Design Expertise for a world in constant change

Design expertise skills needed to succeed in a changing world. Building on Ezio Manzini’s framework.

Problems have grown in size and complexity, and with that the role of designers has broadened becoming more active in a wider range of problem situations. In this context, it is important to clarify what design expertise involves today when everyone seems to be a Designer, but not everyone is fully prepared to tackled wicked or systemic problems. Ezio Manzini’s framework of emerging design cultures wrote a few years ago does a great job explaining the potential of the Design field and its many applications. Manzini introduces the idea of diffuse design and expert design, “where diffuse design is put into play by non-experts, with their natural designing capacity, while design experts are people trained to operate professionally as designers, and who put themselves forward as design professionals.” (37) Design fields like exhibition design, product design or graphic design would fall under expert design. But design thinking would be closer to diffuse design as it mostly focuses on the thinking part of the design process and doesn’t involve specific design skill or craft. Design thinkers are not “equipped with conceptual and operational tools to support designing processes” (38), rather they engage in “post-it design” (66).

Design experts work with a toolkit that blends design knowledge, creativity and dialogic collaboration.

  • Design knowledge. This includes both a specific culture or mindset, and a set of tools. The mindset provides the lenses to critically examine problem situations, and contribute with constructive views. Tools help designers guide the process, from idea generation to the development of the final result. Designers make things happen by creating working solutions. As craft alone is not enough to tackle complexity, designers should be able to conduct design research to generate “explicit, discussable, transferrable and accumulable knowledge,” to foster dialogue and inform the process.
  • Creativity. Designers should be trained to use their imagination to see problems as opportunities and transform visions into solutions. They should be able to creatively feed the conversation with visions and ideas, listen to input from other members of the team, and provide alternatives building on expressed concerns.
  • Dialogic collaboration. Designers should be part of a broad design process that they can trigger, support but not control. They should be able to avoid falling into the “big-ego design” approach, and work with other people, clients and stakeholders, rather than for them. Designers should be flexible and allow everyone bringing ideas, while facilitating the discussion to arrive to shared views. They should also be able to make connections explicit using visual methods and provide critical comments to enrich the discussion.

As the world becomes more complex and new needs emerge, design expertise demands different skillsets based on the scale and types of problems. Building on Manzini’s framework, design experts can be specialists or generalists.

  • Design specialists work on small or medium scale challenges, creating tangible or intangible solutions from artifacts, platforms to services. They work on the full design process (from beginning to end) with either small or large teams depending on each project, and have a wide range of visual and craft skills.
  • Design generalists work on large scale, unframed challenges. They mostly focus on the beginning of the process, applying systems thinking frameworks and visual methods to help cross-disciplinary teams make sense of the situation at hand and identify possible areas of intervention. Information design skills help aid sensemaking and visualize connections.

Expert design is not better than diffuse design; but working with the designer who has the appropriate skills in each situation can be the difference between achieving a successful result or not finding a suitable solution.

To better prepare students with the relevant skillsets to work in the areas they want, design education should provide integrative pedagogical models where students learn how to be critical, creative and dialogic at the same time, while also learning design hands-on experience. Some programs have already started to change curricula, but the journey has only started. Major changes in the teaching-students dynamics are needed too.

Manzini, E. (2015) Design, When Everyone Designs. An Introduction to Design for Social Innovation. MIT.

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