Skip to main content

NextD Journal- Peer Review February 2024

I found the Fast Company Freak-Out to be an interesting read, questioning the current dramatic shifts within the design industry, impacting design departments in heavyweight corporations like J&J, Ideo, IBM and Expedia.

The article asks if this trend underlines a momentary industry hiccup or a deeper reevaluation of the place and promise of design within the corporate world. Does declining high-profile design roles such as chief design officers signal a stark reorientation of corporate attitudes towards design? Is it a sobering wake-up call to the past ambitious dreams of many design leaders? Are businesses parting ways with design, or are they simply over the overstated contributions of a particular era of design leadership?

During the past decade’s romance with design thinking, UX and sprint culture has morphed into a more diffused practice within organizations, challenging the once-clear boundary between designers and non-designers. What was once the exclusive domain of design thinkers has, for example, become the playbook for many of today’s marketing students. This is now also true for design leaders.

However, this generation’s fascination with the transformative potential of design thinking has too often acted as a veneer, masking the deeper, more troubling agendas of digital neoliberalism. Whether it’s offshoring taxis, transforming city centres into dynamic rental marketplaces, commodifying intimacy, sleep, relationships, or leisure into addictive AI-driven services, the lack of critical engagement within the leadership of big design businesses is appalling. The superficiality of conferences, the shallowness of publications and their obsession with pitching the “next big thing” or promoting supposed life and world-changing innovations leave no room for the essential conversations that need to take place.
This performative aspect of the design narrative entrapped in the mystification of digital capitalism, reveals a failure to critically examine the socio-economic impacts of design decisions. It underscores the urgent need to shift how design leadership approaches our work’s ethical and societal implications. For example, if we keep relying on the widely praised pillars of design thinking — desirability, feasibility and viability — we will continue to trap our work on the surface of the deeper socio-cultural and political dimensions of the issues we are addressing.

Therefore, we must transcend the superficial idea of desirability, limiting our designs to solely compete for preferences and consumer choice. We need to make sense of the narrow technological determinism of feasibility, think about more social innovations, adopt repairability, bio-sourced materials and envision new stories of common good infrastructure and cooperation. Finally, we also need to overcome the market-driven constraints on viability, unpack different future horizons and business models that scale beyond the individual consumer and embrace the need for stronger social foundations and more respect for our collective ecological ceiling.

This introspection is essential for challenging the tasks we’re assigned, defining our approaches, and crucially, questioning the reasons behind our actions. This journey doesn’t only begin with a deeper grasp of business or leadership but with the unlearning of our current design perceptions regarding the nature of many issues. Acknowledging that addressing root causes demands a shift towards forms of design that transcend technical and commercial solutions focused on symptoms.

Interestingly, if the social sciences community has long led the way in generating critical knowledge aimed at emancipating and transforming society, it is more than ever striking to note how those most passionate about making an impact and changing the world show so little interest in drawing from this critical body of knowledge.

Unless design leaders in big business reconsider their approach or review their promises, their roles are at risk of being effortlessly internalized and scaled, swallowed by the corporate ethos of reproducible and linear processes. Fixated on speed and visibility, this approach to design will not only stay superficial in addressing issues but also fall short of fulfilling design’s transformative potential.