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The Fountain Institute

The Design of Really Big Things

published25 days ago
3 min read

Dear Reader,

Q: How do we solve big problems like climate change?

Whoa, there, Jeff...pretty big Q for a newsletter, don't ya think?

There is no neat answer, but problems like climate change are becoming problems that designers are starting make a dent in.

But personas and "how might we..."s aren't the kind of tools you will use to tackle climate change.

UX doesn't offer much help when the climate is threatened.

Who is the client when everyone is a user?

At best, these design tools were meant to help you design everyday things.

Designing Everyday Things

It was 1988, and capitalism was trying to be the coolest kid on the bloc.

The Soviet Union was about to collapse, Super Mario Bros. 2 came out on NES, and this is what TV looked like:

The world wanted all these shiny, new things and capitalism was eager to provide them.

That same year, Don Norman published an early version of the Design of Everyday Things.

Don's revolutionary idea: When people can't use things, it's not their fault. It's a faulty design because the thing isn't intuitive.

(If you want a refresher, check out this book summary I made)

For context, this is the kind of unintuitive software Don was dealing with in 1988:

User-centered design proved very useful for designing things better. And designing things better is always good for business.

That's been a very good thing for designers, and demand for new experiences helps you have a comfortable salary designing lots and lots of things.

How has that been working out for the planet?

5.3 billion mobile phones will be thrown away in 2022. (source).

All that software you're designing has an environmental cost in the hardware that runs it and the data centers that powers it.

The design of everyday things like apps is causing very big changes to our climate.

Designing Really Big Things

Luckily, there are sides of design that have been developing methodologies that offer a way into big problem spaces like climate, governance, and healthcare.

This design practice sharpened its tools through organizational challenges, government innovation projects, and business strategy. It's finally starting to emerge as a cohesive practice.

If you want to design a better climate, you have to think bigger than everyday things.

Principle #1: The world can be redesigned

The first principle of designing big things is that the material world is a product of design, and it can be redesigned.

You need more than a desire to make a difference. You need to believe that it is possible.

There is an inconvenient statistic that 80% of the environmental impact of a product is set in the design phase.

On your watch, decisions are being made that make climate change worse.

Designers should take ownership for both the power and responsibility of design before they can tackle things like climate

Principle #2: Think in systems

The second principle of designing really big things is all about zooming out to see the full picture. The design process of everyday things is often represented in a linear way, but the design process has always been circular.

Even the Double Diamond is evolving to correct the over-simplification of a linear approach to design. Note the circularity and systems language in the evolved Double Diamond:

Design has a long history in systems before Don Norman coined UX in the 90s. Even the original Double Diamond is based on a systems design model.

Principle #3: Design for longer timelines

Design is a future-oriented practice, but projects like climate work deal with farther futures than traditional design.

Rather than thinking in "launches," you have to think in transitions. There won't be a clean release of a systemic solution, and there probably won't be a smooth transition either.

With systems, don't expect any project to be "done." Always be looking ahead to the possible horizons of change ahead.

Principle #4: Make the intangible tangible

Designing big things is still designing, and one of the key skills is turning intangible concepts into tangible artifacts.

Artifacts like maps, visuals, and storyboards will always be a part of design, and you can use these same artifacts when tackling big problems.

Principle #5: Design through others

The third principle of designing big is that it has to be be about more than you. You shouldn't try to do it on your own.

For example, your work might shift from delivering solutions for a client to facilitating solutions from your stakeholders.

When designing really big things, your focus is on how stakeholders interact and shape design artifacts.

Learn More

The design of really big things is made up of lots of fields and practices. You can start your research with terms like #sustainabledesign, #systemsthinking, #strategicdesign, #behavioraldesign #designfutures, #circulardesign, and #servicedesign

Designers doing this kind of work go by titles like service designer, innovation consultant, and strategic designer.

If you want to go beyond the mindset and into the actual methods and process involved, I'll be giving a talk on design strategy on Nov. 12th.

Until next week!

Jeff Humble
Designer & Co-Founder
The Fountain Institute

There are only 3 essential seats left in Defining UX Strategy from Nov. 21-Dec. 12th. Join us, and I'll guide you through the process of designing a UX strategy for your company.