Change vs. Experience

Surveying the rhetoric by the candidates vying to be the next president, two major themes emerge: change and experience. Each of the major candidates are trying to position themselves as embodying or representing one of those ideals. Hillary = Experience, while Obama = Change. McCain = Experience, while Romney/Huckabee = Change. But regardless of personal political affiliations and favorites, I can’t help but think as a designer that these themes are exactly what designers struggle with daily with clients and projects. Change and experience are simply inherent to design.

Change is fundamentally what design is all about, in my view. More accurately, positive change, for the better. As Herb Simon declared in what has come to be regarded as a canonical work of modern design theory The Sciences of the Artificial, “everyone designs who devises courses of action aimed at changing existing situations into preferred ones”. In this regard, designers are quite simply “change agents” in the conception, planning, and creation of solutions that help people. There are of course levels of change and impact, depending upon the contingencies, constraints and circumstances that define a given situation, or the scope of it. A change may involve the decision to use a different typeface as the corporate brand (see Apple), or commercializing technologies that support fluid, direct manipulation (see iPhone and Wii), or reshaping the entire business model with user participation (see Netflix or YouTube). There is change of the artifact itself, and of course change of user behavior and attitudes, towards a more positive user engagement and thus purchase/referral/repeat usage, favoring the business cycle. Darrel Rhea of Cheskin suggests there is a “continuum of innovation” from incremental improvements, to evolutions, to inventions, to entire industry transformations, that represent different fields of opportunity for designers.

Experience means a couple things for designers. There is of course the extensive background knowledge and past experience from prior clients and projects that help evolve a designer’s competency to shape/drive a vision in later situations. This kind of experience is an ongoing learning process, natural and necessary for future success. And there is the concept of designing to improve a user’s quality of experience or engagement, between himself and the “other”: product, service, system, environment, etc. It’s a complex milieu of psychological, phenomenological, and emotional issues/materials. Designing to improve the user’s experience has become a paramount goal for all designers, regardless of the resulting artifact, whether a poster or a system. Thinking about the quality of that engagement is a critical consideration when designing, in addition to the craft aspects of the artifact.

Finding a designer who has the experience to make change, that is hugely valuable! Such person must simultaneously hold passionate idealism, yet be able to arbitrate the practical realities of a situation, taking pragmatic courses of action to enable the ideals to manifest successfully in a realized form one can be proud of. To me that’s a powerful ideal to strive for, and perhaps the hardest to achieve as designers seeking to improve the lives of ordinary people.

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