Design, the new frontier of ethical leadership

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The perception of design has evolved in recent years to finally become applicable to all issues and fields and to establish its strategic nature to support businesses and society in general. design continues to reflect on the shape of objects, interior architecture, graphics… but it now embodies all the strategic concerns of transformation of economic and organizational models. by becoming strategic, design has become a management discipline. to help organizations design, produce and sell products or services differently, designers are called upon to take management positions in all public and private structures. universities and design schools will have to adjust their programs to observe and support this evolution.

From creation and applied arts

During a recent conference at the China Academy of Fine Arts – CAFA – in Beijing, an event organized by Cumulus, the International Association of Universities and Schools of Design, Professor Cai Jun from the prestigious Tsinghua University – Beijing presented recent developments in perception of design as a creative dis- cipline. Traditionally attached to Applied Arts, design has long accompanied developments in technology and in particular those in materials and their transformation. In its industrial posture, design made it possible to rediscover the semiotic values of artisanal work in mass production. It accompanied the industrial era of what is technologically possible and economically profitable.

Designers have traditionally sought to return to handwork to signify a return to a certain Humanism at a time when assembly lines excluded or alienated. They left the strategic financial, commercial and more recently marketing positions to others to validate profitability, costs, market needs, price, performance. Engineers, marketers and financiers traditionally dominated organizations. Designers were the artisans of form, creation and transgression, sometimes marginal and perceived as such.

Innovation and experience : towards a strategic position 

But everything changed when the paradigm of innovation has shaken up the paradigm of mass production and quality. Traditionally, this is what Taylor teaches us in his work “Scientific Management” published in 1911, the industrial paradigm is based on the following technoscientific project: “Doing better and better what you can do”. If this is the case, the company has the opportunity to do better than its competitors and, benefiting from better profitability, to stay in a position of sustainable leadership. This model works perfectly when companies are subject to equivalent market and production conditions and when competition is fair. Globalization has obviously completely challenged this model, all industries are shaken by the arrival of new international operators who operate with other conditions, especially social ones, and which unbalance the levers of competition.

From then on, design can change its nature. From a discipline of creation, it becomes a discipline of innovation, allowing to speculate on uses and on experience to define the contours and curves of future products and services. It becomes strategic for all companies concerned about their future. The designer now represents uses, no longer draws cars and furniture but mobility and the experience of use. He draws them and gives them sense of the management of global issues.

If the evolution is notable, it is nevertheless not very far from the profession and the practices of the origins. It is the context of the companies which changes, not the intention, nor even the mission of the designer. But evolution is decisive. The position loses its tactical character in favor of a more strategic one. It’s about representing the uses of tomorrow to help structures to innovate. For many companies, use has taken precedence over consumption in their strategic thinking to anticipate markets and prefig- ure them. The designer can “draw” the contours of a future use without there being any definition of consumption needs and for which, in fact, Marketing is powerless.

Digital has perfectly accompanied this evolution in the perception and role of design. Many new services were born without any real need being detected. No wristwatch consumer asked for smart watches, no phone user wanted to be able to pay with their mobile. Designers have represented this world to make it real, objective, acceptable and desirable. Designers have become these digital professionals, able to appropriate both the IT and scientific technological approach, the use and the meaning of what should be done with it. The search of graphic know-how makes up the rest of the aesthetic approach.

From profit to sense

The world is upset by two major changes in context that will profoundly modify our environments: the emergence of societal responsibilities and duties to save resources and limit global warming, and the evolution of the Human– Machine relationship as soon as robots equipped with artificial intelligence will be more intelligent than the Human who built them.

The consumer society on which wealth generation is based operates on the pillar of market renewal. Each time a white goods company sells a dishwasher, it generates added value, as much wealth as it redistributes in part, first to its em- ployees, then to society in the form of taxes, to the owners of the company finally. The company is growing because it regularly sells new products that replace old ones. The foun- dation of capitalist development is linked to this perpetual renewal. The emergence of environmental and responsible awareness encourages another model, that of saving re- sources, sobriety and sharing. A dishwasher must be able to operate for many years and be repaired to avoid having to change it. It is about saving the resources necessary to save the planet. Likewise, and since social networks allow it, the same dishwasher must be shared between several families in order to optimize its performance. If the dishwasher runs for one hour a day, it will have to be shared with 23 families, thus auguring profound changes in our homes and our life in society in general.

For the designer, the playground is vast and conducive to all speculation on the side roads. Gradually, the consumer society will be replaced by a contribution economy, where each consumer will make a moral as well as an economic choice, as soon as he/she consumes, especially as he/she is encouraged or forced to do so, by the law.

Companies must adapt to continue to develop, for many, the challenge is to move from product to service and to change their model: “What else can we do with what we know how to do?” is the new industrial paradigm, that of innovation.

Corporate Social Responsibility is a “hoax” if it involves making people believe that the company sells products out of duty rather than out of interest. No one believes the head of a capitalistic organization who claims to take care of its customers and its markets out of moral duty. “You should not count on the goodwill of your butcher to have good meat, but rather hope that he manages his own interests well” Adam Smith reminds us. A company has never sold anything out of duty, always out of interest. Moralizing the company as a system is a mistake. Don’t believe the business manager who tells you he loves you, unless you have to whip yourself when you are rejected. The company has an economic virtue, not a moral one.

On the other hand, and this is the main thing, all companies will have to adapt to a new awareness among customers towards a desired and planned sobriety. The responsibility of the designer is directly involved in this transformation, and it is important not to be suspicious of anyone or any structure. Once again, it’s about building. The designer is the architect of social responsibility. Think and build tomorrow means doing so more soberly, otherwise having to definitively set the limits, those of life on earth.

Global warming, waste of resources, carbon production… certainly threaten our humanity. But another issue is per- haps even more prominent at this risk even if it is less publicized as a generator of disasters. Industrial design has its roots in the concern of the first designers to find the semiotic codes of craftsmanship in the industrial production of the early 20th century. The “anthropophage” machine as it is metaphorically represented by Charlie Chaplin in “Modern Times” invites us to reflect of the role of humans in their relationship to the machine.

The robot equipped with artificial intelligence poses the same problem. It’s about answering the question: “what does it mean to be human, once robots are more intelligent than us? “. Which of the old lady crossing the street or the plane tree on the side of the road, the remote-controlled car decides to hit once we are no longer drive it and it is autonomous? What about our avatars who do the shopping for us and bring back the meals for the week at the same time as they choose our menus? What about exoskeletons or other bionic prostheses when they allow us to run faster than the Olympic champion? What does it mean to be human when the robots will be smarter than we are ?

The emergence of societal awareness and new human-machine relationships are the two major issues that now guide all the pedagogy of design schools. Each project, each creation, each scenario will be imbued with these two issues which constitute the link and the knot of all the others, they force us to give meaning to a desirable tomorrow.

Elsebeth Gerner Nielsen, rector emeritus of the “designskolen – Kolding” in Denmark writes : “Companies of the 19th and 20th centuries asked themselves the question of what was technologically possible and economically profitable, those of the 21st ask themselves the question of what makes sense.” So what role for the designer whose action has become strategic, obviously that of giving meaning, of representing, of producing images, of writing scenarios for a more sober and more human world. If it is a question of transforming businesses and society in general and projecting ourselves into a desirable world, then the designer must occupy the most strategic positions tomorrow.

Ethics as a new frontier

Emmanuel Levinas writes: “Morality makes us feel sorry for those who are hungry, Ethics obliges us to feed them. “. Ethics requires action, it is no longer a question of think- ing about the world or drawing it as one would like, it is a question of building it. Beyond his position as a giver of meaning, the designer becomes a builder and symbolically returns to the origins of Applied Arts and the work of the hand. How to build tomorrow is the key question.

The place of the designer in tomorrow’s organizations is central and decisive for structures that think about their future. We must act to help them design, produce and sell differently. They will be forced to do so by the standards which will undoubtedly be promulgated at a time when political leaders begin to legislate to limit carbon production or are tempted to limit certain industries for the benefit of others.

They will also be forced to do so by changes in consumption. The consumer will want to obtain guarantees of responsibility from companies. The consumer will  become a citizen-consumer.

The development is interesting because it will revolutionize the UX design approach, which could become an approach much more focused on the consumer who has become a citizen. UX could be re- placed by CX design. The “consumer experience” devotes both the experience, the sense but also consumption which becomes acceptable as soon as it is reasoned. CX design could replace marketing focused solely on profitability.

Finally, industrial requirements will change completely in nature, the inability to rely on the renewal of markets to order its activity, will force all companies to ask themselves the question of moving from product to service. Dishwasher manufacturers will have to move from selling a machine to marketing “hours of operation” of the machine. Designers are called upon to occupy strategic positions because industrial and commercial models are shaken up by innovation and the duty to change all paradigms.

The concept of ethical leadership

Ethics obliges us to act. Design thinking has only laid the foundations for thoughtful design. Nothing will remain except memories of post-it meetings during which everyone feels free of their creativity. Without a scientific basis other than a drawing to justify that creative thinking went in all directions, and therefore had none, it will not be able to survive except as a recreational step in the emergence of the designer towards strategic and management functions.

Design thinking” is dead, give way for “design doing”.

The role of Design Schools in learning and training must change in nature and prepare students to become entrepreneurs of their own idea. It is a profound evolution of the programs that needs to be done. Most programs are focused on learning techniques, while these will be assumed tomorrow by intelligent robots. Thinking that robots will not be able to create is a mistake. We will have taught them to do it and to take our place in all technical activities. It remains for humans to take the position of manager and facilitator of what machines will be able to do. This is the challenge of tomorrow’s design positioning. If the design has become strategic and if the technical tasks are assumed by Artificial Intelligence, if it is a question of giving meaning to science, technology and/or marketing and finance, then design becomes the key function. But this will only be possible if design schools profoundly change their program towards more professionalization, understanding of the economy, organizations and the levers of their development. The challenge of hybridizing disciplines between science, humanities, business and design is becoming imperative. It is the objective towards the strategic functions that should be ordered. Student designers can no longer just create and leave their creation to others, it is about entrepreneurship. They are called to become the leaders of this profound economic revolution more moral responsibility and sobriety. They must be leaders on the condition that they are aware of it and that schools allow them to objectify this result. Or design will only remain on the margins while top-strategic positions are largely open to them.

Christian Guellerin

*Conference of Professeur CAI JUN – Tsinghua University – Beijing October 2023 – “Evolvement of the role of design : efficiency, experience, meaning, ethics” – working group Cumulus “Design, business and strategy” chaired by Christian Guellerin – Honorary President of Cumulus.

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