The Shifting Role of Design

by Luke Wroblewski October 2, 2006

My presentation at SHiFT 2006 titled The Shifting Role of Design outlined why in today’s networked, global, disruptive, and dynamic markets design was becoming increasingly important.

In particular, I explained why product design, design thinking (design as a problem solving methodology) and design principles provided more value for companies today. Ideally, designers can use this knowledge to communicate the value of design skills and methodologies to clients and stakeholders.

You can download the slides (PDF), but due to the many animations contained within, they will make more sense with the explanations below.

The Shifting Role of Design

As evidenced by proclamations from diverse sources, design is moving from being perceived solely as styling (the “make it pretty approach” typified by Raymond Lowey) to being directly associated with innovation. Why the change?

Markets Mature Faster

Faster adoption, customer acquisition, revenue growth, and competition are all signs of markets maturing faster. When Markets mature faster, function is increasingly assumed and no longer a core differentiator. As a result, design becomes a key differentiator sooner. Product Design, that is.

Continuous Flux

The overlaps between business, people, and technology are increasing. Business are essentially run on technology platforms. People engage with technology in nearly every aspect of their lives. Business and people are overlapping more through crowdsourcing (networked distributed products and services), fab labs (enable nearly anyone to develop products), and personalization (tighter integration between individuals and products).

These wider overlaps mean that any change in technology, people, or business has a more substantial impact on the other two. But not only are these changes more impactful (and thereby disruptive), they are happening more quickly as well.

In these situations of significant and rapid change, design methodologies such as rapid prototyping, abductive thinking, and design is never done can help companies adapt and stay relevant in the market. Design Thinking, that is.

Increased Complexity

The breadth and depth of our information access and tools is continually growing. As a result, information overload is common occurrence. In fact, recent studies have shown that nearly 50% of product returns are due to complexity. Design can help manage that complexity:

  • Through visual communication used to prioritize narratives and communicate key concepts that enable faster consensus and better decisions.
  • By eliminating the unnecessary so that the necessary can speak.

Additionally, our products and companies often have to operate globally in unique market and social contexts. Design helps ensure communication in these contexts, by creating appropriate situations.

When there’s complexity created through information access, product features, and/or globalization, design enables communication. Design Principles, that is.

In Summary

In a networked, global, dynamic, & disruptive economy:

  • Markets mature faster so function is no longer a key differentiator. As a result, product design matters earlier.
  • We are in a state of continuous flux. Design thinking helps companies adapt and stay relevant.
  • There’s increased complexity (information overload, interconnected product ecosystems, globalization). Design principles create meaning.

For more details and data about all the points above, download the slides (PDF) from my talk.