The evolution of ‘design’

Design today is about human-centered experiences and thinking outside the box

Design is as old as humanity itself. In fact, there’s increasing evidence that it’s even older. Think Australopithecus with an iPhone.

Ok, not an iPhone but a stone purposefully smashed with other stones to create a sharp edge (an iStone, if you will), and maybe not Australopithecus, depending on which school of pre-human taxonomy you prefer. But just this year, scientists working in Kenya announced the 2012 discovery of the oldest known purpose-built stone tools, which date back as many as 3.3 million years, well before Homo Sapiens came into existence. Since then, the notion of design has evolved, even if its most advanced forms have not quite yet surfaced here in Lebanon.

What is design?

Based on numerous conversations had for this special report, which ranged from the specific to a level of abstraction that still somewhat boggle our minds, the most succinct definition of design seems to be ‘creativity with a purpose’. The purpose can be as mundane as getting food into our mouths or as corporate as creating a sense of brand loyalty among consumers by designing a friendly, hassle-free customer experience. Design was once the sole domain of the person creating an object, be it a blacksmith, cobbler or carpenter. Today, however, it has become a craft unto its own. And it’s just as important for selling things as it is for as it is for creating them.

Giulio Vinaccia, an Italian designer, working with the UN on a new design-oriented program in Lebanon says product designers today are being brought into the process of creating an item at a far earlier stage than before. Previously they were seen as “tailors,” he says, who were there to merely make something look nice. “Twenty years ago I received a brief of 20 pages to make a glass. The company said, ‘It’s a glass for red wine and this kind of glass needs to have the mouth very open to intake oxygen’ and we were only the ‘tailor’ to design the correct shape.” Now the same company will write to my office and say ‘Guilio, we’re not selling glasses, what should we do?’” Product designers are now being brought in earlier in the commodity creation life cycle, not only to make the creation look nice, but also to help give it a sexy story to make sure it sells. Outside the manufacturing plant, companies need slick websites and the bigger ones hire ad agencies and marketing firms, all of which employ legions of designers. There are designers in just about every field, and even those who may not call themselves designers – like educators and magazine writers – could be considered among the ilk.

The ‘Creative Economy’

Because there seems to be a designer lurking in every office closet (or sitting next to you at the coffee shop and working remotely), it is difficult to put a figure on how much the industry as a whole is worth. They’re big players in the so-called “Creative Economy”, a sector which does not yet have a universally accepted definition. The UN Industrial Development Organization cites from the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) “Creative Economy Report 2010” that it contributes nearly 5 percent to Lebanon’s economy and accounts for over 4 percent of employment. The UN heaped praise on the state of creativity in this country, commenting on its website that “The strength and dynamism of cultural and creative industries in Lebanon are rooted in multifaceted cultural influences, deep-rooted private initiatives and the country’s privileged geographical location. Beirut, for instance, has been regaining and consolidating its role as a regional hub in design, advertising, architecture, fashion, gastronomy and publishing — even if the related value chains are often not completely covered and if some important linkages (such as collaborative work and initiatives, investments, etc.) are still weak.” Despite Lebanon’s reputation for innovation and creativity, design in its newest incarnation – as an inventive solution provider – has not taken off here. But the evangelists have arrived.

“New” design

Since the 1960s, there’s been a developing notion that designers simply think differently than, say, bankers or dockworkers. Around 15 years ago, a new industry was born: designers became problem-solving consultants. They began to think up creative ways to tackle social problems such as homelessness, offer government tips on how to more easily interact with and court the business world with a customer-centric sales pitch. Call it what you will – service design, experience design, strategic design, design thinking – what’s on offer is all pretty much the same. Designers use an innovative method when problem solving which can help a company’s bottom line, an approach which these “new” consultants claim executives, mid-level managers and traditional management gurus lack.

“Most traditional consultancies will always analyse from within the organization. They will look at your processes, your systems, and understand the people and the policies to see how we can optimize. And it’s great if that optimization, in the end, also benefits [a customer’s] experience. […] But it’s very analytical and it’s very numbers based,” says Anne Meijer, business development manager at Livework Studios, a service design company based in five major world cities, including Beirut, currently working with the local strategic consultancy Brand Cell. “Service design is more and more coming inward. We basically bring the customer into the organization. First we show and make the organization understand what the customer is experiencing. Then we imagine how we can use this experience, and understand what it means for an organization and the business.”

To understand this better, imagine a bank where customers complain they spend 15 to 20 minutes waiting to see a teller each time they come to a branch. A traditional consultant might suggest adding more tellers or instituting a policy whereby each teller must limit interactions with customers to a maximum of ten minutes. A design consultant, on the other hand, would interview customers to find out why they’re coming to the bank, and interview tellers to find out what their processes are for dealing with customers. This interview technique leads to “visualizing” ways to 1) reduce the need for people to enter a branch – which can involve using new technologies like websites, e-banking or even ATMs – and 2) speed up the process once they’re there. Visualizing means just that. Think post-it notes, storyboards and reducing often complex information into a visual, digestible form the way designers are renown to do. It’s all very right-brain and quite the contrast to the ruthless penny-pinching associated with the “old way” of business optimization. One of the leading firms in this new field, US-based IDEO, says in describing its work: “Nobody wants to run an organization on feeling, intuition, and inspiration, but an over-reliance on the rational and the analytical can be just as risky.” IDEO’s use of design as a problem solving tool, the company assures, “provides an integrated third way.”

Meijer also added that, as a consultancy, “we need to give [clients] short term benefits,” that are more tangible than abstract outcomes (like customer loyalty) which are hard to quantify. A prime example would be identifying redundancies and firing them along with other optimizations that more quickly prove a consultant’s bill is worth paying. Joe Ayoub, CEO of Brand Cell, adds that, with only one completed service design solution thus far offered in Lebanon, the company is charging “maybe not as much as we would love,” but is hopeful that “next year, we will command the price on service design.”

The Less profitable model

As noted above, the “design is different” gospel preached by this new wave of consultants has 50-year-old roots and it’s not just business in need of salvation. For an example of evolution in a petri dish, we once again turn to London (See: the Peppered Moth’s reaction to the Industrial Revolution). Seventy years ago, the government formed a council on design to keep the country competitive in industrial design. Today, the Design Council touts itself as “champion[ing] great design that improves lives.” They’re talking new designer meets social challenge, something Doreen Toutikian sees is sorely lacking in Lebanon. “What we don’t need is another chair,” she says. Toutikian directs the non-profit MENA Design Research Center, organizer of the annual Beirut Design Week, a seven-day orgy of all things design launched in 2012. That year, the MENA DRC hosted a program that let designers use their prowess to try tackling real-life problems people in Lebanon face. Ideas which were generated included a new traffic management system for Gemmazyeh; a “sustainable consumerism project” that would have turned plastic bags into other useable and sellable objects in Bourj Hammoud, and a device that lets users monitor how much electricity they use to avoid blowing a fuse when using the generator, and to conserve power. While almost none came to fruition, she argues the process helped change how participating designers think, so she considers it a success story anyway.

She says the MENA DRC trains young designers and will keep on spreading the word about design’s potential to transform the world, working from the bottom up to create an ecosystem focused on solving Lebanon’s myriad problems.

Tried and true

While the direct economic benefits of this new iteration of design are hard to quantify, there are continued efforts to use the more aesthetic aspects of the discipline to grow business and create employment in Lebanon. UNIDO’s creative and cultural industries cluster project is matching furniture manufactures and jewelry makers with young designers in an attempt to boost these traditional industries now in various states of disrepair (see story on page 36).

Still missing from the equation, however, is state support for any of these initiatives. While the UNIDO program shows promise, it is unclear whether the cluster will survive once the money from outside dries up. Foreign funding to help local creative industries and designers has come to Lebanon in the past. However, two prominent initiatives, the Lebanon Creative Cluster and the Beirut Creative Cluster, ceased functioning when the money dried up, according to Salim Tannous, former director of the BCC. The LCC launched in 2009 and, based on its time capsule of a website, died by 2010. It did not achieve its stated objectives (“increasing the coordination across the creative industry ecosystem,” “channeling government resources and programs,” and “enabling capital formation,” among others) and Executive was unable to reach someone directly involved in the project for further comment.

The BCC started work in 2012 and was more focused. Tannous explains that it catered to any company whose products end up on a screen, be it TV, cinema, computer, tablet or smartphone, but failed to become financially self-sufficient as a cluster, which prompted him to leave as manager earlier this year. Building an ecosystem for the creative economy in general or for a design economy specifically, therefore, will likely require government financing.

One Comment;

  1. Davar said:

    Lebanon needs to Design a new government that includes more designers and brand strategists, rather than corrupt politicians. Designers ares solution providers, regardless of their religious beliefs.

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