The 21st Century, By Design

I attended a conference called Harvard xDesign (read “Harvard By Design”) this weekend.

It was the first of its kind at Harvard, a love child of the Harvard Business School and the Graduate School of Design. I first heard about it through a very well-connected friend, who is on more email lists than I can count. She knows what’s hoppin’.


What is design anyway?

I was at first mildly interested in the conference, until I realized that I had no idea what “Design” actually is! In my mind I went over the three types of design with which I was most familiar (graphic, clothing, and interior). But the conference description convinced me that my definition of the specialization was at least somewhat misinformed. I’m the silly kind of person who loves not knowing. Not knowing something is the best thing. Not knowing something makes me want to know. So I signed up.

I learned that Design is at once more nebulous and more wonderful than I had assumed. Design, bare bones, is the conceptualization and implementation of any product or system. (Super vague, right?) You think something up, you figure out the details, then you make like Nike and just do it. I can’t think of much that’s more empowering and creative than that.

Here’s a great example: I heard a half hour speech by Harry West, CEO of Continuum, in which Mr. West detailed one of his experiences consulting for a diaper company. The problem that parents had with diapers, the company said, was that there was too much leakage. Okay, so they fixed the leakage problem. But sales did not dramatically improve as expected. When Continuum stepped in, then interviewed many mothers about how they feel (more generally) about their babies. What do they worry about when they think of their babies? As it turns out, the answers all fell under the category of “development.” Mothers wanted to be sure their children were developing well physically and mentally. After all, the first couple of years are arguably a person’s most formative. Among other things, babies develop pattern/color/sound recognition, may or may not become predisposed to diabetes (the onset of which could be much later in life), and could even pick up a propensity for foreign language learning depending on the types of sounds to which we expose babies.


Continuum decided to redesign the diapers by adding patterns and textures and brightly colored Sesame Street characters to them. The company grew from a 3 million dollar diaper business to a 10 million dollar diaper business in a short amount of time. Parents get lack of leakage, and everyone’s happy.

At the base of it all, Designers are creative critical thinkers. They imagine something that needs to be created or see something that needs to be changed, and by keen research and reasoning, craft effective solutions to those real-world problems.

One of my biggest takeaways from this conference is that we are currently witnessing a “Democratization of Design.” It seems the internet has enabled everyone, if they so wish, to learn and apply Design. Design will soon become a facet of our not-yet-global culture rather than a specialization of a knowledgeable minority.


Map of the Internet

And this democratization is not limited to Design. Business and Education seem also to have joined the fray. Consider, a website on which a diverse group of people market their own, often hand-made, products in response to their consumers’ demand. These entrepreneurs engage totally in the process of production, from bottom to top, from ideation to creation to marketing and sales. Or take the Massively Open Online Course (MOOC) movement, which makes formal education widely accessible and free (at least for now). Couple MOOCs with all of the information available online, and anyone with a computer and internet can take education into his or her own hands. Although there is a desperate need for accreditation for any MOOC learning track, I do not think that will be the case for long. School teachers will have to become in-person guides rather than instructors.

It’s a brave new Web-o-sphere. And it’s filled with opportunity and promise for the 21st-century adventurer.

Peace, love and ARE YOU A MOOC-TAKER? … A MOOCER?


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