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It’s time for the design industry to redesign itself

Albert Shum, CVP of design at Microsoft, envisions what design education might look like for the next 100 years.

It’s time for the design industry to redesign itself
[Source Images: claudiodivizia/iStock, Andrii Vinnikov/iStock]

Last year marked the 100th anniversary of the founding of Bauhaus. More than a design aesthetic, Bauhaus was a movement, with its school contributing to an era of thought leadership that shaped our modern world. The founding principles of Bauhaus lauded function: the idea that design should scale and serve society. That impact is still felt today in the way we teach the practice of design. Bauhaus led to the creation of disciplines like industrial design and product design, focusing on people’s needs as a way to inspire form. Methodologies like human-centered design and design thinking respond to the teachings of Bauhaus and align to a certain modernist approach to mass-produced artistry.

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Now that 2019 has come to a close, I challenge the industry in 2020 to move into a meta-modernist approach: to redesign design itself through education. In 1919, the founders of Bauhaus were responding to a profound change in society and culture where industrialization changed everyday lives at an unprecedented scale. They believed something was missing: that in exchange for productivity, we lost art, humanity, and nature. Bauhaus sought to correct this and translate mere objects into artistic—and therefore human—connection. They taught that form and function are not mutually exclusive.

The straining ecological effects of mass production are no longer our only concern. We are now mass-producing feelings at an unprecedented scale.

A century later, this theory still holds weight. But the industrialization that necessitated Bauhaus has shifted to the digitization of the planet with an arguably greater impact on everyday lives. The scale of design has bled from the tangible into the intangible. It’s not only the objects we create and use, but it’s also the intelligence held within them. The straining ecological effects of mass production are no longer our only concern. We are now mass-producing feelings at an unprecedented scale.

We create digital experiences that reach millions (often billions) instantaneously, experiences that engage you and “make” you react. Manufacturing feelings has a profound effect on society, creating enormous opportunities to empower, to connect, to motivate, to give joy. But like all technology, it can also have unintended consequences that create harm, isolation, fear, and doubt. Function now extends into the realm of behavioral science. As designers, we influence the entirety of these experiences. We influence society and humanity at scale.

And yet our design institutions still hold to the material tenets founded by Bauhaus. These pedagogical tools are insufficient for the future that awaits us and even the here and now for which we design. Political, behavioral, cultural, sociological, ethical, and philosophical implications are at play more than ever. Every interaction is weighted with unintended consequences that affect the way people move about the world. Given the realities—and unrealities—technology creates, we have a responsibility to address our foundational knowledge and bring more consciousness into design education. Designers in every sector need to be equipped with the know-how to have these conversations.

I believe this starts with a critical design rethinking that brings these conceptual frameworks into our pedagogical standards. If Bauhaus allowed a safe space for experimentation and testing for material designs, this new school allows for the same on theoretical designs. We need a safe space to test these concepts before they alter society at scale.

This is meant as a provocation for, not a disparagement of, the design industry as it stands. I recognize the privilege of speaking from the podium of design in tech. But this also means my biases lie in seeing the impact of theoretical design firsthand. Across the tech industry, we are always learning from our impact on people in the real world, and this is what compels and propels this concept. Inclusion, equity, community, ethics, trust—are these the Design 101 courses of the future? A basis for “good design” under a meta-modernist definition leads to new practices and methodologies that address today’s societal challenges. What follows is a framework for the Bauhaus of the next 100 years.

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Reflect

Human-centered design addresses customer need but not always customer motivation. A new curriculum would teach the psychology behind certain behaviors and how to bring a person’s feelings into the iterative design process. This requires a personal reflection on the assumptions and biases we build into our designs, recognizing the knowledge gap that exists between our work and the customer’s real life. Rarely is there time for this critical analysis within our business cycles, and so it needs to be foundational training that becomes second nature. We need to learn how to continuously ask ourselves these questions:

  • How might the intended purpose be distorted?
  • Who holds the power in this engagement model?
  • Does this design cause harm in any way?
  • Does this design build or destroy trust?

Rethink

Design thinking is limited in its process-oriented application. An expansion of our design practice includes awareness of broad systems and theories and those functions in society. This requires an evolution on the part of designers to understand the trends that drive our work. This includes areas like these:

  • Neuroscience: Digital design holds intrinsic implications for habit formation, focus, and attention. Learning more about these neural pathways is critical to curbing faulty design.
  • Economic theory: The definition of capitalism itself is evolving, driven by technology, the future of work, and the rise of automation. As designers, we take part in changing these systems, and we need to teach responsibility for their effects.
  • Privacy law: Understanding the global forces behind policies such as GDPR and the Right to be Forgotten informs future trends for data collection and customer trust.
  • Sustainability: Learning from the ecological challenges we’ve created serves as a blueprint for cognitive sustainability—using our resources responsibly and regulating for humane practices.

Decolonize

Diversity and inclusion are top of mind in the industry, yet we often hold a local view of diversity. In doing so, we are bypassing a critical consideration of the heritage of indigenous societies and a global perspective that informs more inclusive design. We need to recognize that the majority of digital experiences are designed with a Western lens. Back to the definition of “good design”—what does that mean in the context of scale? How can we embrace the diversity of cultures to uphold their values? Again, there are basic questions we can ask ourselves to begin decolonizing design:

  • Who is this really for?
  • Who will this reach, and who might be marginalized?
  • Is this a re-imagined design or a re-appropriated design?
  • What cultural value is lost by mass-producing this experience?

2020 vision

As we enter the next 100 years of design education, this is one perspective on where to take our current approach. If the industry has moved us from “less is more” to “more is more,” this is a call to define the next industrial revolution as something more meaningful. Exponential production is not a solution—we need to capitalize on learning more together.

This is on us.


Albert Shum is CVP of design at Microsoft. He leads a collaborative team creating the future of experiences and devices at Microsoft. His team currently drives incubation for the Windows ecosystem, focused on the responsibility of design to create intelligent and inclusive experiences. This article was adapted with permission. Read the original here
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