Glen Oomen Illustration

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Why Design Matters

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As often happens when I write an article on this blog, I sit down and set out to write something short and sweet. Then just thinking about the topic opens up a whole huge can of worms. That’s actually one of the reasons I write in the first place, but this particular topic in question, tripped by my finding a two year old article on it in Canadian Business magazine, has been brewing for some time. Why Design Matters (in Canada). Maybe before you decide that it does, though, you should decide what Design is. That’s what I’ve been trying to do for a few years now and I believe I touch on that here. Apparently, I also touch on a raw nerve about Design in Canada also. Brave reader, read on.

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Why Design Matters

There’s a large book in that title. But before you can ask Why Design Matters, you need to know a little about What Design actually is. Kind of like the word “Science”, the discipline called “Design” covers a lot things. Almost every human endeavor has elements of design in it: computer programming, book making (actual books, not Ladbrokes bets), architecture, service design, product design, industrial design, research design, systems design, graphic design…the list continues almost endlessly. The word “Design” is a pretty broad, ill-defined one. Since I returned to school four years ago to do a second M.Sc in Design (for medical devices and healthcare), I have spent a fair bit of time trying to define what the word Design (with a capital D) is and what it isn’t. After all, I was now supposed to do it (the act of design) and be one (a designer). Three years later and I’m still trying to define it, and I have a feeling that I’ve been inducted into what will be a lifelong struggle: explaining what I do and how I do it. What is Design and what is a Designer?

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I am a Designer, you’re a Designer. Everyone is, actually. Only some people are much more proficient, either through natural inclination - call it talent, call it wiring, call it whatever you want - or through training. Maybe you went to D-School. Or, if you’re like me, you acquired a very unique and odd skill set that sets you apart: I went into a weird interdisciplinary field first that forced me to think in two different directions at once, like medical/scientific illustration, then I taught human anatomy in a medical school, and then I spent some time in D-School. Design, defined loosely and with a very human slant to it, could be described as Problem Solving for the Best Possible Outcome. If you’re an engineer, that statement probably has you feeling pretty chuffed since that’s what you’re supposed to do professionally. You went to four whole years of school for it at least, make stuff that nobody else can make, and that’s what you’re wearing the iron ring for, right? Not so fast, white helmet. The word “Engineer” actually comes, not from “Engine”, which is a clever machine that does something, but from much further back, from the latin “Ingenuim”: to be clever and inventive. Someone who uses or is skilled in ingenuity and who makes an engine of sorts is thus ingenius or an ingeneur. We all try to use ingenuity and be ingeneurs every day, to mixed effect. Some of us make tools to do it; some of us must convey information to solve a communications problem, or make indoor spaces for people that are inviting , comfortable, usable and durable; some us try to make packaging that is easier to open and easier on the environment; while some designers try to solve human problems, like how to make life jackets for refugees before they embark; or even really tough “wicked problems”, like how do we actually solve the refugee problem in the first place so there aren’t as many (hint: it’s not by building a wall). This is all very valuable, but at its heart is all very human. Ingenuity is not solely the province of Engineers. Ingenuity Rules the World (IRTW)! We are all trying to solve hard problems every day with ingenuity. We are all Designers.

Donald Norman’s famous book on designing usability. The Masochists Teapot has always graced its cover.

Donald Norman’s famous book on designing usability. The Masochists Teapot has always graced its cover.

One of the problems I run into with design, though, is geographic.  If I am in the EU and I say to someone that I am a designer, that person will nod knowingly, and then if they’re curious they might ask what kind of designer I am. Designers in the EU are often at or near C-level positions in companies, respected and listened to for bridging the gap between R&D, Marketing and Engineering. A lot of the time it’s Designers, deciding exactly what to make, who lead teams of engineers who then figure out how to build it. That relationship isn’t without friction, though, as engineers often poke fun of designers as people with fancy pencils and coloured pens who can draw. Hmmm. And designers constantly complain that engineers build or design things without ever thinking of the end user, or any person who might encounter their device for that matter. They seem to frequently ignore the context of use, the social cues and psychological facets of using the thing. This is also famously and consistently pointed out by noted psychologist and father of human factors science, Donald Norman.

In Canada, an engineering heavy country, the word Designer doesn’t quite mean the same thing. Instead it has been commandeered for largely trivial or commercial purposes with an excessive emphasis on fleeting style and aesthetic. Instead of solving actual problems, designers are most often used to make something simply look good after it’s been developed, subservient to marketing or engineering. A nice wrapper. What happens then if your company engineered the wrong thing to begin with? Answer: easy, you will have a bad product. No amount of slick finish will help you. As they say: “You can’t make a silk purse out of a sows ear”. So Design is usually taught as a slow enough process to actually get it right. Look at all sides of the situation. Follow the problems and their solutions up stream and downstream. Have the humility to approach a problem not with expertise or hubris, but with beginner eyes and deep unabashed curiosity. Play a bit. Walk away and come back, having done something completely different in the meantime. The “slow-food” of problem solving. It’s certainly the preferred method for a few of us who would take all year to solve a small problem if we could - or longer. If you think that would be costly to do, try launching a new product that is either unusable, unwanted, unneeded, just plain ugly or, as often happens, is all of the above. Or think of the story behind the Dyson vacuum. James Dyson doggedly pursued a better vacuum for something like 20 years. Took him long enough. It also earned him an enormous company and a Knighthood. 

In North America, on the other hand, Designers have TV shows on HGTV flipping houses, exposing or tacking up rustic barn-board or, cringe, “shiplap”. Or Designers make nice jeans that command high prices, and have fashion shows where they’re celebrated. The real, earnest, humanist problem solving side of Design as a discipline is lost in all the trendy, consumerist blether. Sure, renovating a house for reuse is good, and people need to wear clothes, and they might as well be nice while you do both. But the excessive emphasis on aesthetic tastes and trends, which are both very temporary things, creates massive new problems - far bigger than simply having an out-dated kitchen or needing a spring wardrobe. That is decidedly not the best possible outcome. As my brother, a wonderful carpenter and builder often says: “There won’t be a hole in the ground big enough for when people tire of their granite counter-tops and want to switch to the next thing”. Even Canada’s national newspaper, the venerable old Globe & Mail has an section on Design. I get excited each time I open it, hoping to find something about urban planning or some creative approach to a problem that few people really think about. But it’s rolled in together with ‘Home’ as “Home & Design”, and focuses on modernist renos, back splashes and maybe has a bit targeting the upscale reader on a boutique furniture maker that only they would be able to afford. It would be so nice to see it as just “Design” covering how some of the trickiest or most interesting problems are being solved with insight and creativity and beauty, or pillorying bad designs and detailing what makes them so. Alas it is not. So in Canada, where I live, the same conversation I have had in the EU has actually gone a little bit like this (on several occasions):

“What do you for a living, Glen?”

“I’m a Designer”, I say.

“Oh so you mean, like, renovating kitchens and stuff?”

Sigh.

“No, I try to solve real problems. Out-of-fashion kitchens aren’t usually among them.”

Some examples? Trying to get a volatile anaesthetic from one vessel to the next without spilling a drop or emitting any vapors, or being used for the wrong administration. Or trying to make an endotracheal blade that is softer on the pharynx, makes it easier to find the trachea and epiglottis, is ergonomically superior, and doesn’t chip teeth. Or trying to make the installation and handling of a static discharge tail easier to do, high up in a cold wind-turbine. Or even how to make an inner-city hospital stay relevant as a training center, and increase its interactions with the surrounding community to actually promote health and commerce instead of just being a tiring depot for the injured and sick. How do you increase the mobility of old persons during the winter instead of shutting them in and shutting them down? How do you hold sternums together after they have been cut down the middle? Those are some of the real problems I think about and work on.

I still haven’t gotten through this anthology of design articles collected by Rotman magazine.

I still haven’t gotten through this anthology of design articles collected by Rotman magazine.

Design is hugely important! Gosh, I’ve written all the above and I haven’t even mentioned the article that I just found in an old Canadian Business magazine from 2016. Firstly, the article is kind of nice to see in a Canadian magazine since, as I have just detailed, design in Canada usually means household decor and clothes. If you’re unfamiliar with the subject they cover a few of the usual bases, like DMI’s design index outperforming the S&P 500 by 219%, the C-suite discussion about executives thinking that design is just a tool to make things look good, etc. As an article, it would be nice to really dive in there and find the ingenuity - find what makes problem solving so valuable. This country is so full of challenges and problems, which to a Designer aren’t scary or daunting. They’re exciting. They are the raw materials for Designers; the ore from which great solutions are refined. The University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management, arguably the best business school in the country, are even enormous proponents of design in business, publishing whole anthologies on the subject. Britain devotes enormous resources to Design, all advocated for by the UK Design Council, which covers everything from craft to video games to intellectual property. They even regularly tabulate its value to the UK economy: £85.2 billion or 7% of the UK’s gross value added (GVA) in 2016. Don’t quote me here (because I can’t remember where I read it and can’t find the original source) but I think that’s more than the entire UK financial sector. If true, then solving problems and making things makes the UK more money than actually making money. Britain is a Design nation, even their government websites are designed for accessibility, consistency and readability.

The design economy generated £85.2bn in gross value added (GVA) to the UK in 2016. This is equivalent to 7% of UK GVA.

- The Design Economy 2018

Canada seems to me to be less vigorous in this pursuit, despite our excellent education system and engineering heritage. So why is its importance in Canada minimized? Well my theory is that life in Canada is actually pretty good. Simple. That’s it. That’s all there is. What if the biggest problem you have in Canada is that your living room is out of fashion and that’s what you use design for? It’s not the biggest problem in a global sense or even the national sense - definitely not. For me, freshening up your living room or kitchen falls well below the bottom of my list of important problems that Canadians need to solve with ingenuity, energy, curiosity and creativity. But for most people, maybe - just maybe - life is good enough here that changing the window dressings is a serious conundrum, worth actually hiring professionals over. In Canada we don’t have to contend with a small usable land mass and rising sea-levels like the Netherlands. We don’t have to connect a country subdivided into valley cantons separated my impassable mountain ranges like Switzerland. We haven’t had to rebuild after a devastating war and rethink how we might best use our do-over. We largely have a decent social safety net and healthcare that, for the most part, almost takes care of everyone. We don’t really have to plan for the future while respecting a thousand years of architecture and cultural heritage. We don’t really have to change how we build our houses, despite the 60° temperature swings we experience and the increase in forest fires or extreme weather events. No, on the surface we don’t have to contend with any of these things. It’s all good enough. Maybe there’s no pressure on us to collectively solve anything and until there is Design just makes things pretty. Carry on loving life then.

But we do need to contend with all of these problems, and every smaller one leading up to them. Maybe recognizing that is our first big challenge. Maybe generating the collective will-power, or a little less ambivalence to doing anything about them, would be our second. Just start designing a better anything. Only after we’ve done that will we really see the value of design and I can almost guarantee that it will have value, just maybe not a price tag.

Cheers, dear Reader, and congratulations for making it this far. At least I didn’t once use the word innovation. Seriously.

Also: I am a member of that Design Management Institute, in case you were wondering. And I have an alter ego that runs this tiny one person design agency called Stick.