The Transformation of Design

by Bruce Claxton, FIDSA

May 18 2021 - 3:29pm


Can Design Enable Culture?

The industrial design profession has gone through a number of changes over the past 50 years. At each stage it has increased its value to business, end users and society. We are on the cusp of another transformation of the profession. I’d like to discuss what’s next. We can refer to a graphic shown below to describe what we have been through, where we are and what’s next.


As design has morphed, we have seen it move from the ‘what’ to the ‘how’, and now asking the ‘why’ will give us insights much needed to create solutions that resonate with our clients and end users. These new opportunities bring us to potential leadership attributes that enable cultural change. 

What is Culture?

“Culture encompasses religion, food, what we wear, how we wear it, our language, marriage, music, what we believe is right or wrong, how we sit at the table, how we greet visitors, how we behave with loved ones, and a million other things."Cristina De Rossi, Anthropologist at Barnet and Southgate College, London as told to Live Science

It’s about who we are, what we think, what we believe and how we behave, and it's constantly changing.

Our Heritage: Culture Enabled Design

Designers have looked at culture and mirrored it by looking at what is going on around them. Style boards and artifacts have inspired new design directions for years. Design has been traditionally represented as a noun and is aligned with the object. This focus revolved around the ‘what.' It mirrored culture and then took it to new levels. Its focus was towards innovation of the artifact. The value provided by design has been elevated further through Service Design and UX. Key activities were focused around the ‘doing’ of design.

Today: Design Thinking 

The era of design thinking has opened a window into the world of culture as we better understand issues and problems at deeper levels. As we moved into the 2000s, we saw the emergence of the creative thinking process providing value to business. It moved from designing objects to design becoming a process tool for collaborative innovation. This approach provides a window to cultural elements. This period has brought design into the C-suite and elevated the field, providing business with new value. We moved from Problem Solving to Opportunity Finding. This phase focuses around design as a ‘thinking and learning’ tool.

Tomorrow: Design Enables New Culture

Design has an opportunity to influence culture. The two domains will be linked to achieve innovation that adds value. This new opportunity is all about setting the right climate and mindset for innovation. It begins with asking ‘why.'

“Move from a culture of reacting to change to a culture of inspiring change and creating new paths to growth.” —Mads Nygaard Folkmann, The Aesthetics of Imagination in Design

Bruce Claxton, FIDSA is a Fellow of the Industrial Designers Society of America (IDSA) and served as President of the Society from 2003 to 2004. He also served as Chair of IDSA's Board of Directors from 2005 to 2006.