If We’re All Smart, Why Aren’t We Solving Problems?

I want to work for the Gates Foundation. I want to help people. I want to do something to make this world better. Unfortunately organizations like the Gates Foundation don’t hire designers.

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The question I’ve started to wonder is why don’t they? At what point in forming the Foundation did they decide to not employ or utilize designers? Microsoft employs designers. In fact in the last decade designers have become increasingly important in shipping products at Microsoft. Products like Windows Phone, Xbox, Lync, and their core product Windows, employs hundreds of designers. So what happened? When did our roles get almost solely confined to software, furniture, and websites?

We got stuck

I left my role at Microsoft almost a year ago to work for frog; a Global Innovation Company as it’s defined. In our office in Amsterdam, where I’m based, we tend to do mostly software. In fact, across frog we do a lot of software. There is also the occasional impressive hardware item that showcases our roots of things like the NeXT Cube. We get strategy projects to help companies define road maps and how they might want to enter a market. That’s where things tend to get interesting, but once it’s all said and done, it’s mostly off to another piece of software. Most design agencies I know across the world end up in software, websites, and of course classic graphic design, but our role has become stuck in this niche that we need to break free from. IDEO and a few others try to do this from time to time, with projects like the Aquaduct concept vehicle to help transportation and water needs in developing countries. However most projects like this get stuck at the concept level. In fact, it seems like some of the great designs I see that help people just come from grass roots action, like the “Liter of Light” project from the Philippines, using Coke bottles for light. How many projects like this could we come up with that could help people and benefit communities, if we had the chance.

IDEO Aquaduct – http://www.ideo.com/work/aquaduct
Liter of Light – http://isanglitrongliwanag.org/

We can think beyond the grid

My thoughts and opinions of design have slowly been changing in the last few years. A few months ago I spoke at a school in Guadalajara Mexico and met a fellow designer who was starting discussions around the worlds economic issues and how designers could help that. Now I’ve long time been a fan of education reform and figuring how to produce a better education system, but the idea that designers could retool the entire worlds economy wasn’t something I had contemplated at length.

We sit in our offices, studios, or cubes designing websites, layouts, software. We stress empathy, and design thinking. We showcase the synthesis of information based on observation and ethnographic research. Yet none of this is particularly helpful to anyone. As Philippe Stark mentioned in his TED talk, it’s a shame that “Design is just a weapon for marketing”. Now being in an agency, it’s something I’m understanding all too well.

Fixing the System – https://www.facebook.com/groups/fixingthesystem/

Let’s break our shell

Why can’t we as designers break out of our current shell and figure out methods to reform education, stop the spread of disease, create sustainable agriculture, plan disaster recovery, or help governments. Nothing more than some simple design thinking helped stop a lot of the Guinea worm infections in Africa as people figured how to filter water to make it safe. Nothing specifically prevents us from doing it, with the exception of poor people don’t have a lot of money to hire great designers. It’s sort of a harsh reality to understand that any of us, much like photojournalists who spend their lives to show struggles across the world, can actually save people with our brains and with our thinking. Yet the people who can help support us, like the Gates Foundation, don’t appear to fully understand we can provide that, and most of us don’t want to give up a decent wage to provide those services free of charge. I know this is changing. IDEO is partnering with the Acumen Fund, and small agencies like Project H are coming up, but these are small pockets. In the entire world of design, this is a fraction of a percentage. We can do more.

This isn’t to say I’m leaving my job, selling all my stuff, and will now lead a new nomadic design life helping people build eco-friendly houses that solve all the worlds problems. After all, I can’t give up my perfectly designed iPhone and Bose headphones. But hey, given that there seems to be a drive to change a lot in this world, perhaps we can have an impact for the better. Perhaps a few of us have the guts to break away and blaze a trail. I wish I were brave enough to do that and I hope I’m lucky enough in my lifetime to do something amazing enough to truly help the people around me. In the meantime, I’m going to keep my quest of having foundations like the Red Cross, Acumen, or Gates to understand our value can travel beyond the two dimensional screen. In the meantime, I’m hoping I can get groups like the Right Brain Initiative or Project H to allow me to volunteer during parts of my vacation.

My ask of everyone reading is pretty simple. How do we help move our discipline out of the realm of software, websites, furniture, and aesthetic based work to the realm of the type of thought, synthesis, and observation we can provide. We’re not designers of aesthetic, we’re not designers of marketing tools, we not designers of landfill materials, we are designers; period. We are critical thinkers who can help provide less disease, better education, better housing, and better solutions. In the end, we can help. When people ask about you profession, don’t just speak of posters, websites, and iPhones. Take notice of the humanitarian design efforts happening. Find ways to integrate our jobs into other professions and career paths. Find ways to show people what we have to offer.

I hope this can be the start of an interesting discussion! Thank you for your time!

Joe Fletcher

Joe Fletcher is currently an associate creative director at frog, and previously a design lead at Microsoft. After graduating college in 2001 with a degree in Communication Design, he taught school before moving back into the design field.

11 comments on this article

  1. Marcel on

    Ha, brilliant! I would change one thing in your statement. Strike out ‘thinkers’ in ‘critical thinkers’. Why? The root cause of getting stuck is the thinking. Thinking is conditioned in many case.

    Your statement of breaking the shell, being critical, creating outside of any box, always asking questions, continuously turning the ‘challenges’ upside down left to right and inside out is exactly what will help ‘us’ break loose.

    Convention is the killer. That is like harnessing inspirational energy in a jar on the top shelf and forget about it…

    This sound so familiar. At least to the extent where I can relate to the spark that makes you want to change it all. It feels like you really want to break down ‘the matrix’ and disrupt pathways we have been traveling on for way to long.

    In my work as an independent online media fanatic I changed one big think (sound like Seuss now). I don’t want to think as much anymore.

    Did your last job not lead to fulfillment, was it condensed bullshit in a struggle to make other people rich and not contributing to anything at all, except for the profit margin?

    With every step from now on, be critical, ask questions, do not accept what you see, change ways, investigate,… Never stop with that and most of all, share thoughts about this with people.

    Don’t make them followers or follow anyone yourself. Make it an enterprise of free spirit and not an enterprise as such.

    I am doing work for an NGO type of organization right now and the challenges there are different, much different as any commercial organization. One step closer to help change in those areas where masses amounts of money are not available, but creativity is. At least for me its a good step.

    In my opinion there are many people changing their ways. At some point we might just reach a tipping point. And if that is not the case I will be very happy with having put in all the effort I put in right now.

    (if you wanna discuss more, send me an email)

    Greetings, Marcel.

  2. Wendy Leicht on

    I think the world is finally getting (t)here. I know in my field of anthropology that it took decades to break out of academia and now there is a slow paradigm shift into more applied avenues like you mentioned. Who would have thought?!? Social scientists dreaming up solutions for all sorts of things based on, what else, but the art being social…talking to people, observing people, and learning from others. And still, it’s a slow shift. But the more collaboration across disciplines, the more creativity that emerges, the more brilliance can be inspired and shared. I have to agree with Marcel, it’s just a matter of time. As tangible examples of sustainable, out-of-the-box design appear in new and different fields, a reinvention or perhaps reclamation of design will occur.

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  4. Vicky Teinaki on

    In the latest issue of Interactions, (http://dl.acm.org/citation.cfm?id=2065330&CFID=78709841&CFTOKEN=44041881, sorry, behind a paywall) Richard Anderson similarly points out that UXers are at risk of being locked out of the changes they helped bring about:

    “Given the current power of CX at the C-level, UX practitioners must step up our game, otherwise we will lose progress we have made to be more deeply involved in strategy beyond just performing usability services. We need to act now to be part of the broader CX solution. If we don’t proactively collaborate across divisions and organizational
    structures, we will be stuck playing in the corner by ourselves. If we don’t figure out how to manage partnerships with other departments in a collaborative, creative, customer focused way, the discipline of UX as we know it is at risk. CX management will take over….
    We’ve reached the point of no more worshiping at the altar of our
    cathedrals of business. The marginalization of design/UX is on its way to the rag pile.”

  5. Vicky – What’s interesting is that when design students ask me for advice, I say “take a class in business”. To “step up” as you say, it takes more than simply design, but understanding business, understanding markets, trends, needs… on a large, potentially global scale. This type of thinking isn’t common for a lot of designers. So many times we seem to get afraid when confronted by management on design issues… we back down when pushed. We’re not making things pretty, we are creating your products, we are creating your markets, we are creating your strategy, future, and success. If we back down, it only means we can’t do that. I hope more designers become educated in areas like strategy, business… to keep pushing our ability to change and push us to the top.
    Thoughts? What would you recommend for us to step up?

    Marcel – Why do you say ‘thinking’ is getting us stuck. I agree conditioning is getting us stuck, but to me, not thinking is keeping us stuck. If we can’t think, we can’t change. We just end up staying in our same spot. There is a good book on disruption called Disrupt that discusses turning conventional thinking on it’s head (to be clear, it’s written by an ex-frog, but I’m not advocating to buy it, look for articles, you can get the summary on the web and learn from that, hahaha). This link sums it up. http://mashable.com/2011/02/17/disruptive-thinking-innovation/
    Find what you want to change, find the cliches, then form a hypothesis based on the opposite of those cliches. The miss-match socks example is genius. Of course it’s easy to find examples in hindsight, but I use this technique in small ways to get problems unstuck all the time.

    This type of thinking is what led me to be unhappy with our current role. Asking what if we solved economic issues, and weren’t confined to a computer screen, graphic design, product design, and filling our eyes with advertisements.

    I’m interested to hear a little more on how thinking causes us issues.

    Wendy – I’m impatient :) I know it’s slowly happening, but at the same time, it’s something lacking in a lot of the basic education of design. Why not give students problems of solving high school drop out issues, economic issues, water conservation, the future of the music industry, tackling poor education issues… I think my head broke with that problem of tackling education within an educational class.

    Sure things are starting to change, but the solution has to go back to the start. When you’re learning design, it’s not simply graphic, product, fonts, behaviors, but complex systems… of course people are at the center, but let students know they can solve so many things. Give them the inspiration. The Right Brain Initiative in Portland OR, USA is doing some interesting stuff with bringing more creative education into schools. Not quite the same, but it’s great to see these organizations pushing for change. It’s not going to happen without them, and each designer who joins in, helps push it faster and louder.

  6. Ralston Vaz on

    Hey, Johnny.

    Who I am becoming as a designer was hard to put into words. Articulating the ‘why’ of it. Then I read this and found my words in yours. Designers are meant to be more, do more. Change more. It’s actually this belief that inspires the namesake of our new and presently tiny group of design thinkers: Thinkory.

    Thanks for renewing our charge this morning with your perspective.


  7. I totally missed this site a coworker just shared with me… IDEO designing for social impact (different from their .com site) https://www.ideo.org/

    @Ralston – Awesome to hear! Hope to see your site up soon. In the meantime, I’ll follow on twitter :)

  8. Ralston Vaz on

    Good to be connected with you, Joe (my bad, calling ya Johnny).

    Like it says on Thinkory’s site, we’re still writing our story—and we’re really taking our time with it. I’ve been a designer for some 11 years, various disciplines. With Thinkory though, I really wanted to shape our role as designers and design thinkers. I didn’t want to fall into the stereotypical role and function of a design agency by moving too quickly into areas that were too familiar. I think at the end of the day, Thinkory has to solve meaningful problems in meaningful (and sustainable) ways.

    Thanks for that IDEO.org link. Didn’t know they had that going on. I’ll be spending some time on that site this week for sure. I very much admire IDEO.


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  10. Jason Ulaszek on

    Thanks for the shout out on UX for Good (http://www.ux4good.com), Joe! I can’t agree with you more on your points in the article. UXers are bigger than a wireframe. Would love to connect with you at some point. Our NOLA event is all set, check out the NOLA ’12 team. Follow us at @ux4good (http://www.twitter.com/ux4good) or on our Facebook page (http://www.facebook.com/ux4good).