Mapping the Field of Design: Part 1 of an Interview with Meredith Davis

In anticipation of the AIGA Centennial Celebration at AIGA Raleigh, I had an opportunity to carry out a short interview with Professor Meredith Davis, the Director of Graduate Studies at the NC State University College of Design, an AIGA fellow and medalist, and a member of the AIGA Visionary Design Council to define “The Designer of 2015.”

While preparing for the interview, I discovered Meredith’s extraordinary passion for design education and a vision for design profession that goes beyond design training as we know it. At the center of this vision lies the need for the generation and dissemination of design-oriented, yet interdisciplinary, knowledge through conducting rigorous research in order to facilitate the development of sets of competencies that designers will need to be successful as the new era of design practice is unfolding. But before we can educate, we must understand and map out the role of design in our contemporary context.

In the interview, Meredith shared the kinds of questions that are the subject of her cooperative work with Ric Grefe, AIGA executive director; Terry Irwin at Carnegie Mellon; and Hugh Dubberly. How do we map the field of design? How do we talk about the development of competencies? And what are the competencies that designers need? Let us begin with mapping out the field.

MEREDITH DAVIS: Hugh has offered a model for the beginning of our talks. The traditional practice of graphic design pertains to the design of artifacts, objects, spaces, and messages where the concern is often function, formal qualities of things, the emotional connections that people make with objects, and a problem-solving approach within conventional formats such as book design or logo design. Then there is interaction design where we are concerned with tools, games and simulations, story worlds as Hugh Dubberly calls them, and the issues of performance. So we shift from the focus on designing objects to focus on designing behavior and helping people interact with information through a set of tools and systems whereby they are in control of the content and we are providing the affordances for certain behaviors that allow them to manipulate that content.

What has emerged recently is design for conversation. In this context, designers talk about platforms on which others build applications, service ecologies, and communities. Operating at this scale we [designers] must have a very different set of competencies than when operating at the level of designing objects. The elements of traditional practice do not go away, and there are still designers whose primary concern is about the physical and emotional qualities of objects and about craft. But now we also have larger design problems that are more complex. Those problems are much messier in terms of their articulation and the longer lifespan that includes issues of technological feasibility, economic viability, and environmental and human resource sustainability. Those new problems require a whole new set of competencies.

In education, this new set of design problems requires us to address the question of how we help students work at this new, larger scale of complexity. How do we help them tackle problem articulation as well as problem solving? Clients often don’t know what the actual design problem is about and it is our job to make sure attention is brought to the issues that matter now and across time. Public perception of design is largely at the level of artifact design, and more recently interaction design. But contemporary problems are big and involve interacting systems, so more work is at the level of conversation. You can have a lovely product to sell and a lousy service model that ruins people’s experience.

The service design model that I frequently refer to is the Apple store: you do not queue up at the cash register; you do not need help buying things in packages because the packages show you what’s inside of them; if you are going there for repair work, you can schedule it before you ever leave your home; the receipt will be emailed to you, etc. And your devices are linked to a content system called iTunes. That is a service ecology that makes the experience of shopping at Apple very different from going to Best Buy.

Those services [or experiences] are designed and they are no less involving of artifacts. But how we help students, how we help design professionals, and how we help companies understand the value that this kind of thinking brings to their larger efforts, is the next phase of design education. And the task of a professional association, I think, is to demonstrate the value of this thinking to others; to create the climate in which designers can bring about meaningful change.

If you are as inspired by Meredith’s design thinking as I am, I hope to see you on September 10 at Busy Bee Café in downtown Raleigh, where we will convene to celebrate AIGA’s 100th anniversary, and where Meredith Davis will talk more about her vision for design.

By Basia Coulter
Published September 1, 2014