How to create meaningful design
Updated: Jul 31, 2021
Consider this; if nothing in the world were designed, we would still be on the plains as hunter-gatherers. And it’s true – it’s not just the iPhones of the world that are ‘designed’, it includes entire cities, systems, policies and indeed products.
Everything we see, touch and use in our fabricated society has been designed – thus I loathe the naïve assumption that product design is merely pencilling the aesthetic façade of a product. In some settings it might be that, but I prefer to advocate design that solves real problems and provides meaningful value.
Start with why
I will adopt the first step from the concept put forth by Simon Sinek, in his widely-accredited TED talk, Start with why. It’s a beautifully simple concept that is only employed by a minority of innovators. People who are smart enough to recognise the value of understanding why you are doing what you do. He demonstrates this principle with the following diagram:
What Every organisation on the planet knows WHAT they do. The products and services they offer.
How Some organisations know HOW they do it. These are the things that set them apart from the competition.
Why Very few organisations know WHY they do it. It’s a purpose, cause or belief. It’s the very reason the organisation exists.
Using this approach can fundamentally dictate the trajectory of a company and its vision. Therefore, at the outset of every entrepreneurial venture, one should ask ‘why’.
Solve a problem
A follow-up step to figuring out 'why', is to define your challenge with a problem statement. Meaningful design doesn't mean creating something 'just because'. It should be the pursuit of a solution to a validated problem; and there are several reasons for this.
It provides a clear topic on which to focus, preventing distraction.
It provides an indicator for measuring success. You can define criteria for when your solution is 'ready'.
It's an easier sell. There is much more likelihood for commercial interest.
Despite how trivial, many creations can be attributed to solving a problem. It doesn't mean you have to develop a solution to solve climate change. A shelving unit for board games is still solving a problem for someone.
This facet of design thinking suggest great solutions are derived from a deep understanding of the people who interact with it. It's difficult for design to be meaningful if it doesn't sympathise with people - I'm not only talking about the users either, but all stakeholders. It’s about creating a deep understanding toward their needs, desires, challenges. You can read more about this in an upcoming article, but for now, take a look how the experts at IDEO excel in this.
This term has been doing the rounds recently, and I am pretty certain that 70% of design studios are claiming to take a 'holistic approach'. Despite the fashionable exploitation of the term, the subject is well-intended.
The goal of an organisation should not simply be to ship product and make bank. Looking at the design through a holistic lens, we zoom out from the human factors to a systemic level. It evaluates the business model and product lifecycle to ensure economic, societal, political and environmental compatibility. Not only its contribution or output, but how these influences will reflect too. No entity operates within a bubble and a harmonic solution will only happen with careful integration of these factors.
Another principle within the design-o-sphere that creates purpose is the circular economy. This will also allow you to look from a systemic level, to consider how your product and company will co-exist within society. Not only this, but to design a business model and product lifecycle that adopts the key principles of circularity, whereby designing out waste and pollution, keeping resources within use and creating a regenerative system.
This may sound like lofty stuff, but it’s the type of approach every innovator must be taking when looking toward our future! I wrote a more comprehensive article on the subject here.
Including but not limited to...
These topics form a foundation for meaningful design, but the term is subjective and there are certainly other principles to consider. The nature of your venture will inevitably entail more industry-specific concepts. Despite that, I hope this can inspire you to solve real problems and create something meaningful. The world has already exceeded its budget for 'pointless shit' and we have a responsibility to build things with purpose!