Design Led Business: From Where To What?

September 8, 2016




The world of design is in a process of reinvention. From academia to business, arts to social systems, designers are asking questions like:


  • What are we designing for?

  • From what to what? 

  • And how might we inform and be informed by transitions in human evolutionary contexts?


The past 115 years can be defined by major shifts in societal world-views. For each of these transitions, the discipline of design has been front and centre framing and responding to human desire. Whether we are Master Chef enthusiasts coveting a new Thermomix or Grand Design devotees hankering for hay bale homes, where desire leads, design follows.


The scope, scale and purpose of conventional design is deeply rooted in what Carnegie Mellon’s Design School calls, "the aspirations of European and American modernists seeking to transition their societies from tradition-bound communities to universally rational modes of living through the redesign of dwellings, workplaces, furnishings, tools and clothing.” (Irwin, T., Kossoff, G., Tonkinwise, C., Transition Design: An Educational Framework for Advancing the Study and Design of Sustainable Transitions, Academia p.1, Retrieved September 9, 2016, from


Post WWII modernity in particular saw an influx of washing machines, kitchenware and household appliances engineered to significantly shift lifestyles from the laborious to the leisurely. In her book, Design: The Invention of Desire, Jessica Helfand refers to this particular liberation as the, “can-do progressiveness… we would later come to recognise as one of the key underlying hallmarks of modernism.” (Helfand, J., Design: The Invention Of Desire, Yale University Press: New Haven, 2016, p. 169)


1960’s Post-modernism ushered in vamped-up design applications. In particular, the convergence of design and communication included and transcended product design in ways that, “engaged the eye while simultaneously lassoing consumer loyalty with the stuff of branding…” (Helfand, J., Design: The Invention Of Desire, Yale University Press: New Haven, 2016, p. 182) Is it too long a bow to draw between today’s sub-discipline of service design and the humanist, person-centred psychology of Carl Rogers? After all,1970 Mad Man, Don Draper, drove America to its 'californicated' edge, where he discovered empathy at Big Sur’s Esalen Institute.


More recently, designers have been asking the question - what are we designing for? Scope, scale and purpose have evolved to reflect large scale, systemic complexities across a range of organisational, ecological, societal and planetary domains. Humantific’s co-founder, Elizabeth Pastor, write’s about this evolution of design in her soon to be published book, The Other Design Thinking.  She breaks Design into 2 stages: Mainstream Design Thinking and The Other Design Thinking. The diagram below describes this transition as a developmental one in which the fully embodied mindsets and practices of each stage lays the foundation for subsequent disciplines in terms of both complexity and challenge.



At Carnegie Mellon’s School of Design, transition designers Terry Irwin, Gideon Kossoff and Cameron Tonkinwise are taking things a bit further, responding to what they are calling the failure of social systems design to produce sustainable shifts by applying how they think toward more complex system issues like design for service, social innovation and transition. According to Irwin, Tonkinwise and Kossoff, “this evolution has sparked a proliferation of design-related sub-disciplines and new ways of working that include interaction design, experience design, participatory design, co-design, service design and design for social innovation.”

(Irwin, T., Kossoff, G., Tonkinwise, C., Transition Design: An Educational Framework for Advancing the Study and Design of Sustainable Transitions, Academia p.3, Retrieved September 9, 2016, from


This shift from ‘things’ to inter-subjective experiences ‘for and within complex social systems’ sit as increasingly complex disciplines along the Design for Interactions continuum:



Design of our built and imagined worlds, however ‘Agile’, have most of us seductively (and impatiently) tethered to an array of devices and future looking frameworks. Whether or not they fulfil on dystopian threat, utopian promise, both, or neither, is the humbling design inquiry of our era.


Until next time, this is Susanna Carman inviting you to traverse the ‘Double Diamond’ in the spirit of curious inquiry. For more articles about Design, Leadership and Business, visit




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