A design led bubble

Before about 1912, you were more likely to die than get better if you went to see a doctor. Around that time doctors started routinely washing their hands between patients, and the odds changed. Accumulated evidence had gradually led to the general acceptance of germ theory over miasma theory as the cause of infection: miasma doesn’t stick to the hands, but germs do.

The accumulated know-how of the medical craft has led to other innovations in the last 100 years, demonstrating clearly the advantages of a cumulative tradition based on craft wisdom, research, and evidence of successful and unsuccessful practice. All three elements are essential.

Around the same time as doctors started washing their hands, some designers decided to throw out the water, the baby, and the sink as well. Getting your hands dirty was in. The old crafts were discarded in the call for radical transformation radically transforming the lives of ordinary people using everyday objects. The result? High rise slums, mass-produced death. And some beautiful but unusable chairs.

I’m not suggesting a return to some mythical good-old-days, but suggesting that there is benefit to a practice that values its accumulated know-how secured by the three elements above. This valuing of accumulated know-how seems to me to be absent in contemporary discussion about innovation and transformation.

As a researcher, I have a habit: whenever I want to explore a new area, I review the research and practice that preceded me. I then use that review to consider whether it’s all been done before, whether it can be built on, or whether it’s time to rethink and start anew. All pretty ordinary stuff.

When I started working in design and design education, I noticed an emphasis on making, getting one’s hands dirty with innovation and creativity, often to the exclusion of any but the most superficial review of what had been done before. This emphasis is a strength of the design education and practice tradition. But it is also the weakness.

It doesn’t really matter when design is primarily concerned with styling, fashion, and the ephemera of life. But when design takes an interest in designing for people, our experiences, and the social, environmental and biological structures we create, then it does matter. Dirty hands can lead to death, or even extinction.

I’m appalled by the various design gurus, academics and journalists who go on about design, innovation, and transformation; who talk endlessly about the value of design yet offer not a shred of evidence in support of their claims. They speak like investment bankers in a boom market.

When you scratch below the surface, they are in the main talking to one audience only: desperate business. Innovation, they say, is all about making more money, more profits, competitive advantage. What an extraordinary narrow and boring view of innovation! A banker’s view.

But my concern runs deeper. In the Obama age, designers are sticking their hands up saying “Yes we can!” What hubris. With many websites created by professional designers being partly or wholly unusable, many designed objects contributing to the death of the planet, and many attempts at social design resulting in an accumulation of human misery, what could such help mean? In most areas of design, accumulated craft know-how, research and evidence are absent. Case histories are few, and those that are published generally lack any convincing before or after evidence. And we believe we can help? Designers are irresponsible to make such claims.

One might think of this in a way not dissimilar to the marketplace. In the marketplace of ideas, we are experiencing a DESIGN-LED BUBBLE. I suspect this bubble is about to burst and with it will go the grand vision of design being able to help solve the world’s problems. The bubble began when business discovered that people (ordinary shoppers and consumers) had money in their wallets and that being nice to people was one very successful way of getting the money out of their wallets and into the pockets of business. All went along swimmingly, and an industry of ‘user centred’ designers emerged to help business extract money from wallets. But here we are suddenly in an era when ordinary people either have no money in their wallets or don’t want to spend it. No amount of user-friendly design will squeeze more out of wallets. Business will stop pretending that customers are their friends.

All this is sad, if you believe in progress and things getting better. But if you really believe in design as a practice that can help in a small way to lessen the odds of death and misery, like doctors washing their hands, then it’s time to look very carefully at what works and what doesn’t and build on that practice.

I wash my hands of any design practice that is not evidence-based.