The future of professional design

Tim Brown, CEO of IDEO, spoke yesterday at Google on his new book tour. While many themes of it were familiar to designers, one long-standing trend finally stood out for me.

If, as he argues, the future of design is with engineers, marketers, politicians, nurses, and other regular professions taking up the broad practices of design, then what is the future of the professional designer? Tim hinted that it might well be a facilitation role, guiding teams through the design process but leaving the research, ideation, and prototyping to them. That resonated with me and my current work, where I’ve found most success helping groups of engineers design their own product’s future.

While I still believe there is a future for many types of professional designers, the growth opportunity may be more of a facilitation role than a direct action role. The biggest design opportunities lie in creating entirely new products and services; not in skinning or tweaking the ones we already have. And those big opportunities are best pursued by the engineers and domain experts who can directly implement them, perhaps facilitated by professional designers.

Afterward, I met with a computer science student who was trying to decide whether to pursue a design or engineering career. I advised him that he could take the engineering route and bring design practice into it, to give him short-term direct experience and growing design opportunities over time.

We’re not yet in a world where everyone uses design practices, but we’re rapidly entering one where everyone can. Future professional designers will need to recognize, adapt to, and welcome in lots of new people to our craft.