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Design's next challenges: embracing the counter-intuitive, dealing with Big Data

Design's next challenges: embracing the counter-intuitive, dealing with Big Data

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At the annual conference of the Design Management Institute, speakers discussed the future of design in the era of both Big Data and big global economic challenges.

NEW YORK -- What are the freshest opportunities for designers, now that mass-market consumers are aware that elegant, simple devices are easier to use, or that fun, efficient physical retail experiences keep customers coming back for more? There are plenty of new paths for designers to conquer, according to the opening speakers at the 2012 annual conference of the Design Management Institute, a 37-year-old international non-profit organization that promotes public awareness of design as an element of business strategy.

The gathering, which opened on October 23 and runs through October 25 at the Museum of Jewish Heritage in Manhattan, includes an attendee list ranging from designers working at top innovation consultancies, to those at corporations ranging from Target to South Korea's Hyundai, among many others. They traveled to mingle with each other and share experiences and ideas, as well as absorb ideas from presentations on future trends.

Two of the first speakers at the conference, themed "New Ambition: Delivering the Promise of Design," offered some thought-provoking bullet points on new possibilities in design.

ASKING BOLD QUESTIONS

Kathryn Best, a U.K.-based author of articles and books on the relationship between business and design (includingThe Fundamentals of Design Management and Design Management: Managing Design Strategy, Process & Implementation), posed a number of "what-ifs" to get the audience to take leaps of the imagination. The subject of her talk was "Design as an Enabler of Change," and she pointed out that designers, as professional creative types, have the unique capacity to imagine possibly audacious goals--as well as the ability and resources to turn them into new models for improving lives and policies, as counter-intuitive as such daring goals may seem.

"What if copying were rewarded?" She asked--and then pointed out an example, Living Labs Global, which encourages cities to mimic what works in other cities so that such ideas might improve life in other parts of the world.

"What if collaboration replaced competition...what if we could turn poverty on and off...what if there were no 'dumb people,' just dumb systems which we have adapted?" Best asked the audience.

Sure, many of the concepts she brought up sound very noble and maybe too hard to execute in the "real world," as they might disturb existing perceptions of how business is currently done worldwide. But Best concluded that "aspirational and inspirational propositions" are just as important to consider when shaping new services and products as those that will work within existing systems. In an era of increasingly precise measurements of success or predictions of future success--i.e., data, data, and more data--intentionally following the opposite path of how things have been done just might prove to be the most efficient way to pursue truly new design accomplishments.

DEFINING DATA VISUALIZATION

After Best spoke, Lisa Strausfeld, a former partner at revered design firm Pentagram and recently appointed global head of Data Visualization at financial news organization Bloomberg, took to the stage. Strausfeld's talk, which aligned a narrative of her own professional interest in data from the mid 1990s to today with developments in the business world, also featured a few fresh ideas that pointed toward future paths for design.

"Data [design] should perhaps be part of the curriculum" for graphic design training, Strausfeld said as she opened her talk. Her point was that given the plethora of information that is being shared online by individuals, as well as the increasing numbers of open data sets made available from governments and organizations, future designers should be trained in how to sift through statistics.

She went on to define two types of data visualizations that are often confused with one another today. One type is more of an explanation of data, usually based on a small data set, and is intended to be engaging but limited in scope--this, Strausfeld said, was essentially what an infographic is. The other type of data visualization, which is synonymous with the term itself, is more of an exploration of data. It is associated with the creation of new software tools that can examine big, and even possibly overwhelming, sets of data. These types of visualizations are usually intended for experts looking to interpret or analyze the data in their own ways.

After making these distinctions, she brought up two interesting points that hint at future opportunities for designers. One was that making compelling visualizations of open data can be thought of as a public service, as such visualizations can educate citizens about economics, health, and other topics that influence their well-being. And she drew to a conclusion by posing a question to the audience about the next frontier of big data--albeit in the realm of pure profit: "What is the connection between data and brands?"

Although Best's and Strausfeld's talks were obviously not directly related to one another in terms of content, the two presentations can be seen as pointing toward new directions. Or new ambitions (as the DMI conference is themed)--for designers at all levels and at a variety of both public and private organizations.

Image: albyantoniazzi/Flickr

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Reena Jana

Contributing Editor

Contributing Editor Reena Jana has written for the New York Times, Wired, Harvard Business Review online, Fast Company, Architectural Record, Artforum, Time Out New York, Harper's Bazaar, and GQ. Previously, she was the innovation department editor at BusinessWeek. She holds degrees from Columbia University and Barnard College. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure