred ones’.
Have coached 1000s | Design Thinking trainer
Greater Boston Area
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