State of Design

Let’s talk about my upcoming Master’s degree in Design Impact at Stanford University.

I’m one out of nine students attending this program at a university whose name I didn’t even dare to utter in high school. Luckily, I documented my academic journey from failing student to attending some of the best universities in the world.

The point of this discussion today, is to talk about the state of design. What exactly will I be doing at Stanford and why does it matter? What even is design? And how will this ‘design’ help me achieve my purposefully naïve mission of making as many people in the world as happy as possible?

Design, simply put, is a set of unconscious or conscious decisions when creating. There has been thought behind each object in front of you: pencils, smartphones, bottles, books, lamps, wallets, roads, stairs, bananas, spoons, and buildings. Design has been popularized because of its role in creating new products, services, and experiences for consumers.

I’ve always been inspired by how the iPhone has been able to proliferate into the hands of so many throughout the world. It is one product that has shifted how we function. The guiding inspiration for me was to design affordable livelihood-generating products for people in developing countries. Examples include irrigation pumps or food-processing machines, both of which could help rural and peri-urban households generate income. I studied materials science engineering so I could understand how to make things as cheap as possible so that my products could reach all socio-economic classes. If I got in, I could learn how to design products and services at the Stanford d. School. The vision afterwards would be going to any community, finding their needs, and designing a product with the community that would improve livelihoods and access to opportunities. It seemed like a straightforward, ambitious, and wildly uncertain plan for carrying out my mission.

My time in India incinerated that plan.

After speaking with over 70 farmers across India and mapping out their realities using quotes and observations, I got to see just how entangled farmers’ lives are with the rapidly globalizing world around them. Shipping out a product or service in these rural areas might not mean I make people happy. The consequences of a linear, extractive, rapidly globalizing and capitalistic economy paired with a changing climate loom over whatever short-term benefit I’m able to provide for these communities.

One example is my water project in Morocco. I worked for a year and a half to secure the funding, teach myself hydraulics, and organize an implementation trip that successfully impacted 370 community members in two water insecure villages. These villagers were incredibly happy when the water arrived and my heart became whole when I saw that I had the ability to make others happy. However, having access to water doesn’t mean the youth won’t continue to migrate to cities nor the surrounding communities still live in water insecure conditions. Issues of place are connected to their next largest contexts. These villages are intrinsically tied to the their commune, their district, and their respective province. Making your intended target population happy doesn’t just rely on one product or service; it also means satisfying the needs of connected stakeholders such as local government leaders and politicians. Though the project was a success, I came away asking myself what sort of world was I helping build? Once I left, one farmer started to make a farm on his land. Was I just furthering the continuation of development, accelerating the village’s adoption into our linear, extractive petroleum economy?

If I am to be serious about my mission of making people happy, I must also hold myself accountable to the type of world I’m building and the narratives I’m continuing, discontinuing, or creating.

I was so enamored with creating the silver bullet that would change the world. My experiences in India showed me the complexity of reality, the rigor needed for systemic change, and pushed me to imagine what exactly the world I wanted to help build within my lifetime looks like.

The current state of design is shifting away from shipping simple products and services. The toolkit of design will need to evolve to accommodate what some of our modern challenges look like: climate change, irresponsible raw material extraction, racial inequity, and sustainable infrastructure development of mega-cities. We can’t escape these realities - their presence looms large. These problems can be messy without a single root actor or cause. Solving these problems will require an unprecedented level of collaboration amongst key stakeholders committed to not continuing business-as-usual.

Designers will need to lead co-creation with multiple organizations and individual stakeholders. At the same time, designers will need to be comfortable with processes and outcomes as emergent in nature. Designers could be the ultimate architects of community, building cultures, systems, and collectives that are aligned in mission to build a world we all want to live in. Design briefs will no longer come defined, rather they will be found and discovered through sensemaking processes. Design will shift away from purely user-centered and towards human, planetary, and life centered. The core tenets of design thinking will remain: observation of human behavior and empathy. Our challenge arenas will be communities, countries, and planets instead of products, services, and experiences (see GK VanPatter’s Rethinking Design Thinking).

Our world is so interconnected, that perhaps we can imagine global organizations or collectives that design for a better world, together. For example, perhaps the largest food corporations in the world come together to change our unsustainable food system in America.

For my time at Stanford, I have two primary goals and I want to pursue both of them. I want to develop the skills to architect systems so that I can end my days knowing I truly tried my best in trying to usher a happier world. At the same time, I also want to practice the art of making products and designing desirable services and experiences. My dream of working with communities, designing products that make people happier could be a fantastic retirement plan.

The world we find ourselves in is now increasingly characterized by emergence and flow. Through all of this uncertainty, I see a brighter, a more just, and happier world.