Director of the Ullman School of Design, America’s oldest university-based design school.
We are currently experiencing events and situations that a year ago we could not even imagine, let alone predict. Many of the things that we knew or have come to expect no longer apply. As a result, social constructs and patterns of human behavior are now changing in ways that we do not quite understand yet. No doubt, the effects of what we are experiencing today will have profound consequences for many years to come. One thing is for sure: Our lives will never be quite the same again. This means that we need to rethink and reimagine many of the things that we used to take for granted. All of the issues that we are facing today are bringing the need for creative problem-solvers forward, more than ever before.
New Challenges, New Opportunities
Covid-19, the fight to end racial injustice, climate change and the rise of citizen activism are forcing us to reimagine the world as we know it today — and designers can help. In recent years, design has emerged as a field capable of addressing highly complex and often intangible problems that defy conventional solutions. Nevertheless, the new world that we are experiencing now is still largely undefined. Leading positive change under such ambiguous terms requires a great deal of confidence, adaptability and resilience. But with no set rules, protocols and processes in place to follow, designers today will also need to create a new body of knowledge to be successful.
As the director of a design school, I often contemplate what all of these changes and developments mean for the future of design education, the profession and the field of design itself. What kind of new skills will designers need to learn to act as agents of positive social change in this new reality that we are facing? Which of our existing practices will we need to leave behind, and what kind of new ways of work will we need to embrace?
Non-routine situations such as the ones that we are facing today need more than just creative thinking; they also call for critical thinking. The abilities to research, reason and analyze are equally important for designers as they enable us to separate our personal biases from the design process. For most people, design thinking is synonymous with Post-it notes, brainstorming, imaginary personas, empathy maps based on assumptions and ideation. There are some benefits to these exercises, such as introducing empathy into the process and placing the human at the center of the solution. However, when applied on a basic level, design thinking can also be a highly subjective process. In most cases, this is a rule-of-thumb process primarily driven by intuition that is only vaguely informed by a rudimentary form of research.
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This way of working is no longer good enough. Solutions created under the influence of implicit or cognitive biases instead of insights derived by empirical research and real data can often be misleading or detrimental. While under normal circumstances, such end results can be somewhat inconvenient; in a state of crisis, the effects of this kind of work could be dire.
In Research We Trust
Being a designer today means working in far more demanding environments than ever before. Cross-disciplinary empirical research allows us to put aside our own personal biases, beliefs and preconceptions. It also allows us to see the world from other perspectives and to imagine solutions that are relevant, sustainable, meaningful and appropriate. This is why teaching designers how to conduct research will likely become increasingly important.
I’ve observed that designers who use empirical research to inform their work are often better equipped when it comes to providing real solutions to real problems. When designers are trained to use research to frame complex problems, ask the right questions and co-create solutions while working with real people, then every moment of change becomes a new moment of opportunity. Designers trained in this way also often command a greater degree of credibility and feel more empowered to lead in uncertain times. For the new generation of designers, evidence-based research will not be an afterthought; it will be a starting point.
How To Have Better Design Thinking
While learning new research methods and methodologies takes time, here are three basic suggestions that can help you introduce an evidence-based design thinking approach:
1. Before you act, read. Don’t jump into solving the problem without understanding it. Not every problem is a new problem. Start by learning as much as you can about the issues at hand before you start brainstorming solutions. You may find valuable information that can inform your work. Learn from the works of others first.
2. Work with real people. Don’t rely on imaginary personas to create an understanding of your end users and stakeholders. There are plenty of real people with whom you could work on understanding their problems. The problem with personas is that they always agree with you. They will never tell you that you have misunderstood them, or that your solution doesn’t suit them. Your persona should be a real person.
3. Don’t jump to conclusions. Validate your work by testing your concepts with real people dealing with real problems. Do this before you decide on the final solution. It’s easy to fall into the trap of trying to justify your solution after the fact. Your design decisions need to be informed by real data, not by convenient assumptions.
To remain relevant, design thinkers need to become design scientists. Learn how to study people and the socio-cultural and economic factors that define them, in order to make informed design decisions. These are all skills that you can develop by learning how to do evidence-based research.
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Author: Gjoko Muratovski, Forbes Councils Member