Mediabistro's "Future of Design" Panel
Cooper Union's Wollman Auditorium was the setting for Wednesday evening's Mediabistro panel entitled "The Future of Design." The five-member, all-female panel was convened in order to explore "what's driving change in the design industry today." The discussion was founded on the assumption that the old-school, craft-focused concept of the designer as individual creator or "author" is rapidly becoming obsolete. To replace it, a multidisciplinary, interactive approach to design is forming, one in which clients play almost as active a role as do creatives. The panelists hinted at the causes for this evolution (technological innovation and economic change being foremost among them), but they mainly spoke about how designers can apply the emerging paradigm.
Representing firms such as Frog Design and Cheskin, the speakers (as well as moderator Chee Pearlman, a former editor-in-chief of I.D.) recounted experiences and shared strategies with insight and authority. They applied the term "design" quite broadly, using it to refer to an entire culture and way of thinking, not just a material process. Panelist Leslie Wellott said, "Craft is evolving into design thinking. Authorship is being trickled down into flexible teams with diverse skill sets partnering to work across media."
The pure craft of design is in the main only meaningful to its practitioners, but just about everyone can benefit from practicing a little "design thinking." According to the panel, corporate clients of all sizes are trying to become more like design firms, revamping their internal culture, problem-solving techniques, and brainstorming methods with the help of creatives. Workshops such as these offer new opportunities and a little irony to their instructors, who will have to plunge into the very white-collar culture that they likely sought to escape by becoming designers.
Even when working with clients in a more conventional way, however, design professionals sometimes have to educate their corporate collaborators. Etienne Fang, strategic director of Cheskin's Cultural Insights Studio, explained how she attempts to involve clients directly in the process of design through prototyping and storytelling, which are meant to communicate "that thrill that designers get to have" as they work their way through a project.
After the panel discussion proper, participants answered written questions from the audience. Asked to name the skills most desired in a new employee, Rie Norregaard of Frog Design stressed the importance of finding connections between design and technology. "There's a scarcity of certain types of skill sets," she said, citing the growing field of information design as an example. The panel also had some suggestions in response to a request for questions to ask in a job interview: "What is the culture like?" "What are the company's main challenges?" "Can you describe a recent project?"
The shift from talk of "paradigm shifting" and "boundary pushing" to addressing the here-and-now needs of job-hunting designers was telling. At this time of transition, designers have to face both brand-new and entrenched challenges, preparing for an uncertain future while maintaining relevance in the present. Right now, the design industry appears to be a palimpsest whose past history protrudes through the gaps in its new, incomplete narrative. As the panel pointed out, "This is still a craft. Craft and design thinking live side by side. The trick is creating an environment that allows for both."