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As specialization becomes the new standard for the creative industries, there has been a shift in the common meaning of the term design. Where once it stood as a trade, it now stands as a toolkit, defined by the descriptors we attach (graphic, experience, industrial, etcetera), rather than the process of thought and creation that connects them all.

At a certain level, that’s okay. The machine needs cogs to run. But the rush to segmentation is starting to lean more cog than wheel, more technical skill than critical thinking. For all the talk of shifting behaviors and new media paradigms, it’s the void in thought that’s manifesting itself in client unrest and the general perception that the big picture isn’t delivering the results we’ve come to expect. Or worse, that we’re doing this more for our egos than our clients’ business objectives.

The danger to our industry is real and imminent. When technical skill becomes the only arrow in our quiver, we will have reduced our services to the very things we’re attempting to help our clients overcome – a commodity market where price point and product features rule. Which makes it necessary and urgent to reconnect with the true meaning and purpose of “design”.

Design = Intent
In its purest form, design is the desire to control the outcome of an action. In this view, everything is designed. Good or bad, terrible or transcendent, every product, service, interaction, intersection, space, city and universe was designed – though, in regard to the universe, prescribing intent or the absence thereof is a subject better suited to a different venue.

DEsign + inTENT = DETENT
With a little flair, that becomes DÉTENTE, or the easing of hostility or strained relations, especially between countries. Kill the part about countries, debate the necessity of the “hostilities” portion of the easing, and what you have is design as the effort to ease strained relations. This is the lens through which we should all be looking, regardless of whether design is in our job title or company description. Every problem comes into focus when viewed in this way. Identify the cause of strain, create the method for easing, top off with some executional prowess and you have the recipe for cultural and bottom-line impact.

Bad Design Is Easy To Identify.
Anything that does not ease strained relations – and all relations between individuals and entities are strained until eased – is a failure of design. There are nuances, sure. A chair that isn’t comfortable is a failure, unless the intent was not comfort, but to elicit a reaction – aka, art. But for the vast majority of products, services and solutions in our everyday lives, there is a clear delineation between the intended purpose and level of success in producing that result.

Good Design Anticipates Need.
By anticipating need, you are easing tensions before your end-user has identified them, delivering a subconscious win that manifests itself in positive impressions and the desire to share. Good design builds relationships because it creates the sense of familiarity, even where none exists. Familiarity breeds comfort, comfort breeds preference, preference becomes identity.

This is also how good design becomes a limitation. It is, by definition, a success. But it’s in this success that the failure also lies – in anticipating a need, the design is based around the existing constructs of the relationship between creator and recipient. It demonstrates an understanding of the what, where, how, but is missing the most critical pieces of the of the most critical question – the big why.

Great Design Creates Need.
Instead of anticipating need, it anticipates desire – connects to our deepest yearnings as humans and individuals and delivers a mechanism for achieving them we didn’t think or know possible. Great design is an achievement of empathy, because the root of great design is great insight into the hopes and aspirations of the people on the other end of the chain. An understanding of what would not just improve their output, but increase their potential.

It understands that giving people a better version of what they already have is not always the path to easing strained relations. Maybe not ever.
And that needs are reactive, not proactive.

Great design combines critical thinking and technical skill, a necessary dichotomy in order to not only anticipate desires but also deliver the mechanism for achieving them. Like a precision timepiece, it takes a carefully orchestrated balance of gears and components to achieve this intended purpose. But it’s not the components that create a successful outcome. It’s the clockmaker, the person or people with the vision for how the components must be put together in order to create the intended effect. And, as in real life, those clockmakers are becoming increasingly scarce in our industry.
The distinctions between disciplines are important, but to define ourselves by specific skills and not the most critical skill of all – détente – is a disservice to the individual and the industry. It sells short our potential for the imminently producible, for which there will always be a time and place.
There will always be room for “good”. Just not here.