What does it mean to be a designer today?

Foreword, Hungarian Design Award, 2019

Design and Conversation

I am very pleased to write this foreword for the 40th anniversary of the Hungarian Design Award, especially focusing on the student category. We are living in very challenging times globally, so it feels as if this request came just at the right moment. People are trying to make sense of the climate crisis and the increasing inequality and societal challenges arising from it. While we see a positive cultural shift and young people are out on the streets trying to stand up for their futures, there is still an urgency to act.

The way people see design and how we are designing has changed dramatically over the last 40 years since the first Hungarian design projects were awarded. Reading through this year’s winners and exhibitors in the student category, it’s amazing to see the similarities they all seem to share. They appear to be socially-minded, inclusive, people-centred, playful, interdisciplinary, collaborative and their work developed from thorough research and understanding of the people and context they are designing in.

Seeing these projects, I am reminded of my university years. I remember how I would have appreciated some guidance on what the role of a designer is or can be, and what design really is. I have a list of things I try to keep in mind when designing. I thought I would share with you what I love about design and a few key points from the list:

Be genuine and caring — Question the values you want to bring into this world

When I start working on a project, instead of focusing on the function or the look, I think about the values or qualities that would be good to bring into this world. Do I want to support others to develop a shared language, to be more agile or collaborative? Is it about building a more equal, healthy, sustainable or playful place, process or user experience? Or all of those together? I use these guiding principles to help me take the first step.

Be more equal and help the most vulnerable to be heard/involved

I work a lot with air pollution, climate change, and urban technology design. Because of this, day-to-day I am faced with the deeply unjust distribution of environmental risk and how socioeconomic status plays a significant role in people’s health. I am really inspired by the work of Fran Tonkiss (2015) and I think she has an important message for designers [1]:

Strategies for more environmentally sustainable cities must go beyond issues of design and technology to address toxic environmental inequalities. More sustainable urban futures that don’t simply depend on finding better technical solutions, but on a more serious commitment to environmental equity in cities and elsewhere.

I believe that to create places that are more just and liveable it is crucial to ensure that all voices can be equally expressed, heard and represented in complex environmental and political processes. Designers have a crucial role in enabling this and in helping to increase the degree of participation for all, especially for currently marginalised groups.

Be careful about your own assumptions and biases

As designers are more and more engaged in political and social matters, I keep warning myself to be cautious of my own biases and assumptions about the world. Ramia Mazé talks about how designers need to be careful when “mobilising particular ideals of the future” [2] and keep reflecting on the role they may have in “reproducing already existing practices and norms in society”.

Be more thorough

Innovation labs and agencies still tend to follow ‘buzzwords’ (e.g. supporting ‘popular’ technologies or narratives). Being bolder, more thorough and building on research could help us better understand where we should focus our efforts. Locking ourselves into undesirable futures should be avoided at all costs. Usman Haque points out [3] how current technological solutions are often reductionist and do not seem to reflect on the messiness and complexity of the systems and cities we have built. Also, it is important to be aware that even well-intended actions can lead to unpredictable behaviour and unintended consequences, especially when dealing with ‘wicked’ or complex problems.

Being not only people/human-centred but society/humanity-centred

While being people-centred is crucial, it is often misrepresented as simply fulfilling the needs of individuals by designing good products or services for them. What I mean by this is that it’s important to understand what the aggregated or societal-scale impact or outcome of any given intervention or product that we’re designing is. Rob Girling and Emilia Palaveeva [4] describe the same challenge in a great article, ‘Beyond The Cult Of Human-Centered Design’ and urge the need for a “humanity-centred design” approach.

Sometimes I think about myself wearing two hats at the same time. One is me as an individual, a person with needs, and me as a citizen who looks at their role in fulfilling the needs of others, my city, and society. These are often in conflict. I am not sure I have a good answer to solve this conflict, but it’s good to keep in mind!

Be assertive but humble

It can be extremely difficult for designers to understand where to intervene in a system (if anywhere), but often when they manage to do so successfully, they can become quite arrogant about their achievements. I try to remind myself to be assertive and demonstrate the value of design and design research in improving places, services, organisations and the lives of people in general, but also to stay humble about the role I have in that process.

Final thoughts — Design as a conversation for action and for learning together
During my Ph.D. studies in Innovation Design Engineering at the Royal College of Art, I heard about second-order cybernetics for the first time from my late supervisor, Ranulph Glanville. While I still have much more to learn to fully comprehend second-order cybernetics, I know (among other things) it frames design as a conversation for action and for learning together. Or in the words of Hugh Dubberly and Paul Pangaro [5], referring to Humberto Maturana’s work, “design is a conversation about what to conserve and what to change, a conversation about what we value.”

There is something powerful in comparing the process of designing and of conversing. Many implicit qualities of designing are similar to a good conversation.

As Ranulph explained to me, designers have conversations with themselves and can also “create possibilities for others to have conversations, to learn, and to act”. In a good conversation at least, each participant actively listens, observes and is receptive. Each participant also constructs meaning and value, while developing both an individual and a group stand-point. Having different personalities, they practise how to co-exist in a given space and constantly negotiate and agree on different viewpoints. During a conversation, each one of them replays what they understood from the other person’s viewpoint and if there is a mismatch with what was intended to be said previously, the participants will iterate and develop the conversation together. They will do this until they have reached a common understanding (this does not always mean agreement of course). I try to give justice to his words here.

Ranulph (2009) then also talked to me about the exciting difference between design and conversation, which is also in one of his papers [6]:

in most models of communication, the concern is to reduce error, in design the so-called “error” may be a source of novelty. What is often thought of as error is welcomed as a means of enhancing creativity. This novelty comes from everything in the system working together.

Reflecting on the role of designers, he then summarised: “designers develop and amplify ideas, make the new from differences in meanings — when difference in expression is welcomed, not hidden.”

As a first step, the process of designing, testing and iterating is amazing for finding something new and unexpected that was not part of our original intentions. Ramia Mazé (2013) also says that design can help us change the status quo (if we want to change it at all) and to provide “alternative discourses and practices” [7] as well as to introduce opportunities to discuss how things could be otherwise.

I often work with academics, designers and decision-makers and there can be underlying tensions and opposing views and interests. However, I also see this as an amazing opportunity to create a safe space where everyone feels OK to question things and each other and can also develop their own viewpoint — even if it’s different from that of others. With some generalisation here, academics have amazing research and evidence but might find it challenging to communicate their findings to the general public in a digestible way. Designers sometimes lack the sufficiently rigorous evidence and research before they start designing and do not always question what they are designing for. Decision-makers and high influencers have the power to change things, so supporting them and working with them closely can contribute to a shift in scale. It’s not helpful to frame different parties as “the good guys and the bad guys” or choosing between “top-down or bottom-up”. We need to start closing these gaps and do everything in parallel if we want to align our actions. The more these groups talk to each other, the easier it gets to build a common language, where we can share insights, learn from each other and break the silos that are the real barriers to change.

It is wonderful to see that young designers in Hungary are at the forefront of this change and understand the value of openness and collaboration. They recognise that we need to build a shared vision and work together if we want to move forward in an equitable and sustainable way.

REFERENCES

[1] Tonkiss, F. (2015) Divided Cities: Urban Inequalities in the 21st Century. Available at:

[2] Mazé, R. (2017) Designing Visions of the Future. Available at:

[3] Haque, U. Papers:

[4] Girling, R. & Palaveeva, E. (2017) Beyond the Cult of Human-centered Design. Fast Company. Posted: 11 March 2017. Available at:

[5] Dubberly, H. & Pangaro, P. (2015) Cybernetics and Design: Conversations for Action

[6] Glanville, R. (2009). A (Cybernetic) Musing: Design and Cybernetics. Cybernetics & Human Knowing. 16. Available at:

[7] Zetterlund, C., Redström, J., Olausson L., Plöjel, M. and Mazé, R. (2013) Share this Book: Critical Perspectives and Dialogues about Design and Sustainability. Available at:

Innovation designer, design strategist, and environmental advocate — interested in collective action, cities & the climate crisis