Design is often a maddening, confusing process. We go ‘back to the drawing board’ a lot. And today, we also face climate change, rapid urbanisation, fast changing technology, growing inequality and resource scarcity – for which, we are partly to blame.
We know we need change so that we can survive. And this is no small feat.
Dealing with these points is made all the more difficult because our profession lacks a clear voice on core issues including the definition of sustainability and health and wellbeing. We also collectively struggle to agree on which adaptation strategies will work in the future. All things considered, we have good reason to feel daunted - lost even - in the face of these tasks. But, then again, embracing an unknown future has always been part of our job.
To help us translate the ‘how’ of realisation requires others to bring order, efficiency, certainty and quality. That’s why we bring experts together, to pull apart each stage of the process. This collaboration delivers well enough in terms of minimising risk and maximising profit in the smallest possible time frames. But, do these specialist silos make us more scared and wary of each other? Thereby decreasing creativity and increasing risk?
The industry is right to fear fragmentation - for we cannot build the world alone.
As projects come to a close, the ‘experts’ tend to retreat to their professional camps, while the academics raise the drawbridges to their ivory towers. And as timeframes get ever tighter and pressures increase, the number of ‘generalists’ in our profession have diminished. So too has the strength of our relationships. Perhaps we’re locked in and limited by our own need to find a specialist focus – to find our own sense of purpose.
We now find ourselves locked in; as Beck warned ‘we may be using modernity to try to solve the problems that modernity itself created’.
Taking time and taking stock
The truth is, while we were ‘realising’ at our best, the world around us was slowly changing – and we were too busy delivering to notice. Looking back, we have always been able to handle complex information to innovate - the challenges were of course different centuries back but, moreover, we took time to build our monuments and settlements. We allowed space for trial, error and bad luck. We fixed mistakes along the way, spent money slowly and carefully - over decades if needed. We minimised risk because we stayed with projects longer and invested in study, experimentation and, critically, relationships.
We can’t go back, so where do we go from here to remain relevant?
The single most important decision we can make is to pause for a moment from the thought of ‘what’ and ‘how’, to ask ‘why’? Because when we ask ‘why’, we dive deeper and emerge with simplicity from complexity.
It can be helpful to adapt Simon Sinek’s ideas to ask: why do we design? Why do our clients want to build at all? Why will this investment matter? Why will our work remain fit for purpose, decades from today?
Why form must follow function, follow purpose
By asking such searching questions we stand more chance of finding and aligning our reasons and purpose with others - leading to design environments that enable end-users to do the same. In workplace, creating this sense of purpose has been proven to be paramount to employee health, happiness, wellbeing and, in turn, productivity. A belief echoed by Jim Collins and others including Victor J. Strecher, who write of the importance of ‘purpose’ for organisational success.
In truth, purpose is no less a human appetite than air, water or food.
Certainly the physical, mental, social and natural environment affect each other and, as designers, we cannot afford to shirk responsibility on any of these matters. For example, when we explore, what we may actually find is that professional and organisational climate change is essential in order to tackle climate change itself. That design can learn from neuroscience, history, philosophy, psychology, medicine and making to create powerful tools to support every project.
Indeed, if we can broaden our professional scope and appetite for true collaboration - beyond the breadth of our predecessors - and do so with an honest, clearer purpose, we can make it. All the while increasing our ability to trust and co-operate - for these are skills that should be considered, alongside steel and concrete, as foundational tools for our job. Then, together, we can deepen our understanding and relationships to truly design with purpose.
To conclude with a nod to Vitruvius, as Louis Sullivan once said: ‘Form follows function’. Perhaps, we now have to tweak our favourite maxim for our modern times; Form follows function, follows purpose.