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Latest Trends in Design and Innovation--And Why The Debate Over Design Thinking is Moot

Sorry for the silence but I've been in the field observing the practice of Design with a capital

Sorry for the silence but I’ve been in the field observing the practice of Design with a capital “D.” I just returned from observing ZIBA Design’s amazing new headquarters in Portland and before that I visited with Smart Design in NYC and talked with Continuum in Boston. The good news is that the field of Design is evolving at an amazing clip, moving into new and exciting spaces. And with that, the business model of Design is changing as well. The bad news is that Design education and the conversation about Design Thinking are falling further and further behind the reality of Design.

Here’s what I saw in the field:

1- The strongest market demand for Design today from private companies and public organizations is for strategy. CEOs and other leaders are turning to innovation/design consultancies for help in

shaping brand strategies and even broader organizational strategies. The demand for Design Thinking to help navigate the present and future is perhaps the most powerful force on Design today, at least among the big consultancies based in the US. ZIBA is working for a big Chinese consumer company, helping it brand itself in China a well as the global marketplace . It is also creating a US-based "university" to help impart Design Thinking culture to managers.

Public entities are the latest organizations to turn to Design to reshape their organizations and cultures. The entire Finnish Parliament visited IDEO as part of a program to reset Parliament's organization and culture. Demand for designing large scale social organizations is growing.

2-- Demand for products, services and experiences from the same design/innovation consultancies is growing as well. The "doing" part of design is very strong. In fact, as the economy pulls out of the Great Recession, there are signs that the corporate demand for things to sell is about to take off. All four consultancies, ZIBA, Smart, Continuum and IDEO are designing stuff as well as designing strategies. Smart and IDEO worked on the new interactive dashboard for the Ford Fusion hybrid that just came out. It doesn't present information, it actively engages the driver, providing data to guide the person to drive more efficiently and boost mileage. They designed a productive game to play.

In short, there is no dichotomy between the thinking and the doing in these design consultancies. The market isn't asking for choices. It is asking for options. Some companies want the strategy only, some the stuff only, many want both. There is stronger demand among companies in Asia for the design of stuff and growing demand among organizations in the US and Europe for the design of brands and strategy. But again, many companies want both.

3-- Design practice is increasingly about relationships, not projects. Sohrab Vossoughi emphasized how relationships dominate his practice today. Deep relationships with clients over time are critical. ZIBA is giving much of the best space in its new headquarters to its clients. Deep relationships among the staff are crucial. Interdisciplinary workteams are the norm. In fact, Sohrab talks about "tribes" not teams. "We must integrate, integrate, integrate all our people," he said. And deep relationships with the community are vital to keeping ZIBA current with the latest in culture and society. ZIBA built a beautiful auditorium opening directly onto the street at its new headquarters, so local artists, musicians and community people can have a place to perform--and where Zibans can go and learn.

4-- A new VCD (Venture Capital Design) model is emerging. Yves Behar's fuseprojects and others are funding new brands either directly or with partners. Designers are using their talent for spotting new trends and their ability to translate insights into new products and services to directly create new brands, instead of doing it for large companies. Smart began the trend by taking royalty positions in OXO in other brands many years ago as part of its compensation. This has expanded to funding new brands. A VCD model embraces both strategy and stuff and adds investment to the mix.

Venture Capital firms are turning to Behar and other Designers to bring them brands and concepts. This is a new role for Designers.

So where does this reality of Design fit into the discussion of Design within academia? Not well. There is a big gap between Design practitioners (at least at the top consultancies) and Design educators. The debate over doing and thinking taking place within Design Thinking is moot and meaningless in the marketplace. When design consultancies are asked to set up their own "universities" to teach design to corporate managers public leaders as IDEO and ZIBA have done, then we must ask why design schools aren't playing that role.

So, as a Professor of Innovation and Design at The New School and Parsons, I ask-- why aren't design schools playing this role?

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