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Design: A New Engine for Society

Design: A New Engine for Society

NASA photograph courtesy JSC Gateway to Astronaut Photography of Earth. Snow cover shows the boundaries between built-up (gray) areas versus vegetated and open space (white) within the large city of Beijing (Peking), China.

Jason Severs / GOOD

April 27, 2010

Our world is now riddled with what C. West Churchman referred to as “wicked problems”: issues like climate change, healthcare, and education that are difficult to address because of their complex interdependencies and changing requirements.

Our day-to-day lives are also full of small problems and basic tasks that are becoming increasingly difficult to manage due to frequency and volume. For example, as healthcare moves towards a more consumer-oriented model, people will be asked to electronically track every aspect of their health. Add this to the complexities of managing a Netflix queue or digital photo library, or keeping computer software up to date, and you begin to get the picture. And these are just the simple tasks. We need new strategies for engaging with these complexities.

Whether it’s in the creation of a car dashboard, a kidney dialysis machine, a mobile phone app that tells you where the nearest Starbucks is located, or a water filtration system for the developing world, designers are dealing with these problems and challenges on the front lines. This breadth and depth of their problem solving has forced the design industry to adapt to multiple knowledge domains and socio-cultural situations, and it has made designers into highly flexible thinkers. From Henry Dreyfus to Victor Papanek, responsible designers have always tempered their visions with:

• Innovative ways to generate new ideas by shifting people out of their everyday mindsets • Socially conscious reasoning to see all sides of an issue • Rigorous modeling, prototyping, and testing of solutions to balance thinking and reasoning

Nigel Cross, a British design professor and the author of Designerly Ways of Knowing, believes everyone is a designer because of the way we interact with the world. For instance, when we buy furniture, the choices we make are based on some plan of action defined by the constraints of space and budget. When we buy food, we consider a wide variety of combinations to complete our diet and satisfy our nutritional needs and sensory desires. Margolin refers to this activity as “combinatorial design.” We make these choices without imitating others while achieving new and unique combinations of things, be they food or furniture.


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