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NextD Journal

Updated: Mar 1



Peer Review February 2024


Welcome back NextD Journal readers. February winds down here in New York City and with it hopefully comes the vibes of a not too distant spring!


With orienting and making sense of the arriving future on the minds of many readers we thought it might be helpful to ask some diverse, thoughtful, seasoned community folks to take a look at and comment on a recent article published in Fast Company, provocatively entitled: Big Design Freak-Out: A Generation of Design Leaders Grapple with their Future.


Invited Contributors: Brett Barndt (USA), Arvind Lodaya (India), Sunil Malhotra (India),  GK VanPatter (USA), Pascal Wicht (Switzerland).


Series Purpose: Believing that enhancing clarity can inform forward motion in a changing world, the purpose of this NextD Journal series is to share diverse sensemaking dialogue related to the subjects of Design Futures, Design Leadership, Design for Complexity and issues of interest to the emerging practice community. 


Big thanks to contributors for taking the time to share their thoughts when everyone is so busy!


BUBBLES OF LOGIC in PDF format can be downloaded at the end of this post.



Brett Barndt: (USA)


The Fast Company story; Big Design Freak-Out certainly brings up many questions about the times we’re in? Are there macro forces shaping the situation such as over-concentrated corporate markets (and politics), changing geopolitics, and ecological sustainability? Are we in an optimization or innovation mode? And, is whatever we’re in driven from the bottom or from the top?

 

The 1980s AT&T divestiture or bust up of the regulated utility telecoms monopoly brought on the ICT (Information Communication Technology) revolution and need for HCI (Human Computer Interaction) with HCD (Human Centered Design) emerging as competitive advantage. Wasn’t it the growth of so many new unheard of technologies and the need for them to serve users that made design a strategic function? Since then Neoliberal legal doctrines stopped enforcing competition in markets. Are we back to the “management capitalism” of the Post War “Glorious Thirty” when efficiency and optimization of integrated holding companies were the goals, and change was carefully coordinated with Washington? Are we back to a space of horizontal and vertical integration when Amazon delivers packages on streets with its own truck fleets and produces movies and much more?

 

It was already being said in the ‘90s that Microsoft dominating tech unchallenged buying up new technologies only to shelve them to prevent their spreading was stifling innovation. Open Source eventually solved vulnerability and other problems arising in that new anti-competitive world. What can we expect in this vertically and horizontally integrated world? Are these players going to allow usurpers to emerge? There are so many sectors needing innovation, but with current powerful vested interests and their political power driving certain changes but not others from the top, can that kind of innovation happen? Do we need another bust up to reinvigorate innovation? Do we need a change of mind about these matters that our grandparents and great-grandparents cared so much about?

 

Is the innovation we’re seeing in AI now the same as that emergent innovation we saw throughout the 1980s-90s after Divestiture? Or, is it driven from a few large players finally offering the means to optimize General & Administration (i.e. knowledge workers, like design) after so many decades of off-shoring and outsourcing optimized Cost of Goods Sold, and digital transformation Sales & Marketing?

 

Finally, do geopolitics and ecological risks today necessitate shifting energy away from customer experience and innovation toward sourcing, supply line redesign, and re-shoring? Do strategic designers play the same role in sourcing, operations and business processes as they do in experience design or innovation?

 

We may remember de-industrialization beginning in the late-70s. That globalization shift hit a lot of people mid-stream. Those working in “management capitalism” found themselves replaced by a new generation who rebuilt productive capacity elsewhere, while dynastic industrial fortunes shifted from production toward the stock market, real estate, and digital tech, which all experienced booms and busts consecutively, giving rise to new finance sectors such as hedge funds and private equity that now play a more dominant role than ever before in many sectors.


A recent headline says that PE now have their sites on childcare. They’re already into healthcare, eldercare, rental housing, and many sectors and verticals, including privatized public services, like prisons or toll roads. Does private equity generally employ innovators or optimizers (i.e. cost cutters)? The answer to that question may offer some insight into why the Big Design Freak-Out may be happening. It may also offer insight into the kind of macro Design 4.0 or political change we need to work toward to get a world we really want.



Arvind Lodaya: (India)


The 'identity crisis' is more for 'Design, Inc.' - that is, the corporate facet of design, rather than 'design' in entirety. Even that seems to be more a matter of supply and demand mismatch than a megatrend away from design towards something else. 


It is a fact that Design, Inc. is having a hard time adapting to scale and AI, because both require a fundamental refocusing of what design is and does, from feeding a continuous innovation pipeline (as Steve Jobs did) to embedding innovation into all aspects of productivity. 


However, that does not take away from the fact that in recent times, the design function in organizations is becoming top-heavy and expensive. With CEO salaries going through the stratosphere, one may ask why not - but unlike a Steve Jobs, star CEOs won't allow their "rizz" to get eclipsed by their design counterparts. 


So the crisis is not really in corporate design, but in corporate innovation. And it's only a matter of time that it gets sorted out, because innovation is now firmly established as the driver of continuous growth and competitiveness. 


All Design, Inc. needs to do is (re)demonstrate its leadership and mastery over the corporate innovation function in the AI+VR era - because the more 'reality' gets 'artificially' generated and experienced, the more design (in the words of Herbert Simon) will be needed.



Sunil Malhotra: (India)


My response is to the Fast Company Freak-Out article is to share a freshly written, 21st Century Design Allegory which I hope to include in my upcoming book: Once upon a time, there was a chef called Emma DeSign who longed to sit at the table with the guests, eager to engage directly with those savoring her creations. Initially, guests believed her presence would enrich the dining experience, but soon, the novelty faded, and DeSign found herself grappling with doubts about her value and role. 


Despite all her efforts to justify her worth, exhaustion weighed heavily upon her. In her eagerness to share her culinary talents, DeSign started revealing cooking methods and secrets, diminishing the allure of her dishes. She even tried to help scale her talents by codifying her skills. This made everybody happy that they could all be chefs. Before DeSign realised, she began to resemble her guests, losing her distinctive identity as a chef. 


One evening, she caught her reflection in the mirror and was shocked to see herself transformed into an elegant socialite, bearing the marks of fatigue and age. She no longer felt like a chef, and as the tale concludes, nobody lived happily ever after.



GK VanPatter: (USA)


It was a bit of fun to see the somewhat puzzling “Freak-Out” article. Clearly not a NextD Journal subscriber..:-)


Journalistically speaking, there are probably ten, often seen reasons why articles on design can be confusing and or misunderstood today and presenting a partial picture as a whole would for sure be among them. 


Let’s call that Confusion Number 3 with Confusion Number 2 being absence of any organizing ecology for the term design and Confusion Number 1 being time speed clock distortions, presenting yesterday&slow adaptation as today&rapid adaptation. With all 3 appearing in the Fast Company “Freak-Out” article, I honestly could not get through it in one sitting; processing, processing….Huh? WTF, Yikes! etc.


Not doubting that the author had the best of intentions, I think the “Freak-Out” article can be best understood as a kind of narrowcasting of design, the projection of one particular subcommunities bubble of logic. 


Contained within is considerable casting in the direction of corporate problem-finding and problem acknowledgement rolling over into some odd-fit, rather pedestrian suggestions for fixing design and design leadership. The article might have been better framed more specifically as a Generation of Corporate Design Leaders are Freaking-Out.


Key phrases from the article that I took note of would include; “The sources I’ve spoken with,” “Many of the folks I spoke with for this piece”, “Based on conversations with many former colleagues”, “corporate gigs”, “design craze”, “UX”, “leadership class” and “cream of the crop”…with the biggest wow/huh being: “The boutique practices at design agencies and consulting firms were significantly outpaced by the rise of a new creative management class at such companies as Microsoft, Barclay’s, Verizon and Walmart…” Yikes!


Defying gravity, that was clearly written for the author’s presumed corporate designer audience. All of that while acknowledging that many of the internal groups cited no longer exist. Clearly the term “significantly outpaced” is relative. :-)


For newly arriving readers into the subject of design’s adaptability in a continuously changing world, that odd narrative juxtapositioning was no doubt a head-spinner. It does seem likely that the Fast Company audience is rather different from our NextD Journal readers. 


We have been covering and engaged in the design adaptability / rethinking design / design for complexity story since 2005, publishing our last book on the subject in 2020 and instigating many NextD Journal peer review articles since then. In that significant period of time we have not heard much from Walmart, Verizon, Barclay’s etc. As far as we know, no one from any of those corporate internal groups listed by the “Freak-Out” author have been involved in the rethinking design movement underway for more than a decade, driven/lead/modeled primarily, not by corporations, but rather by independent, not officially sanctioned changemakers.


Looking at that absence, one might then wonder what was “significantly outpaced” referring to? Outpaced in terms of early problem recognition? Outpaced in terms of proactive adaptation? Outpaced in terms of pushing boundaries? Outpaced in terms of redesigning methods for upstream contexts? Outpaced in terms of thought leadership? Outpaced in being willing to challenge industry and graduate educational assumptions? Big No would appear to be the most obvious answer.


With its somewhat tortured presumptuousness and odd references to “leadership class” and “cream of the crop” the “Freak-Out” article succeeds, accidently or by design, in bringing into clear view where the focus in that particular community bubble of logic has been and continues to be, while asking the slow to arrive time clock questions in 2024: “Should we have seen this correction coming?” and “Did we misread the signals?”  


To be clear, those are questions coming from the corporate design subcommunity within the broader community of design. Suffice it to say not everyone in the design community is asking those questions in 2024 and not everyone in the community is in “Freak-Out” mode. 


It will certainly be clear to our NextD Journal readers that none of the disconnects within design requiring robust attention that we have been pointing out for more than a decade appear in the Fast Company “Freak-Out” article. 


Rather than pointing out a need for design (including graduate design education) to acknowledge that a new generation of rising complexity of organizational and societal problematics is upon collective us that requires a new generation of methods redesign, skills redesign, outlook redesign, culture-building redesign, the oddly UX oriented “Freak-Out” article suggests that the key issues are failure to become good corporate operational managers delivering Arena 2 services and lack of racial/cultural diversity. Huh? 



Happy to put those issues on the long list needing some serious attention but to position them as the pressing key priorities in the design community problem landscape at this important time was naive, misleading and from our perspective a bridge in the wrong direction. 


In “Freak-Out” the author seems to assume the corporate posture that the term “Design at Scale” means building headcount for delivery of Arena 2 services, missing the need for change in order to adapt to significant scaling up of challenges beyond products, services and experience assumptions. The result of that interpretation visible in “Freak Out” being the vast over-capacity in Arena 2 that now exists, when it is widely recognized that many problems facing collective us are in Arena 3 and Arena 4. That narrow interpretation, some might say strategic miscalculation, has essentially come home to roost for many.


Of course it is difficult to even have that conversation without an organizing ecology being present for the term design. That might be a little uncomfortable for some. No such ecology appeared in the Fast Company “Freak-Out” article. 


Holy time speed clock: UX and strategic design have, for at least a decade, had very different trajectories and futures. No big surprise there.


In the past ten years we have, in Humantific practice, happily worked with numerous UX groups inside large corporations. Most often what we found was that they were proactively seeking help with building strategic capacity to work upstream from UX briefs. Aware of internal pressures, they wanted to be able to add more strategic value to their organizations. They wanted to demonstrate that they could go out into their organizations and even their communities to help others with diverse, complex fuzzy challenges beyond the framing of UX. Suffice it to say that we are familiar with that proactive foresight, awareness, concern, that shift and that journey.


Seeing the world in its present bumpy, on-fire state we might ask ourselves: Did we see in the Fast Company “Freak Out” article ANY acknowledgement that our organizations, communities and the planet are facing significant, never before seen challenges that extend far beyond UX? 


Did we see acknowledgement that the assumption-boxed methods of product, service and experience design (often being repackaged as Design Thinking today) are not really geared to more complex contexts of organizational and societal changemaking where what the challenges actually are cannot be assumed at the outset? We did not.


What was it that we did see then? What kind of problem-finding was that, in “Freak-Out” that managed to sidestep every elephant clearly visible in the corporate design living room while calling superficially for a new generation of design? Was that about being politically correct or something else? That choice, that absence is really the perplexity of the Fast Company “Freak-Out” article. 


Beginning decades ago globalization and the commodification of design has had, huge impact on Arena 1 and Arena 2 practices. The arrival of Ai will no doubt prove to be even greater. The evolution towards engaging in more complex challenges is not an abstract exercise. 


Let’s acknowledge that there are complex cognitive things in Arena 3 and Arena 4 interventions that Ai cannot do. It is in the context of complexity that humans can stay relevant. It is difficult however, to get to that kind of conversation if one is stuck in and married to the logics of Arena 2. 


We do see every indication that an arriving generation of design leaders is not eager to drink the UX, Arena 2 Kool Aid or buy into the notion that it’s meta. Their ambitions to work on meaningful organizational or societal change are often not yet well aligned with many of the skills and methods still being taught in the graduate design academies. That, an entire conversation for another time. 


At the end of the day, perhaps it’s best to acknowledge that choices are good and that the “Freak-Out” article is essentially a problem acknowledgment strategy option. There might be folks who find some comfort in the compliments, views, focus and suggestions of “Freak-Out” and others who do not. That’s a choice we all get to make. 


If we are finally up for it, we can likely agree that it’s time (overdue) to adjust some logic bubbles and press the *RESET/REIGNITE button on design. It becomes a question of which button(s) to choose; the prioritizing shifting strategic capacity button, the prioritizing fixing operational management button, the racial diversity button or something else? 


Our long time readers will know that we have already made our choice.  Good luck to all. Don’t “Freak-Out”…:-)

*In the emerging practice community the RESET/REIGNITE button has been pressed for at least a decade. Much has already evolved and more is underway.

Diagram/Image credit: Rethinking Design Thinking: Making Sense of the Future that is Already Arrived, Humantific, 2020



Pascal Wicht: (Switzerland)


Thanks for inviting me to participate in this NextD Journal conversation. I conceptualized my contribution here as Design at a Crossroads: Challenging the Superficiality of Corporate Design Practices.    


I found the Fast Company Freak-Out to be an interesting read, questioning the current dramatic shifts within the design industry, impacting design departments in heavyweight corporations like J&J, Ideo, IBM and Expedia.


The article asks if this trend underlines a momentary industry hiccup or a deeper reevaluation of the place and promise of design within the corporate world. Does declining high-profile design roles such as chief design officers signal a stark reorientation of corporate attitudes towards design? Is it a sobering wake-up call to the past ambitious dreams of many design leaders? Are businesses parting ways with design, or are they simply over the overstated contributions of a particular era of design leadership?


During the past decade's romance with design thinking, UX and sprint culture has morphed into a more diffused practice within organizations, challenging the once-clear boundary between designers and non-designers. What was once the exclusive domain of design thinkers has, for example, become the playbook for many of today's marketing students. This is now also true for design leaders.


However, this generation's fascination with the transformative potential of design thinking has too often acted as a veneer, masking the deeper, more troubling agendas of digital neoliberalism. Whether it's offshoring taxis, transforming city centres into dynamic rental marketplaces, commodifying intimacy, sleep, relationships, or leisure into addictive AI-driven services, the lack of critical engagement within the leadership of big design businesses is appalling. The superficiality of conferences, the shallowness of publications and their obsession with pitching the "next big thing" or promoting supposed life and world-changing innovations leave no room for the essential conversations that need to take place.


This performative aspect of the design narrative entrapped in the mystification of digital capitalism, reveals a failure to critically examine the socio-economic impacts of design decisions. It underscores the urgent need to shift how design leadership approaches our work's ethical and societal implications. For example, if we keep relying on the widely praised pillars of design thinking — desirability, feasibility and viability — we will continue to trap our work on the surface of the deeper socio-cultural and political dimensions of the issues we are addressing.


Therefore, we must transcend the superficial idea of desirability, limiting our designs to solely compete for preferences and consumer choice. We need to make sense of the narrow technological determinism of feasibility, think about more social innovations, adopt repairability, bio-sourced materials and envision new stories of common good infrastructure and cooperation. Finally, we also need to overcome the market-driven constraints on viability, unpack different future horizons and business models that scale beyond the individual consumer and embrace the need for stronger social foundations and more respect for our collective ecological ceiling.


This introspection is essential for challenging the tasks we’re assigned, defining our approaches, and crucially, questioning the reasons behind our actions. This journey doesn't only begin with a deeper grasp of business or leadership but with the unlearning of our current design perceptions regarding the nature of many issues. Acknowledging that addressing root causes demands a shift towards forms of design that transcend technical and commercial solutions focused on symptoms.


Interestingly, if the social sciences community has long led the way in generating critical knowledge aimed at emancipating and transforming society, it is more than ever striking to note how those most passionate about making an impact and changing the world show so little interest in drawing from this critical body of knowledge.


Unless design leaders in big business reconsider their approach or review their promises, their roles are at risk of being effortlessly internalized and scaled, swallowed by the corporate ethos of reproducible and linear processes. Fixated on speed and visibility, this approach to design will not only stay superficial in addressing issues but also fall short of fulfilling design's transformative potential.



END.


Join the Design for Complexity Group on LinkedIn.



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sridhar dhulipala
sridhar dhulipala
Feb 29

GK, this is a fantastic critique of the 'freak out' and rightfully calls out the superficiality of 'corporate' or 'design inc' (Arvind) perspectives. You are right along with other co authors above in urging a renewed focus on 'arena 3 & 4' Adding to the dialogue, my reflection is that corporate thinking embracing design thinking in later celebrated by Harvard Business Review etc is possibly tied to set of external events that broke industry/corporate confidence all round. Post 2007 financial meltdown toxicity combined with rise of Facebook etc and broadly social media, amplified by smartphone adoption left corporate bosses clutching at straws and Ideo/Dschool 'inspired' design thinking was the savior with its anchor around reflection and empathy. Keep aside Stev…


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