What Design follows

Many years have passed since the moment that I made the decision of studying Industrial Design. At that time design had no meaning for me, apart from the idea of “it can be the most beautiful of the engineering degrees and the less machine oriented one”.

The semester POPBL (Problem Oriented Project Based Learning) projects, where we needed to integrate the ability to work on completely different tasks: define a brief, understand the design requirements and requirements of clients, ideate many solutions, explain them through drawings, present 3 concepts, detail materials/textures/colours, find the adequate manufacturing processes, create 3D models, make resistance calculations, prototyping hours in the workshop, create attractive material to show it and present the benefits of the proposals. It was a mess, we struggled a lot when going through the phases of projects (at that time I understood it as a linear process, going back was a failure), I was very bad at some of the tasks and team development was not on the minds of any of us. Project and Result were the important words, not the Team nor Process.

As we saw in Design History lectures first designers were craftsmen and women who were in charge of creating objects we needed in everyday life. Industrialization brought up the opportunity of mass production, so Industrial Design emerged as a field to produce more products, experiment with new materials and an accessible price for the people. There were some movements such as Arts&Crafts that wanted to reject industrial revolution and foster the way of doing of Middle Age, but most of the design movements were focused on being able to produce large amounts of same products. When this was exploited to the full the word design started to be associated with styling (In Spanish we say “eso es de diseño” when we mean that the appearance has a purpose of being beautiful) (check many of the books by Taschen about Design history, best designs, Scandinavian design…). At the same time some design movements believed that products needed to be functional. So in the lectures we were always discussing “Form follows beauty” or “Form follows function”? Design is not how it looks like but how it works.

As time went by we started talking a lot about emotions, attachment to objects, psychology… and Don Norman (check Emotional Design, 2004) made us think that “Form follows emotion” too.

Image1: Products that follow emotion. Martin Azúa designed this sink to transmit the idea of natural form made by nature. 
Image2: Products that follow function.  

This discussions lead us to play a lot with it and we defended “Form follows fun”, “Form follows money” and even “Form follows meaning”.

But all of a sudden, I remember a moment in which the role of designers was questioned by:

“Doing the things right vs. Doing the right things.”

Quite a powerful shift that was giving a lot more responsibility on designers’ shoulders that opened up a much more entertaining field. So the discussion was over because it is not anymore about the form (shape, colors, physical things) but about what needs to be solved.

A quote by Tim Brown in Change by Design that talks about the same idea:

We are at a critical point where rapid change is forcing us to look not just to new ways of solving problems but to
 new problems to solve”.

Yes, yes, yes. And this is the moment in which the problems we are facing in a globalized world are more complex than ever and we really need to be careful on the understanding of issues in a deep way and on framing the starting points on a way that will lead to a positive change. The contribution of Tim Brown to society was that he gave a name to the way designers were working, explained it on an understandable way to others and defended the potential of this process for fields that have not been related to design so far. Plus, he also defined Design Thinking as a Human Centered process, in which Innovation happens when the solution is Desirable (from the people) + Feasible (technologically) + Viable (economically) at the same time, and when the process starts from understanding what is desirable/needed by the people. He also states:

Social issues are, by definition, human-centered. The best of the world’s foundations, aid organizations, and NGOs know this, but many of them have lacked the tools to ground this commitment in on-going, sustainable enterprises fuelled not just by outside donations but by the energies and resources
of the people they serve”.

We strongly believe that the big challenges nowadays are on integrating new ways of working on organizations with sustainable business models that propose sustainable ways of living with other people and respecting nature.

Form follows Change. Design follows Transformation. Transformation of people who will transform the environment they live in.


Co-design, co-creation, co-working, co-doing, co-operation… All this is talking about the fact that processes, as Design Thinking process, are better developed when people go through it together. As we are acting with the people for the people, the best way of doing it is on a team that is diverse and integrating as many different perspectives as possible. Design Thinking is a co- creative process because it involves people (potential users, stakeholders, people in general) in all the phases. [As we are saying this an aggressive voice is telling us “Co-creation sucks”…but this idea needs one specific reflection so let’s leave it for now]

A close friend of the “Co” is the “Multi”. Multidisciplinary, multicultural, multigenerational, multi-whatever seems to be a very nice adjective for any process in search of better life solutions. Tom Kelly is talking about his on 10 faces of Innovation. The idea behind can be understood in different ways: create a team that has people of all the profiles or train people to have skills in all the aspects. But the key is that there must be people who are good at learning (from the people, from the context, from existing solutions, from other teams) such as ANTROPOLOGIST–EXPERIMENTER – CROSSPOLLINATOR, people who are good at organizing such as HURDLER – COLLABORATOR – DIRECTOR and people who are good at building such as EXPERIENCE ARCHITECT – SET DESIGNER – CAREGIVER- STORYTELLER.

Education beyond books

Nowadays “Form follows systems” too, and as Pine mentions in Experience Design, our expectations have evolved from commodities to products, services, experiences and transformational moments and the solutions we are creating have a strong component of relationships between elements of Product-Service Systems.

This is Service Design Thinking book was one of the first ones explaining the complexity of Service Design and it was created by a set of 23 international authors applying exactly the same user-centered and co-creative approach it preaches. Meta-design? Who knows, but yes, difficult. The aim was spreading knowledge about Service Design and it is thought as a Service that has Pre-During-Post phases. It has associated services such as 5 days workshops called This is Service Design Doing, conferences, and platforms (smaply.com and experiencefellow.com).

This is a huge trend, Check the example of Value Proposition Design by Osterwalder too, in which there is the platform strategyzer.com, the physical book that gives us access to editable templates to work with, master classes on-line and many other products that support the learning process. Once again Tim Brown says:

“Perhaps the most important opportunity for long-term impact is through education. Designers have learned some powerful methods for arriving at innovative solutions. How might we use those methods not just to educate the next generation of designers but to think about how education as such might be reinvented to unlock the vast reservoir of human creative potential?”

How to develop our skills?

Design is about: Improving everyday life of people creating together. Design is a behaviour, not a department. The aim is not to set an innovation protocol but to train all the people (academic level and in the companies) to think and act from a Human Centered approach. Design is Strategy, Design is Business, Design is Emotions and Design is Impact. So we must design the best organizations that support the transformation of people who will transform the world.

In an environment on which people can experiment applying theory into practice, learning will arise based on the experience of the people working and interacting with design thinking approach and tools.

The following are the main elements of that environment:

Meaningful purpose: Project and design scope. 
Designers need a challenge, an objective, a problem or starting point to base their work on. As we want to design for the better we must understand for whom we are designing, the needs and/or aspirations of those people, what moves them and where is the potential to make some positive impact. This is why exploration is the first and there is a lot of time spent on it.

Team to learn with
: The team is the space to learn faster and where the responsibility of generating results lies. The team leads the project and leads the learning process. Team members are the ones understanding, proposing, acting, testing and implementing. Team is the learning vehicle.

We want results
: The learning is validated by the satisfaction of the users, the clients, the peers and the orientation is not on acquiring knowledge but the ability to put it in practice. Design Doing is the way, Design Changing is the aim.

Co-creation is the only way
: Design approach is learned among people, on on-line communities, in conversation with potential customers, testing with users, competence… The more we involve different agents on the process, the better the impact and faster the learning.

A map and a compass
: People need light in the process, explanations, tools, challenges to guide the process and constant feedback in the action. They will learn from reflecting about the action and acting differently again.

Danger and Magic 

Design Thinking is dangerous. Because like in any other field, there is a huge difference between:

“Knowing the path and walking the path.”

In this case, understanding Design Thinking process is very easy (hell yeah, it is so obvious and feels so natural!) and putting in practice the tools seems even ridiculous sometimes (underestimation of playing). But this superficial ability to talk about it can lead to:

–  Underestimate the potential for human centered innovation

–  Lack of quality on the results derived from a not deep enough process. 
As an example, going through a basic subject does not mean that LEINNers are becoming designers. They will have an idea of what the whole process is, they will understand the language, they will adapt and create new tools they will start enjoying the beauty of it. But there is much more than that on being a designer. We will always need specialized product designers, graphic designers specialized people to actually design final definition and produce the tangible elements that are part of the product-service-systems.

But experimenting the process and using it once and again can make a big difference on the projects they are able to do. It happens to us a lot. We have a lack of ability to go into details in all we do. Details are difficult because they require patience, dedication and decision. Designing is refusing too.

The magic of design is understanding the world as an interconnected One, having the ability to move from abstract (big picture) to concrete (very detail), owning and leading a process, inspiring others to work on same battle as you and decision making.

And isn’t this something we all do everyday?

Life Design coming soon.

Irune González Cruz

Leave a Reply