Design to Connect

Paper submission for the Strategic Design and Management in the New Economies course

Topic: What is the role of creative professionals in the New Economies?

Purpose: Integral to the MS-SDM degree is gaining a broad contextual knowledge of the 21st Century business environment and the changing role and agency of design in this context. Equally important is the application of specific tools for the identification of a field for intervention, the framing of a “problem space” and the systematic and iterative application of research and problem-solving-through-prototyping. These processes will ultimately be combined with  business modeling and the consideration of new forms of value amidst significant societal shifts. 

     In a world where everything is constantly changing, the norms are challenged, and the people are searching for satisfaction beyond basic human needs, the role of a designer has evolved. Good design is not about changing lives, but rather its ability to connect things with people on an emotional level and bring valuable memories and experiences to their lives. Let it be a meal, a product, an app, a service or a business, designers carry the mission to bridge the seemingly irrelevant yet in truth important or valuable things with people to create that emotional connection.

     Even until today, the general public still thinks that the one and only purpose of a designer is to create an object or visual that is aesthetically appealing with good functionality. Some may argue that their purpose is beyond the level of aesthetic and usability, and that a designer’s job is to come up with something that sells. However, to make things pretty, useful, and market well is only part of a designer’s role in the new economy. Design goes much beyond just an object or visual – it can be applied to anything, including the tangibles and the intangibles. Design can and should be implemented when an initial idea is formed or when a problem is identified, as well as throughout the process of executing the idea or discovering the solution. Whether it is for a physical product, event, performance, service or system, the goal of a designer is to ensure the idea or the solution connects with people, and to help them not only understand but feel the need for its existence. After all, a great design means nothing when its end users cannot relate to it. The story Drucker mentioned in his book The Essential Drucker about Ford is a perfect example:

In the late 1940s and early ‘50s, one American automobile company tried to make the American public safety-conscious. Ford introduced cars with seat belts. But sales dropped catastrophically. The company had to withdraw the cars with seat belts and abandoned the whole idea. When, fifteen years later, the American driving public became safety-conscious, the car manufacturers were sharply attacked for their “total lack of concern with safety” and for being “merchants of death.” And the resulting regulations were written as much to punish the companies as to protect the public. (Drucker 2001, 52-53)

     As sad as the truth is, people don’t usually know exactly what’s best for them, let alone have a demand for that need. It is the responsibility of a designer to not only come up with something that meets people’s need, but also to help them discover the importance of having it – creating that emotional connection between people with the product. Designing a car with seat belts is now common sense because the drivers are aware of the need of it, and they are emotionally attached to the feature. Without them understanding why it exists, the design is irrelevant.

     The fast-changing and almost chaotic environment we live in now plays a dominant part in why the role of a design professional has shifted. Our world is no longer built upon a system where the end users are given a handful of options to fulfill their basic needs. A simple search of “table” on brings out 4,061,239 results with over 30 categories, 14 different brands, and 7 material options. Under each item there are thousands of customer reviews, pages of product descriptions, and numerous color choices. Being overwhelming is equivalent to being irrelevant. Designing a table that is visually appealing while providing maximum functionality that sells is simply not enough anymore, what is important is how to stand out from its competitors and connect with the customers. Take the three-star fine dining restaurant Alinea as a non-product example, its Chicago chef Grant Achatz combine the art of painting and food together, two things that have no obvious connection, and created his famous signature dessert dish that diners cherish for life. Using the table as the canvas and ingredients as the pigments, what once seemed irrelevant is now one of the culinary methods that many restaurants worldwide practice to stand out from their competition.

     A major influence on the new economy is the emerging technology, which also contributed greatly to the shift in designers’ role. The rapid advancement in technology development allows machines to do things as well as humans can, if not better. Ross mentioned in The Industries of the Future that “Big data has enabled this quantum leap for the cognitive development of robots,” (Ross 2016, Loc. 367) and machines can learn from human to be smarter at performing certain tasks than ourselves, it is inevitable that the role of a designer will shift from form and utility focused to emotion focused. While machines are being trained to be smarter and more efficient, they cannot replace the ability a designer has in creating personal emotional value. A machine may be able to learn from big data and build the New York by Gehry skyscraper; but without Frank Gehry, it wouldn’t have the same value without the emotional connection people have with the design.

     Another change the development of technology brings to the society is the definition of value in things. If we were to move toward a near zero margin society as Jeremy Rifkin predicted where goods and services can be acquired at almost no cost, (Rifkin 2014), cost can no longer be used to determine the value of things. People will start looking for new standards to define what is valuable beyond the cost of things. If one day the cost to produce a Lamborghini is zero, design becomes the most important attributes for it to still worth half a million dollars. Nothing is worth anything if it is not being valued by the people who interact with it, and nothing can ever be valuable to people if we cannot feel emotionally connected to it.

     It is always easier said than done. To help designers successfully achieve the goal to connect things with people on an emotional level, many tools have been developed by professionals. IDEO’s six-step design thinking process, which includes observation, ideation, rapid prototyping, user feedback, iteration, and implementation (Lanoue 2015), is to promote the importance of empathy for designers to have the ability to put themselves in the users’ shoes and share their feelings. Ogilvie and Liedtka broke down the design process into four main questions that a designer should ask themselves – what is, what if, what wows, and what works? Within the four questions are 10 tools that a designer should use to find the right answers, and among them “visualization” is what they call a “meta” tool, the fundamental of the design process. “(Visualization) creat[es] stories that go to the heart of how designers cultivate empathy in every phase of their work and use it to generate excitement for new ideas.” (Ogilvie and Liedtka 2011, Loc. 522) In her book Thinking in Systems, Meadows introduces the concept of tackling complex problems we are facing around the globe using the process of system design. Thinking in systems allows designers to detach themselves from the problem or condition, and to zoom out and get some perspective in order to connect the dots that are otherwise hidden. (Meadows 2009) Co:Collective came up with an approach called StoryDoing® through identifying a quest (mission) for their client and looking for innovative opportunities outside of their core products to achieve that specific quest. (co: LLC 2016) This approach help designers explore new opportunities in the whitespace while being able to make sense of the innovation by having one defined mission. All of these tools and processes have one goal, and one goal only – to help bring the irrelevant yet valuable things together and create emotional connection with people. As Ogilvie and Liedtka said in their book, “Great designs inspire – they grab us at an emotional level.” (Ogilvie and Liedtka 2011, Loc. 204)

     Through practicing these tools, designers can be more open minded when searching for meaningful answers or solutions to people that are not obvious on the surface. However, it is important for designers to keep in mind that the tools are methods to achieve a goal, not a magic power that guarantees success. In the new economy where the environment is complex, uncertain, and constantly changing, sometimes making the right educated guess is the missing ingredient to a great design. One tool does not always work – a combination of different methods or small tweaks of the process are what help designers find that right answer. Designers must have the ability to stay nimble in the new economy and understand what is important to make the connection that is meaningful and valuable to people.


  • co: LLC. 2016. co:. Accessed December 19, 2016.
  • Drucker, Peter F. 2001. The Essential Drucker: The Best Sixty Years of Peter Drucker's Essential Writings on Management. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, Inc.
  • Gerras, Stephen J. 2010. Strategic Leadership Primer. Pennsylvania: United States Army War College.
  • Lanoue, Spencer. 2015. IDEO’s 6 Step Human-Centered Design Process: How to Make Things People Want. July 9. Accessed December 19, 2016.
  • Meadows, Donella H. 2009. Thinking in Systems. London: Earthscan.
  • Ogilvie, Tim, and Jeanne Liedtka. 2011. Designing for Growth: A Design Thinking Toolkit for Managers. Kindle Edition. New York: Columbia University Press.
  • Rifkin, Jeremy. 2014. Jeremy Rifkin: "The Zero Marginal Cost Society" | Talks at Google. April 15.Accessed December 19, 2016.
  • Ross, Alec. 2016. The Industries of the Future. Kindle Edition. New York: The Industries of the Future.