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Making Sense of Transformation Design

Vrouyr Joubanian, a first year MiD graduate student, summarizes the main principles of transformation design and reflects on his evolving understanding of the role of design and designer.

Two readings from our design seminar this past week, the UK Design Council’s RED Paper 02 and “Transformative Services and Transformation Design” by Daniela Sangiorgi, are a call to action for the creation of yet another new design discipline that applies design skills to social and economic issues through user-centered, interdisciplinary, collaborative and participatory processes. This new discipline, which starts from the perspective of the end user and creates changes and social transformations, is called transformation design.

The RED Paper discusses a shift from the ‘master designer’ to a state where the end user’s needs and experience are essential to the design process. So the user becomes an expert and participates in the design of services, experiences, products and interactions, rather than just being an object of the design process. Since we are in the middle of a user-revolution, where non-trained designers, considered ‘expert users’, are taking the design of products and services into their own hands, questions like ‘what we design’, ‘how we design’, and ‘who designs’ are raised.

The authors go on giving examples of how user-centered design (co-design) is applied to social issues, and provide three basic core skills to this approach:

1. Looking from the point of view of the user of the products and services, designers “immerse themselves in context,” which can help to gain empathy and generate insights on how things could change for the better;

2. Making things visible through the use of visual frameworks (sketches, diagrams, storyboards, etc.), which creates a common platform for discussion, avoids misinterpretation and helps build a shared vision

3. Prototyping by trying solutions and getting in-situ feedback from the users to test out possibilities before committing to building the real thing.

Furthermore, after presenting several case studies, the authors of the RED Paper introduce six characteristics of transformation design:

  • defining and redefining the brief
  • collaborating between disciplines
  • employing participatory design techniques
  • building capacity, not dependency
  • designing beyond traditional solutions
  • creating fundamental change

Daniela Sangiorgi’s article focuses on the application of transformation design to building services that trigger the establishment of collaborative, sustainable, and creative societies. She argues that services are no longer an end, but rather an “engine for wider societal transformations” and enablers of “society-driven innovation.”

She continues discussing the redesign of public services by building collaborative service models and models of co-creation and co-production, which mean “the use of distributed resources, collaborative modes of delivery, and the participation of users in ‘the design and delivery of services, working with professionals and frontline staff to devise effective solutions.’”

She then proposes that designers adopt principles from community action research and make use of them in service design, and follows with seven key principles “that seem to unify transformative practices in design, organizational development and community action research.” These principles are:

  • active citizens
  • intervention at community scale
  • building capacities and project partnerships
  • redistributing power
  • designing infrastructures and enabling platforms
  • enhancing imagination and hope
  • evaluating success and impact

As much as I agree with these general principles and characteristics presented by both RED and Sangiorgi, coming from a product design background, I can’t help but strongly relate to the philosophical and practical challenges that designers face when it comes to transformation design. I have come to a realization that my understanding of design — which I have built through my previous design studies in Lebanon and the Middle East (which is a whole other, juicy, topic of discussion) and work experience — is the traditional view/practice of design, and that makes me uncomfortable when trying to embrace this new discipline of transformation design. Today, we shape behaviors rather than forms.

We don’t focus on products or technology; we focus on society’s needs.
We are not the sole authors of ideas; we are facilitators of others’ ideas.
We don’t work alone and we are not ‘master designers.’
We collaborate with untrained designers; we co-design.
We don’t have finished results anymore, but are creating systems that will change and reconfigure after we have left the scene.
We don’t define good design; we work on developing what’s good enough.

Looks like I’m going through a paradigm shift.

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This entry was posted on Tuesday, October 16th, 2012 at 2:02 pm.