October 22, 2012
"Designers create solutions – the products and services that propel us forward. But artists create questions — the deep probing of purpose and meaning that sometimes takes us backward and sideways to reveal which way “forward” actually is."

Well, hello there, can o’ worms. Nice to see you again.

Designers and artists seem to love to immerse themselves in the “but what is it?” question of their very identity. And in a piece for Wired, RISD president John Maeda leaps right into the fray, arguing that now that everyone has come around to the idea that design matters, design, well, no longer matters quite so much.

If Design’s No Longer the Killer Differentiator, What Is? is an interesting piece with some smart ideas. But it also concerns me in that I think its central thesis is, well, wrong. Yes, of course artists play a pivotal role in our society, provoking us, delighting us, making us think, making us laugh, helping us to re-imagine our world and current reality. But Maeda’s separation of the two disciplines (above) seems unconvincing — mainly because I’d argue that the very best designers are also extremely adept at asking the questions that really matter. Only then they marry that skill with the ability to translate insights into solutions for the real world.

Frankly we need those kinds of people more now than ever, along with executives who can both understand the field’s potential, and support and sustain those trying to do it. Design needs visionaries, but it also needs professionals who understand the realities of business. It certainly doesn’t need to take a giant step backwards to the days of old in which practitioners were mainly known for bitching about why their pesky clients were getting in the way of their vision with tedious practical-minded issues such as how the hell something might actually be brought to market.

As for the idea that everyone now understands that design is a clear differentiator? Please. Look around you. The power of good design might be a hot buzz-phrase, but it sure isn’t a reality in most areas of our lives. Would it be at all possible to stick with the tough work of showing how and why design matters before trying to start a new bandwagon rolling?

Chris Riley wrote a good response on his blog: “Design may no longer be the killer differentiator but we still need to solve the problem that design was designed to solve: human connection.” For now, I’d argue it might be a little premature to stick the nail in the coffin of design, and it’s a bit sad that the discipline’s own senior figureheads seem to want to do just that.