Giving Substance and Shape to the Future

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Interview done at the launch of the joint work, THE NEW TERRITORIES OF DESIGN; Giving Substance and Shape to the Future – Atlantica Publishing – December 2017 – in partnership with the Landes Chamber of Commerce and Industry.

In what way will the future of business rely on Design? On what topics and questions, including the meaning of business, has Design become indispensable?

The future of business depends on its ability to innovate. In response to a growing line-up of curve balls from radically-changing contexts, businesses today have no other choice, especially if unable to change at a moment’s notice, but to constantly adapt and reinvent themselves if they are to ensure market sustainability.

The times, they are a-changin’… And the changes, they are a-comin’! The eco-conscious are out to save the planet, those on the geopolitical front have to contend with the latest market superpowers, while cultural scene-goers, disheartened, acknowledge the increasingly slippery slope down which moral integrity is sliding, giving Law full rein to do anything but justice. Tack on the questions surrounding the purpose of democracy and the politicians behind it, economic globalization with its exponentially-growing information transfer, the digital transition, population ageing and the protein transition, it won’t take long to realize how urgent it has become to revamp the world in its entirety, and reinstate the fundamentals that have fallen by the wayside. If experience is vital to all things, experimentation, or better yet, foresight, is of the essence.

Speculative in nature, Design keeps a continuous eye on the practices of tomorrow. It sketches them out, depicts them, and gives them shape, purpose and meaning. In turn, these practices offer accessibility to a broad and diverse user base. Similarly, the meaning and value Design attributes to them enables them to adopt an ethically-sound posture. As an economic discipline, Design’s inherent strategic orientation is a formidable asset when it comes to looking ahead, decision-making, and assisting businesses to be more forward-thinking because they can no longer afford to not be so. They need not only to anticipate the changes ahead, but implement the appropriate measures with which to adjust to them. Cranking out better products than the competitor doesn’t cut it anymore these days; the real and only way to be one step up from the competition is to grasp as early as possible the mutations undergone by the societies in which we live.

Putting into words a company’s meaning and values goes without saying; however, special care must be taken when incorporating ethics and economics into the mix. Whether one likes it or not, the capitalist system has always been one to offer the most freedom and emancipation to all, for its purpose is, was, and shall be around generating added value and profit. Businesses, followed by society as a whole, are responsible for distributing this profit as fairly as possible. The task is far from easy, and its subjective nature raises eyebrows. Generating wealth is a good thing, so we should praise those who invest their time and energy into making that happen. Kudos to them, for our future depends on it.

That said, to think that a company can sell its products because it has to with complete disregard for its best interest is not wise. Morals and capitalism are not compatible. The latter is not immoral, but amoral. Once this has registered, a company is obligated to question its moral responsibility, its place in society, its values and its identity. Its duty is not only an ethical question, but also a strategic one. It goes hand-in-hand with that aimed at generating added value. The urgency of the situation is exacerbated only more given a context whose codes have been shaken up, wherein our most prized values crumble and wherein moral sense is ridiculed by cultural assimilation in a world gone global. A duty, yes. But also a need.

This need is best embodied through neo-managerial experiments. There is talk of CSR (Corporate Social Responsibility) and F-Form (Freedom-Form) companies. The “Made in France” concept is also spun in such as way that the marketing adept can but enthusiastically nod their head in agreement. Be careful, though, not to fall into the trap, and be sure to clearly distinguish between what you hear and what you see. How socially responsible is a company if, on the one hand, it preaches lower CO2 emissions, and yet turns a blind eye to the 4x4s sitting on its lot that it voluntarily continues to manufacture? And what about those who would like us to believe that work may be deemed a “liberating pastime” or that manufacturing in France would not morally ban sales outside of France?

Raising the question of meaning is another story. It is both a strategic and managerial responsibility. The need to be able to change quickly and to shift from one profession to another are primordial in a world turned upside-down by extreme transformations. Change no longer results from the ability to manufacture or sell a product or service better than the next, but from the connotation, intention and role played in laying the groundwork for the future. Apple does not make iPhones; it seeks Promethean status, claiming to connect mortals with God. The Post Office no longer sorts mail or sells stamps; it keeps the social thread with the entire population of a territory intact. Nestlé doesn’t sell yogurt anymore; it feeds the planet. From the moment ethics becomes an indispensable and non-negotiable factor in business activities, companies are then able to optimize performance by enhancing not only their change intelligence measures, but also their potential to move from one sector to another without having to change professions by going about it differently using tried-and-true, industrial and marketing references.

Yet again, Design has this gift of reflecting change and giving it purpose. Crafting and communicating to more effectively illustrate tomorrow, putting it to use in products, packaging, space planning and multimedia tools; all are ways that enable ownership and acceptance. They also give substance to the future, making it less obscure, and therefore, less daunting. The strategic and managerial advantages offered by Design give businesses the invaluable edge needed to make sound projections.

You say that designers resolve uncertainty. What do you mean by that? What “soft skills” do designers possess to innovate and adapt in order to tackle the unknowns and changes in the practices and markets of tomorrow?

Tomorrow, by nature, is unpredictable. What will life be like? What world will we leave behind for our children? What kind of world do our children have in store for us? When we delve a bit further, the founding fathers of our societies are being gradually phased out by a digital culture whose technological ascension seems to be indispensably and inevitably light years ahead of anything that has gone before it and on which our grip will, ultimately, give way. Nowadays, the emphasis is on Artificial Intelligence, robots, the end of the working era and even eternity for the purposes of replacing God, not to mention the afterlife built by men as a means to managing the end of all things and what lies beyond it. In sum, it has to do with the end of our Mankind, overridden by another type of intelligence.

Depending on the meaning we attribute to it, tomorrow may be hopeful or hellish. For designers, tomorrow is an opportunity wherein they draw, detail, and depict. Meaning is then injected into ideas, which, in turn, take on a concrete dimension, making them available and accessible to a broad public. Designers experiment, implement, and portray authenticity and truth. They look ahead with the goal to shift things in a forward direction. Their role and creativity are in sync with a world whose demands change constantly. Their ethical posture clearly measures up to Marx’s 11th thesis on Feuerbach wherein he states, “Philosophers have hitherto only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it.”* Designers do just that by giving it shape and scope.

On the company level, implementing change is a challenge that comprises a certain number of unknowns associated with a risk factor for stress generation  among employees both in-house and externally. What changes is the company to undergo? Will we have the appropriate skill sets to satisfy the demands of the new entity? Will we have what it takes to acclimate accordingly? What is the likelihood tomorrow that I make something I’ve never made up to now? What are the chances that I sell something other than what I have always sold and in other markets, for which my know-how is recognized and compensated through an incentive program based on sales figures and to customers I’ve yet to meet?

The designers’ role is to make all changes down the line objective and to apply this practice across the board in a company. This goes not only for the company’s products, but also its environment, strategy and structure. It involves bringing all internal and external decision-makers together under one roof to take part in a brainstorming session on tomorrow in order to devise a roadmap aimed at visualizing, ascertaining, understanding and accepting the change management process. Design is a management tool. We talk of Design Thinking, but that is a misnomer; it really is just Design. As such, designers remove all the drama from the question marks surrounding the future that we all apprehend, consciously and responsibly, in one way or another. Interestingly, the meaning of the verb, ‘to apprehend’, underlines the anxiety we feel is conveyed by the future. Apprehending means not only perceiving or grasping, but also fearing or dreading. It is a reflection on what we do not know and what makes us wary.

Designers have become project managers. In addition to their technical savvy, they know how to get their point across, share, bring others on board, give rise to others’ ideas, tweak where necessary while remaining loyal to the authors’ style and content. Likewise, they have gauged the inner workings of a company’s operations, and have seized the greater corporate picture. The designers’ place in a company is no longer limited to their technical expertise, although it is of utmost importance when it comes to management. They are the managers of tomorrow in a company whose strategic intelligence ought to exceed what has always been done.

You are Head of a Design school, and are very closely involved with the issues facing Design Education. Is Design instruction approached differently today? Does it incorporate a more strategic angle?

I firmly believe that Design schools are the Management schools of tomorrow. Both the technical and artistic (Applied Arts) dimensions are taught. Studies revolve around products, space planning, graphic design and design, and more recently, interactivity, digital culture tools and their myriad applications.

Design, though, has become a Management discipline, and it is best seen in the complexity of the issues addressed. Design Master’s programs are dedicated to becoming innovation platforms, pooling insight from those representing a plethora of fields, including Design, Engineering, Sales, Finance, Philosophy and Sociology, to name but a few. Every skill is an asset, enabling groups to brainstorm and ideas to take root. Design’s reach has spanned the globe in the same way as it has spanned academic disciplines. Its relevance is irrefutable when it comes to burning issues faced by those the world over and businesses alike, including: the digital culture and its numerous uses in products and services, population ageing, changes in eating habits, water access, the cities of tomorrow, mobility and human migration. The École de design Nantes Atlantique recently created a Public Policy Innovation Professorship. It will play an integral part in the development process given its interaction with those individuals from both the economic and political sectors in the communities concerned. It will be crucial in defining an identity and in ensuring economic reinforcement and growth.

Lastly, at a time when industries are becoming international, global and stateless, where Business, Marketing and Finance have become worldwide, where Science, by definition, is universal, it is reassuring to think that Design rests on one culture, one identity, one history and one memory. Being a French designer or having studied in France carries meaning with it as soon as one sets foot outside the country. All designers should recall that before becoming someone, they come from somewhere.

*« Thèses sur Feuerbach », Karl Marx, dans Œuvres, Karl Marx, Maximilien Rubel, éd. Gallimard, coll. « Bibliothèque de la Pléiade », 1982  (ISBN 978-2070109913), vol. III (Philosophie), p. 1033.

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