Over recent weeks I’ve read quite a few articles bemoaning the death of creative teams, of design and design research — with them all apparently having been eaten by product design.
I’m not buying it.
I think what’s happened is the market for digital product and service design has exploded, and what originally existed in the design space feels eclipsed in comparison.
And I get the frustration —when research and design starts bounded by a particular product direction, there’s a nagging thought that there might be needs or opportunities that we’ve closed off before we’ve even begun. Perhaps (according to the myth of the genius designer), we’ve ruled out cars because we jumped straight to faster horses. Or perhaps it feels like the profit motive often underpinning product development rules out R&D activity that might not have such a quick or reliable return on investment — speculative design work, or longitudinal studies, deep ethnography, and time-and-motion studies being examples of (usually) incredibly valuable activity without the immediacy that a product division would be looking for.
But that doesn’t mean those things aren’t happening.
In my mind there’s a nice comparison with pure science versus applied science or engineering. Pure scientific research pays for itself — it’s expensive but the occasional breakthroughs it makes lead to economic benefits that more than cover the cost. But because it takes a while for those benefits to be realised, the market systematically fails to invest in pure science, and so public bodies (and some philanthropic orgs) fund most of it.
Applied science and engineering, of course, then swoop in and build new inventions (products, processes, whatever) off the back of those scientific discoveries. The scientists are still there, they’re just vastly outnumbered by engineers.
So our product teams — they are like the engineers. Broad exploratory research and design happens — in government, in some large corporates, sometimes in social research teams. It’s just not where the growth in the industry is, so it feels like its star is waning. Asking of questions like “is this a problem the government should solve?” and “what are the range of possible intervention types here?” before anyone gets anywhere near a project canvas for a a discovery project on faster horses— still happen. It just happens in policy and strategy teams, or in policy labs, upstream from most designers.
I think that’s the real issue. The declarations of design’s death are really just a variant of the complaint that designers don’t have a seat at the table, that they don’t have enough influence over strategy and policy. The thing is, only those designers who can convincingly connect this broader, longer payoff work to the preoccupations of the business and the board will get an invite.