Designers as Changemakers

In recent years, designers have begun to take on new professional roles and identities in tandem with the use of digital technologies and the emergence of new categories of design work such as interaction design, service design and strategic and organizational design.  Based on a two-year National Science Foundation funded study of collaboration with designers and design educators in four countries, we describe four common types of design roles that are prevalent today. Specifically, in contrast to earlier models in which individual designers were considered to be creative geniuses that were single-handedly responsible for the success of their studio or practice, today’s designers are more likely to take on roles in which they work collaboratively with their clients in a number of ways. For example, many designers describe themselves as neutral facilitators of a process in which they enable a group to reach a shared understanding of specific problems and appropriate solutions. Others believe that their primary role is as a teacher and/or educator. In this case, they work closely with their clients in order to impart specific design skills, methods and tools, which can then be performed by their clients at a later date without the guidance of the designers. Finally, some designers identify not a facilitators or educator but as activists and change-makers that are charge with steering society in a specific direction with respect to sustainability. Perhaps one of the most important roles of designers is to “design” their own professional identities and firms by coming up with novel language to describe their roles, methods and philosophies. Specifically, one Spanish designer, describes himself as a “metadesigner,” which signifies the move beyond specific products or objects and towards a more holistic and systems-based understanding of the role of design in contemporary life.

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