The changing role of design

It’s time to put creativity back into design again

“Design has become a cottage industry.”

The owner of a critically acclaimed design agency lamented at a board meeting of an industry organization a few years ago. They were referring to the fact that they were facing a hard time charging the kind of expensive fees it once used to command and were now often having to compete with independent designers who were willing to do the same job at a fraction of the cost.

This design agency no longer calls itself a design agency. Its website says “We are a transformation consultancy.”

In another conversation with a different design agency owner, I asked them what the turning point in their career was.

“It was when we stopped positioning ourselves as a design agency.”

They were known for beautiful brand identity, packaging, and design systems work but the owner said they started to take on more advertising and marketing work because budgets were better and they could command higher fees. This answer did and didn’t surprise me.

In more recent weeks, a few other comments and headlines caught my eye.

On a panel discussion at a Bloomberg conference about the future of business two weeks ago, Jeffrey Katzenberg, the former chairman of Walt Disney Studios, the founder of DreamWorks Studio and other successful creative ventures, said he believes that AI will lower the cost of producing blockbuster animated feature films by 90%. “It used to take 500 people over five years to make one really good animated film. Now, we can reduce that by 90%.” I believe he’s right.

And just last week, the world’s most famous consultancy synonymous with the word design laid off one-third of its staff. With it, a Fast Company article unofficially declared the end of the era of design thinking.

All of this isn’t new news. There have been various articles about how design thinking has fallen out of favor in Corporate America or where it went wrong. The topic has been on our collective minds for a while now.

Design, as an industry, has slowly been devolving and decaying for the past decade or more.

Design vs. design thinking

The word “design” is a suitcase word.

A term coined by the late Marvin Minsky, the co-founder of MIT’s artificial intelligence lab, “suitcase word” is used to describe the type of words into which people attribute or pack multiple meanings. A suitcase word “means nothing by itself, but holds a bunch of things inside that you have to unpack,” observed Minsky.

One of the definitions of design that I’ve always appreciated comes from Dieter Rams, the former head of design at Braun and Vitsoe and the industrial design giant of the 20th century, known for his functional, clean, unobtrusive design aesthetic that placed priority on usefulness over superficial styling. If you haven’t heard his name before, you certainly have come into contact with designs that were heavily influenced by him. Take any Apple product of the last 25 years and we can see his influence.

Comparison of T30 radio from 1958 and iPod from 2001
T30 radio vs. iPod

His definition of design isn’t a definition per se but it’s a set of principles. He calls them Ten Principles for Good Design. Even though his domain of expertise was industrial design, most of his principles could apply to modern, digital products.

  1. Good design is innovative
  2. Good design makes a product useful
  3. Good design is aesthetic
  4. Good design makes a product understandable
  5. Good design is unobtrusive
  6. Good design is honest
  7. Good design is long-lasting
  8. Good design is thorough down to the last detail
  9. Good design is environmentally-friendly
  10. Good design is as little design as possible

Design thinking, unlike the word design, has a clearer definition, for better or worse. It’s taken one suitcase word and attached another to create a term and an explanation that people could understand. It proposed a set of steps for design that anyone-particularly Corporate America-could follow:

The goal of design thinking was to involve users in the process, work quickly to build and test prototypes, and iterate based on feedback. It claimed that this human-centered-another buzzword-process leads to innovative solutions.

The term has been around for close to half a century but it was IDEO that popularized the term around 2007. It was driven by Tim Brown, its former, long-time CEO, with his Harvard Business Review article, a TED talk, and a book. It’s one of the best brand activations for and by a professional services firm of the last two decades.

Brown crafted a gospel of design thinking that Corporate America as well as elite universities could sing. Many are still singing it. When Hakuhodo DY Holdings, the second largest advertising holding company in Japan bought a sizable stake in the company for millions of dollars in 2016, it never thought that the darling of design thinking and its gospel would get stale in less than a decade. To be fair, the rest of the world didn’t think so either.

The fortunate thing about design thinking was that it democratized design by making everyone feel like they can be a designer, or at least be a significant part of designing. At the risk of sounding like a creative elite, I’ll say this: it was successful in making non-creative organizations feel like they could be creative.

Design thinking leveraged Post-it notes as a vehicle for making collaboration accessible, visible, and repeatable, and making it easy for Corporate America to adopt it. Post-it notes became so ubiquitous that they started to appear, somewhat awkwardly, in the digital space in many online collaboration tools.

Interface of a collaboration tool that uses physical metaphors of Post-it notes
Miro interface with Post-it notes

Using a metaphor to design interfaces has its upsides and downsides. The computer desktop interface is one such example. Interface designers in the 1970s and 80s took the physical desktop as a metaphor to recreate a workspace on-screen. It was effective in wrapping our heads around an abstract digital directory system and made a visual and graphical user interface, GUI.

But the downside is that it also replicated the ugliness of the physical world. That is why our computer desktops remain messy unless we meticulously organize them. It’s freaking four decades after the computer desktop interface was invented and it still hasn’t been fixed. Ok, I digress. Back to the topic.

Having participated in numerous design thinking workshops and processes, including the ones facilitated by the said consultancy for shared clients, I will admit that this type of methodology was effective in making them feel like they were part of the process.

But oftentimes, I felt underwhelmed by the outputs. They were either small ideas that tweaked the previous products and services, or fictional fantasies that would look good in vision presentation videos in corporate boardrooms but were not practical or implementable. That explains why certain versions of design thinking leave the final step of “Implement” out of the process.

The underlying message of design thinking was “everyone is creative.” It’s a good thought.

Design thinking made design more approachable for everyone by putting more emphasis on the thought and process of design but less on the craft of it. This meant that you didn’t need to have years of experience in designing things yourself. The phrase also implied that there was not much thinking in the discipline of design itself, thus relegating it to a lower status.

Over time, it started to over-emphasize making the team feel good but deemphasize making them accountable for the quality of the idea or the output.

The problem with design thinking, particularly in the last decade, was that it became toomuch about thinking and not enough about the act of making or designing.

Does design still matter?

If we look at some of the fastest-growing digital products of the past 12 months, the role of designers and design thinkers may not be so obvious, apparent, or even significant.

One such example is Threads.

I’m sure there were many designers involved in making this product possible. However, there is very little original thought in this product. I mean no disrespect to the designers who worked hard on it-particularly as I have good friends working at Meta. We all know that the decision to copy an existing product didn’t come from a designer or the process of design thinking. It’s a replica of an existing successful product. They didn’t need a brilliant designer or design thinker for it.

It’s an opportunistic product at its best.

Comparison between Twitter/X vs. Threads interfaces
X/Twitter vs. Threads interfaces

There are two factors that I believe made Threads successful, both of which have very little to do with design.

First, its timing.

Although we might have been a little curious about what the takeover by Elon Musk of Twitter could “unlock” for the platform, not many of us predicted that it would be the debacle that it has become. Mark Zuckerberg’s launch announcement didn’t make any mention of that but it was written all over it: he cunningly capitalized on the demise of a competitor product. A textbook demonstration of functional speed in business.

The other factor is its lack of innovation. Threads didn’t try to reinvent a new paradigm of communication or even a new feature that would differentiate the product from its original. Meta restrained from overdesigning Threads and stuck to the bare minimum.

Every feature change and hateful comment on Twitter/X is now a gift to Meta that keeps on giving. It goes back to the first factor. Its timing couldn’t have been better.

Where I see the evidence of design in Threads is its integration with Instagram.

If we had an Instagram account, signing up for Threads was instant. It’s a step 99% of new digital products struggle with. In addition, the way Threads posts appear as intermissions within one’s Instagram Feed is natural and feels unobtrusive.

Per one of Rams’ principles, this is good design. However, if we designers are happy at this level of contribution to a product, we are really underselling ourselves and thinking way too small.

Different > Better

Anyone who practices the craft of design knows that we like to draw invisible lines between us and those who aren’t but claim to be.

Let’s be honest. We designers judge those who use Canva instead of Figma. Or even Wix instead of Squarespace. Or WordPress for the more tech-savvy.

While Generative AI is creeping into Figma’s and Photoshop’s of the world, it’s also infiltrating Canva’s and Wix’s, the tools that non-designers use. Everyone, whether you are a designer or not, can now do something that is not just decent but pretty good. AI lowers the bar for non-designers.

Does that mean that anyone can be a designer and everyone can be a creative? Yes, but it doesn’t matter.

Such classification of our professions is becoming less relevant because anyone with no discernible talent or skill can generate decent stuff. The good and bad news is that AI is deindustrializing creative professions as we have known them.

Then, the question is how creative are we designers really?

If our work is similar to everyone else’s, we might as well be just operators of tools.

Being creative means the work we produce is not only better than others but is different and has a distinct point of view.

It’s time to put creativity back in design again.

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