The Design Thinker as 21st Century Savior

Hilary Stunda | 09.10.15

An interview with Richard Grefé, the executive director of AIGA, the professional association for design. AIGA is the oldest and largest professional association of designers in the United States, advancing the interests of over 20,000 designers – ranging from type and book designers to new media, experience and service designers. Grefé is speaking at the Aspen Ideas Festival this week, where design is grouped with film and art. As he says: “Design does influence popular culture, yet it is also the means for solving social challenges, from ballot design to malaria-defeating sleep netting in Africa.”

ric_grefeHow do you see design’s role in the world at large?
Design has never been more important for a society, a culture and an economy. In an era in which all problems seem to be defined by the complexity of the world in which they occur, the design mind helps to define the unexpected solution, based on the way real people behave and forged with simplicity and authenticity. We live in a world of too much information and too little understanding. Design makes the complex clear.

How do designers navigate our over-stimulated world?
Designers can define communication as an experience, rather than simply a message. For instance, a brand is no longer a logo; it is the brand promise that is associated with an experience, whether from visiting an Apple store or a Starbucks. Even the wording reveals how design is changing experiences: no one would say they are visiting a Maxwell House or a Folgers.

What classifies a successful designer?
Designers are the ones who use creativity, purposefully, to enhance the human experience. Good design extends beyond beautiful or inspiring artifacts. A designer who is truly successful should be able to say her design “moved markets, moved audiences and moved me.”


‘VeggiePatch’ (above) by Jo Szczepanska of Monash University, Australia, is an example of human-centered design that provides a low-impact actionable tool to households, effectively reducing reliance on large scale agriculture.

You have said that design is a critical element of business strategy…
In discussing design in the context of business strategy, each of us must move beyond thinking of design as the visual or physical form of design. When we talk of design in the context of business strategy, we are talking about the design mind and processes for problem solving that may be totally intangible—ways of seeing problems, studying human patterns, proposing alternative solutions, testing them and developing them. Creativity can defeat habit. Habit has created many of our most pernicious problems and constrained growth in the economic realm and in the human experience. The design mind is the means of escaping the patterns of the past.

What is the latest, most thrilling design concept you’ve seen lately?
It is not new, yet there is one concept that thrills me every time I see it. It is a design concept that demonstrates how human-centered design that is high in concept and low in cost can make a huge difference in the human experience—the insecticide impregnated mosquito net (nothing but nets).

How much of your time is spent advancing/implementing design-thinking curricula?
Currently, a high priority at AIGA is to work with leading educators to help them to develop curricula that reflect the challenges and opportunities for design that is strategic, multidisciplinary, multicultural, human-centered and focused on problem solving.

Do you see a new wave of spontaneous design-thinking/innovation groups springing up across the globe to harness ideas for challenged areas?
Yes, I think it is similar to those who are seeking to use networking to stimulate ideas. The Internet and social networking have introduced us to a means for expanding the ideation process of design thinking, triggering observations, ideas and reactions from people widely dispersed. It opens one step in the process, although it still requires a thoughtful designer to synthesize the ideas and channel them into further prototypes and testing. Yet, there is little doubt that having more people involved in the creative process is geometrically more effective than fewer. Since creative solutions cannot be based on existing dogma, there is no way that many minds will not provide a broader range of ideas than any single individual.

How can we re-awaken the design thinker within all of us? And then, where do we take our great ideas?
Design thinking is not a latent or natural skill set. It is a mindset and an understanding of how to approach problems in fresh ways. It will often benefit from those who are trained as designers because they can make our ideas visible; but ideas themselves and the willingness to take risks can be learned. You don’t need to take your ideas somewhere; you need to take your approach to problem solving to problems facing your community, whether it is planning and zoning, education, environmental, or in volunteering to work with other organizations that address problems facing the human experience, whether health, access to water, literacy, crime or aging. If you were to seek a place to bring your ideas, you would not be involved in design thinking, for it would suggest you have an answer looking for a problem, instead of the other way around.

What gives you confidence that the role of “designer” is becoming one of the most important roles to have as we face the plethora of 21st century challenges?
There are a number of dynamics. First, we need to find innovative ways to break through with solutions for the complex problems of the 21st century. Second, both in economics and in social programs, we have discovered that we need to develop solutions that work at the human scale, rather than the macro-economic or national scale. Designers are distinguished by their empathy and understanding for real human patterns. Third, designers are trained to make the complex clear and are regularly solving problems that must respond to many human patterns and stimuli. Fourth, designers have been trained to understand how to minimize the use of scarce resources. And lastly, they are more likely to survive the challenges of the 21st century because they are more fun!