Designing better solutions at scale

Designers have the profound power to change the world with our creations, actions and redesigns. This same power multiplies when our actions and product reach scale. Designing a new smartphone, an app, a customer service system or an urban architecture. They trigger a cascading chain of reactions and these reactions have an impact. Both social and ecological.

It’s time for us to take a multidisciplinary approach when confronting scale challenges. Collaborating with business managers and technical experts to together launch ideas for this global economy. We cannot be in our silos anymore. Human behaviour anticipation for what they will click next or scroll to is exciting but we cannot turn a blind eye to the mass ecological resource exhaustion happening around us.

We have the opportunity and the skill to challenge assumptions about the need for constant economic growth. As we design products that improve lives and increase standards. We cannot avoid the negative social and environmental impact of depleting resources, polluting ecosystems and disrupting the health and economic welfare of communities that rely on these ecosystems. Designing at scale includes a range of design actions from creating a service, optimization of existing process and unmaking a creation.

How do you approach these bigger problems?

Consider situations where a product has no utility for the customer or user anymore. Can we design situations where resources aren’t depleted for the sake of that separated customer? Think about the lifespan of designed products. The resources needed to maintain and use the product over time and what expanded utility can the product serve. If the product will become useful or obsolete over time is a temporality that we need to look out for.

Analyze the geographic footprint of a product. Is it accommodating more cultural roles than the personas we designed initially for? It might be a business decision to scale geographically but it’s a conversation that should be taking place. We should share our knowledge about problem discovery and solution exploration globally. We can also visualize the limits of information flows in different parts of this world imposed by infrastructure. Can we design for accommodating these limits of information flows?

The tragedy of the commons

Consider a smartphone designed by a US Corporation, its metals mined in Mongolia, manufactured in China, packaged in a paper produced in Brazil and shipped to a user in the United States. This describes a typical life cycle scenario.

End-user benefits from the phone, corporation profile from sale, miners, factory workers receive economic compensation for labour. Everything seems normal. But we as designers might be unaware of the conditions of the mining site, factory, or the uneven distribution of work practices. We don’t know that the temporal and physical separation of our work from the actual production process is causing harm to different actors in the environment.

This invisibility makes the job of a designer even more challenging. We are never given enough data to know what sociological challenges will be present in our design actions. It can be challenging to get all this information but we have to make an effort even when the systems or products we design are dynamic and disposable.

As a mandate ask yourself these questions –

  • Who is this design for?
  • Do I have all the information I need?
  • Who does it benefit and who does it affect?
  • What needs does the solution solve and what cost?
  • How is the design distributed?

We might say that these aren’t our decisions or problems to deal with. But if we collaborate with experts in says politics, business, urban planning, user behaviour or infrastructure, we can collectively solve these challenges.

What can I do as a designer?

Map out all stakeholders in the system. Primary customers and their primary needs, you, the company, the network of suppliers, providers of service that disposes of the product when it’s broken or no longer works, and secondary populations affected by the design output. Find out leverage points in the system, places where a small change can produce massive impacts.

Keep assessing the life cycle of the products or services that you are designing. This will help find acute impact spots in the system. This kind of Life cycle assessment is useful when dealing with mass-produced products

Think deeply about the consequences of your design actions. Restore exhausted valuable cultural or ecological resources and instill the capacity to pivot your design output in situations with unforeseen challenges