This past Thursday, Nov 10, I attended the @Shopify-hosted Toronto screening of @InVision’s documentary Design Disruptors. I had read some good reviews from strangers but a bad one from a colleague, so I determined to go with an open mind to decide for myself.
The movie that was made missed a great opportunity to address a pervasive problem: that design is fundamentally a visible instantiation. As @normapenner noted in the post-screening discussion panel, when most people think ‘design’, what they have in mind is ‘graphic design’.
Here are the real opportunities that Design Disruptors missed.
Where’s the disruption?
With a title “Design Disruptors”, I expected (not unreasonably, I think) to be presented with stories of designers who disrupted some status quo. Instead, we got a series of interviews stitched together without an actual plot that gets advanced. Without a thesis, there was no narrative direction.
With the exception of Salesforce, everyone interviewed for the movie was trying to solve first-world problems and at a rather micro level at that. The focus on small and micro businesses is certainly a valid way to connect with many people. However, the field of play is much, much broader: enterprise, social, political, climate, healthcare, et cetera.
The Salesforce interview talks about solving problems for people needing to get work done but offers no examples. The Google Ventures example of a design sprint betrays the small-time, simplistic business problems that the technique seems designed to solve. I’ve personally tried unsuccessfully to use the Google Ventures design sprint to help to solve complex problems. I’d have loved a case study on how that design technique has helped solve problems that have many threads daisy-chained into a seeming Gordian knot.
Where’s the real design?
All those who were interviewed pay homage to the notion of design as problem solving, but the film never gets past the visual layer. Interspersed among the talking heads are all the clichés of design: graphic design and UI design, all set in a homogeneously Mac environment. One might be forgiven for mistaking the documentary for an Apple infomercial.
The movie that could’ve been made
As @normapenner asked, who’s the real audience? If the intended audience are non-practitioners, they would come away with images of Apple devices, people lovingly drawing boxes and squiggly lines on pieces of paper, and people sitting in beautiful spaces. All the clichés of the design industry: no disruption there.
The scope of the design is so much richer than the film’s focus on first-world problems: how to sell coffee beans online, how to get a different kind of cab, et cetera. How to Facebook in a 2G world is about as real as it got.
The movie that could’ve been made might have demonstrated how design can and should disrupt the status quo, how design is meant to identify and solve problems – almost anything but visual design, which is the myth that needs to be busted. The movie that could’ve been made might show the range and depth of problems that design has identified and solved: third-world, business, social justice, health care, education, political life, community, and yes, some fun first-world problems too.
The lucky iron fish
Have you heard about the lucky iron fish?
Thanks to @khoaski, who shared the story with me when we went for drinks after the movie screening, I walked away from the evening with a real story about a design disruption.
Discovering and identifying the problem
Designing the solution
Armed with this data, Charles released a second iteration. If a plain rectangular bar of iron felt unnatural, what if it was designed with a cue from edible nature: a lotus leaf? And after all, Cambodians could identify with the lotus leaf since it was iconically Buddhist.
Iteration 3 & success
The design strategy to frame the solution from edible nature was still sound. Charles just needed to find a different thing from edible nature. Enter the fish. Fish is a staple of the Cambodian diet, and instead of being a religious icon, it’s a symbol of worldly prosperity.
What story would you have told?
- the third world
- social justice
- health care
- and yes, first-world problems, too.
Do you have stories for how design is disrupting the status quo in these areas? I’d love to hear your stories.