“Design+”, the new normal

By Anijo Mathew
Head of Department of Art and Design/American University of Sharjah + Founder/Vamonde

This year, an alumna of the Design Management program at the American University of Sharjah was hired by Palmwood. Palmwood is a collaboration between the UAE Government and the global design consultancy, IDEO. On their website, they claim [we are] a design-led movement creating new solutions for governments and organizations, developing creative capabilities in the people of the UAE, and opening up new conversations about what is possible through design. The mandate of Palmwood is to collaborate (through design) and develop human-centred solutions for problems of the citizens and residents of the country. They are helping the country re-imagine healthcare, wellness and education systems; design an entirely new economy built on creative enterprises, and deploy design as part of government initiatives to envision future states of their services.

A snapshot from the Palmwood website describing a nation-wide design project on wellbeing

This is amazing! This young woman is getting a seat at the same table as ministers, political leaders, and change-makers and asked to design policy and initiatives for an entire nation. We cannot ignore the magnitude and the impact of this. No longer are we just designing products, buildings, communications, and interactions, we are designing nation-states. A brilliant Medium article by an Indian design stalwart, Uday Dandavate posits that many traditionally change-averse organisations are adopting “design thinking” to help them build capacity to learn, transform, and thrive in the complexity of today. He says “while scientists are largely focused on “what is?” (The truth), designers are focused on “what if?” (The possibilities).”

But there is a problem.

For long, designers have lived with the hubris that only we can do what we do. That designers are a special breed because somehow we are better than other disciplines. A few months ago, Venkatesh Rajamanickam, a professor of Design at IIT Bombay, posted a provocation on the net. He asks [do you] “find ‘designer exceptionalism’ a problem? Some of our unique qualities…ironically also lead us to hubristic exceptionalism, blind faith that design profession is unique among professions and somehow intrinsically better than others.” We need to look no further than our design studios to see this problem manifest in real life. Our studio classes are (mostly) individual-oriented. Projects are designed to be solved by one person, critiques are one-on-one, and teachers talk to one student while others watch or work on their design projects. We teach students to grow up and become a star-designer with the panacea for all the world’s problems. We don’t teach our students to work in teams, or extend beyond their discipline and work with other disciplines beyond their comfort zone.

Designers are unique but not all-powerful. We cannot speculate, create, and implement the things we design…all on our own. Dandavate argues that “the future of design thinking, therefore, lies in establishing processes, culture, and tools for an engaged, sustained and iterative collaboration between all the stakeholders in a value chain.”

At IIT Institute of Design, where I taught previously, we call this “Design+”. Design is a catalyst. It is when Design+<another field> works together, that magic is created. If we deserve a seat at the “adult” table where “big” decisions are made, we must grow up. We must provide our students with critical thinking and tactical tools required for a lifelong career of learning, experimentation…and collaboration.

“Design+” should be the new normal.

Not all “Design+” collaborations are equal. Nearly all problems need some form of collaboration, but they may require different types of collaboration depending on the situation. Designers (and nearly everyone else) throw around the terms “multi-” or “inter-” disciplinary as blanket interchangeable terms to describe any cross-disciplinary collaboration in the industry.

But what do these terms mean? Are they the same? Can they be applied interchangeably? In 2017, I taught a class with Christine Miller (now at SCAD), where we explored these terms in detail. In the course, we derived from the work of healthcare researchers, Choi and Pak to define three different types of “Design+” collaborations:

Multi-disciplinary collaborations are additive. Each discipline brings its expertise to the table, but for the most part, actors stay within their disciplinary boundaries. Multi-disciplinary teams look at the problem from different disciplinary lenses, based on their backgrounds.

Disciplines stay intact in multi-disciplinary engagements, focused on solving for a solution.

Multi-disciplinary collaborations are focused on attaining a solution. Teams do not see it necessary to question the problem because they have been chosen for a reason — their disciplinary expertise to solve the given problem. Therefore the output is a result of negotiations between the multiple perspectives.

Example: Architecture students collaborate with structural engineers and contractors; Product Design students collaborate with industrial engineers; Communication Design students collaborate with printmakers to develop and implement their designs.

Inter-disciplinary collaborations are integrative. The output is defined based on analysis, synthesis, and harmonisation of input from the different disciplines. Actors cross thresholds of their disciplines to learn from the other and develop a new integrated solution, often combining different disciplinary approaches.

Partners cross thresholds in an inter-disciplinary engagement; the solution is often found at the intersection of the disciplines.

Like multi-disciplinary, the disciplines stay more or less intact in inter-disciplinary collaborations. The goal is to arrive at a solution. However, the actors intentionally cross over and pick up methods, frameworks, tools, and ways of working from the other discipline and use them in an integrated fashion to solve for the solution. Very often, the output is found at the intersection of the disciplines.

Example: Multimedia students at AUS collaborated with Architecture students to design and fabricate a collaborative, interactive installation. Architecture students are learning how to engage projection mapping and interaction design, while Multimedia students are learning how to fabricate using 3d printers and robotics.

Trans-disciplinary collaborations are holistic. The output often subordinates the disciplines, and actors work together to explore the dynamics of the whole system or problem.

Disciplinary boundaries disappear in trans-disciplinary collaborations. Partners work together to solve a problem, not solve for a solution. The problem determines the output, not the discipline.

Trans-disciplinary collaborations start with the problem, not an assumed solution. The output is usually a shared conceptual model that integrates and transcends the disciplinary boundaries.

Example: at IIT, I initiated and led the India Immersion Programs where teams of design students and Godrej executives worked together to design a strategic position to a new problem space (such as healthcare, education, mobility etc.). It did not matter if you were a designer, marketer, engineer, or administrator; everyone worked to solve the problem by seamlessly pulling methods and tools from each other’s discipline.

Many organisations, by default, are multi-disciplinary because they combine actors from different disciplines to solve organisational issues and problems. While a holistic perspective is desirable, different problems require different models of collaboration. One is not necessarily better than the other; it depends on the nature of the problem.

We can determine this using three factors:

  1. the scale of the problem (is it a product or system-level problem?)
  2. the ambiguity of available information (is the problem clear enough to be divided or is too ambiguous to be divided per discipline?)
  3. the expectation of the deliverable (do we start with an assumption of the solution — what needs to be delivered, or with no assumptions but the problem at hand?).
As the scale and ambiguity of problems increase, different types of collaborations may be necessary. One is not better than the other, just different.

“Design+” collaborations can be of two types:

Collaboration Type 1 (left) = Design powered; Collaboration Type 2 (right) = Design inside
  1. Design powered: The <partner> engages designers for specific collaborative instances. Collaborations can be multi or inter-disciplinary. The outcomes may be an increased awareness of design within the <partner> discipline or new solutions built on design-related ideas, methods, or tools. Example: In 2007, the TSA engaged IDEO to re-design the checkpoint experience at airports. IDEO helped reframe their entire experience from “look for hostile objects” to “look for hostile intent.”
  2. Design inside: Design works inside the <partner> to build on interdisciplinary offerings. The work is always inter-disciplinary but often leads to trans-disciplinary outcomes and lead to a change in the operating model of the <partner>. Example: IDEO’s collaboration with UAE Government, Palmwood is an “inside” job. IDEO employees are not collaborators; they are equal with UAE government officials and work side by side on their projects. The output is often indistinguishable from regular government policy, just more human-centred.

For “Design+” to work, we might look at how software systems talk to each other…through Application Programming Interfaces (or APIs). An API is a set of protocols and functions that allows one application to talk to another. Think of the New York Times using their data on Google Maps. The reason they can port their data sets onto someone else’s application is that Google opened up the Maps interface to accept data from other parties. Then, NYTimes created the data such that Google can port it into Maps. The design field needs this sort of synergistic thinking. Clearly, there is value in the design knowledge that we bring to the table, but we must also be open to accepting new knowledge that comes in from our partner discipline.

Each discipline brings with it a set of protocols, frameworks, and tools. To collaborate, Design must open up and let it’s protocols pass through to the other discipline and let their protocols come in. Much like a software API.

Therefore, “Design+” collaborators must agree on:

  1. what type of problems the collaboration will address,
  2. who the stakeholders are,
  3. how protocols are exchanged,
  4. what outcomes are expressed internally,
  5. and what outcomes are expressed externally.

The era of the star-designer is over. At the Art and Design department, which I currently head, we recognise that increasingly designers are thrust into problems that are more complex and ambiguous than they have ever faced. We are teaching our students to be designers of the future, prepared when they are called to lead systemic changes in education, transportation, healthcare and governance. We tell them that they are no longer trained to just design a product, space, a movie, logo, interaction, or brand. They are trained to design systems for and beyond our planet…by extending beyond the discipline of design.

We see our job as design educators as the education of this new generation of “Design+” leaders, entrepreneurs, and innovators; a new generation willing to let go of the star-designer hubris and openly embrace collaboration.

Academic, startup founder, and innovator who works with organisations globally on design-led innovation and urban technology.