The Future of Design: Bright, Multidisciplinary, Still Hard to Explain


Seeing as last night’s panel “The Future of Design” was especially X chromosome-friendly, we dispatched lady writer Stephanie Murg to the scene, who filed this report.

A: What do you do?
B: I’m a designer.
A: Oh, cool, I love fashion!

Uh, no, not that kind of designer. The above exchange was familiar to several of the panelists and many of the audience members at “The Future of Design,” the panel discussion held last night at Cooper Union. The discussion focused on the increasingly complex nature of design, a field no longer driven by lone geniuses at the drafting table but by ethnography- and focus group-based research, briefs that seek systems and guidelines rather than single solutions, and multidisciplinary teams that make sure to “take the client along for the ride.”

“Design used to be a profession that people could understand without much explanation,” said moderator Chee Pearlman (director of Chee Company), kicking off the discussion with a mention of the old-school “I designed this!” pronouncements of Raymond Loewy. “Now, design is not really a field about authorship. It’s a field that’s evolving so fast that it’s hard to define what a designer does.”

And what a designer does is getting more and more complex. Etienne Fang, strategic director at Cheskin, gave the example of one of her recent projects for a large consumer packaged goods company that tasked Cheskin with helping them to understand what beauty is and how people feel and experience it. Fang predicts an increasingly user-focused, analytical design world, one where designers “zoom out” by asking “What is dental hygiene?” rather than “What does the perfect toothbrush look like?”

The importance of promoting broader forms of “design thinking” was also emphasized by frog design creative director Rie Norregaard, who said that clients are now asking not for single beautiful objects but “new systems that can be used to create multiple products.”

For panelist Elizabeth Pastor, co-founder of Humantific and NextD, one client request is emblematic of where design may be heading. She recounted being called in by a client her firm had worked with previously. When asked what the new project was, the client replied, “We want you to help us improve the quality of our thinking,” a nod to the effectiveness of Pastor’s method of “carrying the client along with you” in the design process, taking them through each step and the thinking behind design decisions.

In today’s DIY world, “There’s now the need and expectation to back up design with strategy and thinking,” said Imagination‘s Leslie Wellott. She gave the example of one of her favorite products: Pangea Organics, a line of “eco-centric” beauty products that feature biodegradable, seed-containing packaging that can be planted rather than thrown away. “Today, everyone can make something beautiful, but a designer can make something thoughtful.”