Essays & Articles


Why DesignX?

For many years, together with a number of design educators, I have been discussing how design can address the complex socio-technological systems that characterize our world. The issues are not new: many people and disciplines have grappled with them for some time. But how can design play a role? Do our educational methods, especially the emphasis upon craft, prepare designers for this? What can design add?

In Fall 2014, a number of us found ourselves in Shanghai where we were serving as advisors to the newly formed College of Design and Innovation at Tongji University. (The list of participants appears below.) We decided it was time to act. As a result, over the next month we wrote a position paper, describing the nature of the issues and the framework for working on the problems. We didn’t know what kind of design we should associate with this approach, and after many iterations on a name, we simply called it X–as in the algebraic variable that can take on multiple values. Hence, DesignX.

The original members of the DesignX Collaborative are in alphabetical order): Ken Friedman (Tongji University, College of Design and Innovation and Swinburne University Centre for Design Innovation), Yongqi Lou (Tongji), Don Norman (University of California, San Diego, Design Lab), Pieter Jan Stappers (Delft University of Technology, Faculty of Industrial Design Engineering), Ena Voûte (Delft), and Patrick Whitney (Illinois Institute of Technology, Institute of Design). Contact email: [email protected]

Why DesignX?

  1. What is new? Haven’t designers been doing this for some time?
  2. The role of the designer. Do designers have any special expertise for these problems? Complex problems of this sort–sometimes called wicked problems–have been around a long time.
  3. What of craft skills? Are we denying their importance?

1.  What is new?

The fact that designers are already involved in these issues strengthens our case. Yes, numerous design firms and design programs have tackled complex, messy problems. But we have no established mechanisms, no rigor, no history of the use of evidence-based methods. This is a general problem in the design community, where much of design work is driven by the skills and intuitions of designers. Even our cherished methods such as design reviews and critiques, and even the human-centered iterative methods that I teach and use myself have minimal evidence that they are more effective than other methods. So what is new is the goal of codifying the approaches, of developing procedures and methods that can be tested, so that for each method the strengths and weaknesses are well understood, including the situations where they might be effective as well as those where they are inappropriate.

Several fields already claim the territory, in particular systems science and service science. They already understand the complex interactions among multiple stakeholders, the mix of technical, political, social and cultural issues, and the need to modularize and prioritize, the need to gain the trust and understanding of all stakeholders. Designers need to incorporate their findings.

Designers are doers, makers and practitioners who think by drawing, sketching and testing. Systems and Service Science can provide a firm scientific basis for their work. Practitioners must always work beyond the understanding of science. Even in engineering disciplines, the practitioners use scientific knowledge, but must invariably go beyond it, for science never captures the elusive issues that always occur in practice, where the environmental factors, the particular biases and requirements of the multiple stakeholders, plus the unexpected events that continually occur in the world elude even the best scientific understanding.

2. The role of the designer

Designers bring multiple talents to the solutions of complex issues, but first and foremost in my mind is the incorporation of empathy, of incorporating the needs of the people who must work within the system, the people who must approve it, and the people who are to benefit from the resulting system. This is a complex task, for the word “people” in each of the categories of the previous sentence sometimes means individuals, sometimes groups, organizations or even political entities.

Most of the existing professions who approach these complex, messy problems do so from an organizational or efficiency perspective. However, the people who are being served as well as the people who must provide the actual results (those “behind the scenes” in service design terminology) have to be part of the solution, for ensuring their understanding, trust and comfort is essential to the overall success of the enterprise.

For designers to fulfill this need, there must exist reliable methods, methods that have been empirically tested so that their strengths, weaknesses and appropriate ways to deploy them are understood.

3. What of craft skills?

We certainly do not suggest replacing the traditional work of designers in the development of products and services. Graphic design, communication, interaction, industrial and product design all continue to require great skill and craft. But these superb, excellent skills are not powerful enough to provide solutions in the complex socio-technological systems that characterize the focal point for DesignX.

DesignX requires new skills and knowledge. It requires combining the expertise of multiple disciplines, forming and leading teams with different backgrounds, interests and values. It requires the understanding of these complex systems. Above all, there is that word “systems.” Designers are usually trained to produce relatively simple products and services. DesignX ups the magnitude of the issues being faced to those that might involve entire communities with hundreds of thousands or even millions of people, with individuals, groups, organizations and technology both simple and complex, sometimes autonomous, working according to their own rules and programming. For these problems, we need new training, new skills and new methods.

The full description of DesignX can be found in several locations, in particular:

This essay was originally published on