"Cocksure: The Psychology of Overconfidence" is the title of Malcolm Gladwell's recent piece in the New Yorker, where he investigates the mental-space of decision-making. Gladwell analyzes financial collapse and war, arguing that beyond the conventional explanations of those predicaments (structural mishap and cognitive deficit), there is a psychological dimension at play. In high-stakes situations, we suffer from a more deeply rooted conundrum: a crisis of overconfidence.
Gladwell's tales of a brazen Bear Sterns' CEO and a feckless British officer deftly illustrate how confidence misapplied can lead to dire situations. However, it is not overconfidence alone that creates a global financial collapse or failed military operation. Gladwell contends that leaders of all stripes and industries, in war and peace, recessions and booms, base their future behavior on what created past successes. Instead of understanding current situations as ones requiring different and new thinking, leaders often fail to adapt.
In many ways design is the ultimate practice of adaptation. Designers modify their environments by creating objects and systems to promote better behaviors and experiences. But are there times when we resist adaptation? In design, as in business, don't clients or partners deliberately select us because of our track records of past successes? Because our portfolios give an indicator of future success, are we really encouraged to drift away from what we know? I would answer yes, and yes.
Designers are confident in greeting new situations with agility. We meet challenges with freshness, optimism, and creativity. I believe that. I say it every day. I am a professional designer.
But then the winners of the IDSA International Design Excellence Awards (known as the IDEA awards) were announced.
I was one of what award-sponsor BusinessWeek dubbed the "20 world's top designers," who had the privilege of judging the 1,600+ entries. It was an extremely rewarding experience, and I was engaged and delighted by the caliber of conversations in the judging, and of course in the excellent entries.
In fact, it was such a positive experience that I started to poke around in the archives of IDEA winners to get a richer sense of the history of which now I was a part. I started in 2000. And I found something surprising:
2000 Phantom Desktop and 2009 Karbon
These two winners shared a surprisingly similar look and feel. I wanted to find out if this was an anomaly, so I pulled some more winners.
2000 View-Master Virtual Viewer and 2009 Argus Bean Children's Digital Camera
2000 LabSpec Pro® Spectrophotometer and 2009 HP FIREBIRD
2000 Stanley IntelliSensor Digi Scan and 2009 All Area male body shaver concept
2000 Herman Miller Caper Seating and 2009 Steelcase Cobi Chair
2000 NEC Z1 Personal Computer and 2009 Venue 40
2000 Portable Cooler and 09 Ridgid® SMARTCART™ Wet Dry Vacuum Cleaner
Perhaps the similarity of these highlighted designs suggests a continuum of aesthetics in our field, or a consistent ethos in the creative community. But maybe it's something different—perhaps it also indicates our lack of adaptation.
Consider how the world has radically, unalterably, unyieldingly transformed in the last decade. In the year 2000, we didn't have Google, 9/11, the iPod (or the iPhone!), the war on terror. Wal-Mart was a chain store, not the global monarch of retail. At that time, our most serious financial concerns involved the failure of Pets.com. Enron and AIG were icons of performance.
Fast-forward to 2009: with all of the change in this decade alone, shouldn't design look different?
If designers are truly cultural shape-makers, why are we awarding the same thing we awarded almost ten years ago? Gladwell might suggest that we are suffering from an "illusion of control" where be believe so stridently in our past decisions, that "we overestimate the accuracy of our judgments." It's natural that based on our experiences, we select what we believe to be good. But maybe in this new world order, it's not good enough.
Design is increasingly recognized as a critical factor in business. Designers regularly work with corporate leaders, leading foundations, and governments around the world to solve the most complex problems of our time. We ask industry for higher-order challenges, we are requesting that design students graduate with more nuanced strategic and holistic skills, but still measure our successes with a beauty shot and a 200 word description. We remove context to look at the artifact, instead of understanding the system at work. We evolve competitions by cleaving on new categories of relevance (I've recently been an eco-design judge, a do-gooder judge, a social justice judge), instead of reconceiving the entire platform.
Design is at an inflection point. We are playing a more significant role in industry and policy. Now our challenge is how to describe our value. We need to adapt to our current role in the world, as problem-solvers not stylists, as collaborators not lone inventors. We need to represent and celebrate what design actually does, not the way it used to look.
Saul Bass said, "Design is thinking made visual." What does design thinking look like? More importantly, what does it look like now?
Big Awards for the Year's Best Industrial Design
Valerie Casey is a leading thinker and practitioner in the areas of design and open innovation. She specializes in helping organizations—from Fortune 100 companies to start-ups—develop their internal and external networks to address cultural, economic, and environmental challenges with greater agility. Valerie is the founder of the Designers Accord, the global coalition of designers, corporate leaders, and educational institutions focused on creating positive impact.
Valerie currently leads the digital experience practice at IDEO. Prior to IDEO, Valerie was Executive Creative Director at frog design, an Associate Partner at Pentagram Design, and Associate Creative Director at vivid studios. Her work has been highlighted in multiple publications, and in 2008, she was named a "Guru You Show Know" by Fortune magazine and a "Master of Design" by Fast Company. Valerie lectures on design throughout the international community, and is an adjunct professor at California College of the Arts. She holds a master's degree in cultural theory and design from Yale University and a BA from Swarthmore College.