Selling Design Part 1: Art or Design?

Obey | Shepard Fairey 

Obey | Shepard Fairey 

Ahead of the Service Design Global Conference in Madrid this week, the President of the Service Design Network, Birget Mager, told delegates attending her Service Design Network Members Day address on the future of Service Design - “Service Design will become the new normal”. I truly hope that Birgets prediction is correct. I’m totally sold on the value that Service Design and Design Thinking can bring to organisations, but the truth is, I don't believe that the vast majority of non-designers actually understand what a Service Designer’s role really is. This makes it really difficult for us to persuade colleagues of the value of Design Thinking over more traditional methods of transformative change, which are by their ubiquitous nature, more ‘normal’ to them. As long as Service Design remains a less familiar methodology, people will often make judgments based on what they think they know. This means that within organisations the role of design is often confused with art, seen as creativity without focus or style over substance. In fact, whilst design and art do share some overlapping qualities (more about that later), they are two fundamentally different disciplines.

Service Design will become the new normal
— Birget Mager

First and foremost, the job of design is to identify and solve problems. Keith Frankel hits the nail on the head in his post entitled, Your Designers Are Not Artists, and You Need to Stop Thinking That Way. In his post, Keith doesn’t deny designers artistic status, but does set out that whilst you can appreciate and respect design in the same way you do works of art, design serves a very distinct and altogether different role.

Good design isn’t necessarily loud or ornate. In fact, it is often completely invisible. To that end, trust your designers not as artists, but as problem solvers.
— Keith Frankel

The focus of art is often on form or expression whereas the primary role and focus of design is to support function. I explored some of my own thoughts on this topic in my blog post back in the early summer entitled design is about more than aesthetics. Service Design and Design Thinking has structure, is applied within context, and is every bit as rigorous as more familiar methods of transformative change. I was first introduced to design whilst studying a software design module during my degree, and from day one I was taught that design meant understanding the problem, generating ideas, creating uncluttered solutions that are free from duplication, testing, iterating and only deploying solutions when each well researched requirement was working. My views on the waterfall model have changed somewhat over the years, but as a detail-oriented person, the whole process of structure and order really appealed to me. I was sold on the problem solving value of design.

I think that perhaps part of the reason non-designers focus on the artistic aspects of design is perhaps due to cultural influences which originate from both the Bauhaus and Scandinavian design movements born in the early to mid twentieth century. Design is often characterised by simplicity, functionality and desirability. When we are aware of good design, it is often as aesthetically pleasing as it is functional. But what is hidden is the amount of time, effort and hard work which has gone into researching, understanding and defining the problem, synthesising research, generating ideas and prototyping solutions. Elegant solutions don’t just appear, they are the product of hard graft, but if non-designers don’t see or know about that work, why or how would they value it?

In her TEDx Whitehall lecture ‘Making government better, through data and design’, Cat Drew talks about how as a designer, she is interested in both analytical stuff and creative stuff. This really resonates with me, but might come as a surprise to a non-designer. In my mind, the notion of 'ordered beauty' that Cat talks about goes a long way to highlighting that whilst art and design aren’t mutually exclusive, design has order and structure and is rooted in cold hard facts.

So yes, design can be elegant, but make no mistake, design thinking follows a rigorous process that can allow teams to track a design decision all the way back to a specific piece of research. That's a pretty powerful thing, so in part two of this post I will be exploring the golden threads that are so integral to our design work, and explaining why I think they can play such an important part in our mission to ‘normalise’ design.