Just a mirage? Rick Poynor, in a beautifully honest article for ID Magazine ("Down with Innovation"), takes the "design thinkers," the "innovators through design," or the "design-ovators," as he calls them, head on:
"Design thinkers set great store by business targets, by driving the enterprise forward, because it is exactly what their clients want to hear and it gets them work. Seen from outside the cozy bond of service provider and client, this is a severely limited way of viewing design, and the total domination of current design discussion by this kind of commercial rhetoric is a worrying trend."
"It is hardly surprising that designers try to put as much distance as possible between themselves and the accusation that they are hung up on making things look pretty. Belittling language of this kind suggests that the visual is inherently trivial, easy to do, and beneath consideration, that form is not a powerful medium of expression and carries no meaning for the viewer. Design thinkers like to talk as though we have somehow passed beyond the stage where the way things look needs to be a primary concern, and designers, browbeaten and demoralized, half seem to believe them. They have been too ready to accept the caricature of themselves as airheaded stylists who care about insignificant niceties of no concern to anyone else."
"Yet the rhetorical reduction of design to frivolous prettification reveals a willful blindness to the power of expressive form-making, if not a deep, philistine ignorance of the history of design and visual culture. The scale of the oversight is so colossal, and frankly baffling, one hardly knows where to start. Are the great cathedrals of Europe—Rheims, Lincoln, Chartres—merely pretty? Are the gardens of Kyoto? Is Alvar Alto’s Paimio armchair? Was Alexey Brodovitch’s Portfolio magazine? How about Leica cameras? The patterns on Moorish ceramic tiles? Or the PowerBook and the iPod? There is surely no need to go on."
In the same article, Michael Bierut of Pentagram supports him: "The business use—the specific goal that motivated the client or sponsor to initially fund the work—often fades away, sometimes quickly," he says. "In some ways, you might argue that aesthetic value—for an enduring design, at least—is the only lasting value, since over time functional needs can change and business moves on to the next goal." Bierut goes so far as to modestly propose that "just making something look nicer" or "replacing something ugly with something not so ugly" is an admirable goal for designers.
That's quite a statement in a climate where proving the business value of design is the profession's Holy Grail (and complex), and "design thinkers" keep demanding designers should become CEOs. Can they? Yes, perhaps, but only if they can get over themselves. Leadership in business is about empowering others. Designers and particularly "design thinkers," however, are still busy yielding power for themselves.
At this point, it may be more aspirational to be humble. Rather than touting design as the ultimate problem solver in all aspects of social, professional, and political life, the (relative) power of design may lie in balancing the possibilities of convergence (media; devices; platforms; disciplines; processes) with the unleashed forces of divergence in a web 2.0 world -- design as the facilitator between software and hardware; mobile, web, and desktop; analysis and creativity; virtual and real; professional and consumer; individual and crowd; business and art; function and beauty.
Hartmut Esslinger, the founder of frog design, teaches design at the University of Applied Arts Vienna. The mission statement he has crafted for his students may provide some much needed clarity and guidance in this debate for practitioners:
"The holistic challenge for Design is to create physical and virtual objects which are useful art, and inspire spiritual values by as few atoms and bits as possible. Design is our modern-day continuation of 'technical' functionality converted into human-historic and metaphysical symbolism. When designers create a new and better object, a mechanism, a software application or a more inspiring, human-centric experience, this will become a 'branding symbol' in itself by meaningful innovation, good quality and ethical behaviors. People will recognize the resulting visual symbols as a cultural expression of humanized technology and subconsciously connect it with historically learned visual shapes and patterns that connect. Design cannot be just a fashionable statement, but must advance our industrial culture by providing sustainable innovation, cultural identity and consistency so it can create emotional and social belonging. Designers have a humanistic responsibility that connects and coordinates human needs and dreams with new opportunities and inspirations in science, technology and business in order to make the results and their usage culturally relevant, economically productive, politically beneficial and ecologically sustainable.
The accelerated globalization is posing both huge challenges and offering new opportunities which require designers that are both talented and competent to influence and define new trends in regards to mastering outsourcing to 'lower cost' economies and reversing the current excesses of overproducing generic and hard-to-use products. Designers also need to invent new concepts for “homesourcing” by converting local and tribal cultures into beneficial concepts.
To succeed as competent and respected 'executive partners' in the rational world of business, designers must become creative entrepreneurs or creative executives themselves. However, ultimately, design must rise above all commercial-functional benchmarks and aspire to near-eternal cultural relevance and spirituality."