Three designer roles to adopt in the age of discontinuity
We all know the expression, change is inevitable. However, what we are beginning to experience globally, the speed at which change is occurring and the complexity it presents for systems, policies, products, way of life, values and social justice and environmental, is not only surprising, it is stunning and often unpredictable.
We believe that design will have an important role to play in helping us embrace and work within these new scales of change. the skills designing for discontinuity will be a vital requirement for organizations looking to impact and (frankly) survive these times. So how do we as designers rise to the challenge of discontinuous change? How can we develop our skills?
Let’s start first with what “discontinuity” means, a term coined by climate futurist Alex Steffen (at least in the global 2020+ context). In simple terms, this means that change is not linear and expected, but discontinuous and difficult to predict. For example, we are seeing six-foot fluctuations in the water level of Lake Michigan, where historically we have only experienced a six-inch range, radically changing the principles of urban design and infrastructure for the city of Chicago. And the discontinuity is not limited to climate change. Think about digitalization, material supply, social equity or the concept of truth.
All images courtesy of MADO and illustrator Grant Philips
The era of discontinuity is marked by these remarkable deviations from historical patterns and information repositories. As designers, we rely on our knowledge and insight to create meaningful work. So how do we design with this level of uncertainty? And at these scales?
To ride the rising waves of discontinuity, our studio MADO has developed three roles for designers and design teams collectively to embrace in their practice: the scout, the machinist and the gardener. These are changes in mentality and roles to play, or to assume, within our organizations. They involve new tools and techniques (some of which we will share with you here) but more importantly, they are a creative challenge for all of us to expand and philosophically adapt to this new age.
In the age of discontinuity, change is rapid and interwoven, but we can be prepared if we are able to see and interpret indicators of change early. Being a Scout means look to the future as part of our practice and continually reflect on disruptive scenarios. For example, as pressure on the carbon footprint increases, will synthetic biology replace traditional agricultural products? If so, how will advances in these synthetic biology techniques fuel paradigm shifts in other industries like cosmetics or even electronics?
There are two tools we often use with our clients to bring the Scouting role to life. The first are hives trend, where team members meet regularly to share signals of change and connect the dots from multiple angles. And then there is mapping of implications, where we use the “If…. then…” framework to imagine how changes in other areas might affect those we are designing for. The Scout is a shift in mindset that will help us as designers stay nimble and engaged, but also position design as an important player in building the resilience of our organizations.
In the age of discontinuity, change is dramatic, often unfathomable. A stagehand’s job is to help an audience believe in bringing alternate realities to life. As designers, we are well placed to take on this role! Imagine your audience as your colleagues or business counterparts.
Someone in a machinist role sets the stage and illustrates a new state of the world that we anticipate by employing all of their narrative creativity. Switching to this perspective means that we no longer render products in blank backgrounds – there is always a backdrop, there is always a social context.
For example, the US Census Bureau expects 100 million people to migrate into and around the United States by 2060. In this scenario, what do urban centers look like? How do you anticipate everyday life has changed for your US consumers? Why is your design important in this new scenario? Stagehands will use this experiential approach to reinforce its designs and communicate value to business stakeholders.
Discontinuity has more uncertainty, which means it’s essential to foster multiple possibilities and stay nimble to respond to change. Gardeners know that there are different environments in which plants can thrive or fail, right? Thus, taking on the role of gardener means we strive to generate ideas in a number of different “sols” or future scenarios, and we nurture these concepts simultaneouslyexpecting some to be more resilient than others.
For example, the digitalization of consumer lifestyles is changing at a rapid pace. In just 3 months after the pandemic, virtual collaboration has increased by 600% thanks to Miro. Ecomm grew at a 10-year pace of continuous growth in just 3 months, as reported by McKinsey. As we look to the future, there’s the promise of an even more immersive metaverse on the horizon. Will we immediately understand the human and social impacts of these changes? As designers of digital experiences, can we imagine 2 or 3 social contexts to be designed by 2030 that explore different levels of normalized digital fatigue versus fluency?
Promoting multiple possibilities is essential here. The gardener role challenges the traditional double-diamond design approach that often leads us to focus on a singular, “ultimate” design solution. The Gardener embraces co-creation to foster these many possible design solutions, inviting diverse voices from inside or outside the organization to imagine possibilities, broad and rich in context. Again, for the digital future, this means incorporating the perspectives of people with varying relationships to digitalization, which can point you towards a range of solutions.
As we enter this era of discontinuity, we challenge ourselves and our fellow designers to embrace this new reality with confidence, and perhaps even enthusiasm.
Elevate your design process to infuse the fundamentals of traditional design with an evolving skill set incorporating the mindset of scouts, machinists and gardeners. If we design alongside discontinuity – fully aware of the challenges and opportunities, we can establish a meaningful relationship with the chaos it presents.