How to tell if your design problem is strategic or human-centred

By Stephen Easton

September 26, 2019

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There are many different fields of design producing all manner of things, from graphics to physical objects to policies or experiences, but they all have one thing in common that also explains why design thinking is increasingly valued in business and government.

Enthusiasm for ideas like co-design, human-centred design and design thinking has grown in the public sector as part of the push towards innovation, but much like many other allied concepts and ideas, they can easily become mere buzzwords without a good practical understanding of what they mean.

Design is about creating “a window into to the future” in all its forms, Dr Mathan Ratinam told delegates at a recent seminar hosted by The Mandarin Live in Melbourne, where a group of public sector leaders gained a clear understanding of what design really is, at its core, and how government-funded bodies can make the most of it.

Dr Mathan Ratinam

Modern design made a leap forward around 1420 with the invention of linear perspective allowing accurate representations of three-dimensional spaces, Dr Ratinam explained, in a fascinating whirlwind tour through the history of design that set the stage for an intense full-day program packed with clear and eloquent speakers.

“What I would say is that aspect of having a window into the future, and seeing what that future looks like and how to represent it, is a cross-cutting function and feature of every design practice. Because unlike the sciences or the humanities, which tries to explain the world as it is, design really is interested in how the world could be.”

The international expert soon hit fast-forward over a few hundred years to arrive in the mid-to-late 20th century, where “the relationship between design and the public good” was being studied with two very different lenses.

In the United States, famous designers were taking on the big social and environmental challenges of the day — people like Buckminster Fuller, Victor Papanek, and Charles and Ray Eames.

“And meanwhile, in Scandinavia, something different was taking place,” Dr Ratinam said. “Its political context has always been very socially oriented — still is — and they were developing design practices that would include the input of all the primary stakeholders into how design was actually being enacted. And so design processes [emerged] that were very inclusive and democratic, and almost decentralised in some ways. And this really became the birthplace of co-design, as we talk about it today.”

The two strands eventually came to complement rather than oppose each other, and the concept of thinking like a designer emerged around the same time. Dr Ratinam showed how Apple was a design leader in the 1980s but also contributed to ushering in a new era of amateurish design in the 1990s, with cheap home computers and accessible design software enabling anyone to have a go, often with hilarious or perhaps dangerous results.

“So really, I think people started to realise good design is actually really hard, that it’s not just simply about having access to the right tools and toolkits but actually, it’s a craft, and it’s something that needs to be practised and refined that way.”

That brings us to the present. Business leaders have cottoned on, seeing “a structured pathway to innovation” and paying designers who sell “the formula as the product, rather than the outputs of that formula” through consulting practices. Evidence shows those who do have reaped strong financial returns, generally speaking.

Design thinking is now firmly established as the set of skills that are common to all fields of design, some of which can be valuable tools when applied in various areas of business and public administration, in just the right way. But Dr Ratinam also sounded a note of caution; design thinking is no magic bullet and it exists in a space between genuine fields of design and other fields that are not design.

“Now, the thing is, though, that in order to take all of these centuries of richness that happened in the design fields, and to be able to pass that through, things have to be really simplified, and sometimes oversimplified, to be codified in a sort of framework that is suddenly applicable across all these different [areas] and becomes agnostic across these different design sectors.

” And that for me is the biggest concern: if you’re in the not-design field, and you’re working on complex challenges, and you’re trying to do that through simple frameworks, design thinking just doesn’t have the carrying capacity to deal with that complexity, not when it’s over simplified.

“… I really feel like design thinking now has gone through the similar sort of dilution to what happened back in the ’90s, with that sort of amateurism, so it’s a different kind of amateurism that we’re starting to see, because there’s a desire and hunger for quick techniques but it’s sometimes a bit too reductive.”

Dr Ratinam knows big public-sector challenges are anything but simple, through his work for supranational, national and state government bodies around the world, and feels it is important not to oversimplify them.

“You really want to know, when is it a strategic design problem? When is it a human-centred design problem? Or when do we need to apply design thinking or co-design or experience design, and so on? There is a lot of nuance there.”

Participants came away from the sold-out forum with much clearer ideas about how to answer all of those questions and many more.

Design for Public Sector Leaders is being run again on October 10 at the Melbourne offices of CPA Australia due to popular demand.

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