Dirk Knemeyer

Design Globalization: a conversation

Originally published at LukeW

Design Globalization: a conversation about the impact of large scale global changes, outsourcing and international design/training firms on design and designers.

Dirk Knemeyer (DK): The original Design Futures conversation touched on a lot of different things, but one of the points that really deserves the most attention is globalization. While the offshoring of jobs from the U.S. continues to get most of the press, the reality and impact of globalization is so much more nuanced and complex. At the most basic level, globalization is:

* Creating a dramatically larger knowledge workforce

* Creating a culturally and geographically diverse knowledge workforce

* Creating new, emerging consumer markets

* Extending the capitalist paradigm into heretofore “underdeveloped” cultures

* Creating new cross-culture complexity (and opportunities) for expansion-minded companies and products

* Creating myriad new companies, originating in new cultures and with different mindsets, vision and strategies

And this is just for starters. But what I hope this list clearly communicates is the real breadth and impact of globalization: for designers, business, culture, governments – everyone in the developed or developing world.

I know that each of you have some really thoughtful and well-formed insights on globalization; Niti, thinking about the future of design in the context of globalization, why don’t you kick off our conversation?

Niti Bhan (NB): Dirk, you bring up some good points here in your articulation of what globalization ‘is’ and cover the majority of the aspects of the shifts we’re all seeing, online and off. However, contentious little soul that I am, I’d like to take your thoughts one step further into the abstraction layer. Every point that you make adds complexity to the “flux”, since it seems to me that we are at an inflexion point here. And this inflection point is one that covers the overlap of not just of business and design but an overlap of design, business, culture, government, and people. I go back to what I wrote in the Fall of 2005, with reference to the “flux”:

I think that if we take business, technology and society (people) as three inter-dependant spheres, they, too, are in such a state of “knife-edge equilibrium” or precarious balance. At any given time, one changes – new products emerge, new technology is invented, new ways of relating/communicating – they usher in changes in the other spheres by their very inter – relatedness.

And in my opinion, the very nature of globalization is what is emerging from this “flux”. That is to say, that whereas earlier the ‘three spheres’ were geographically bound, within the context of the state of the art in global communications, today, these spheres of influence are on a global scale. Look at us creating this document across miles, collaboratively.

Now, to bring it back to thinking about the future of design, I believe that designers are in a particularly unique position, only because of their ability to recognize patterns, an inherent quality of the profession. To quote my post once more,

“That is, it could be said, that the interstitial spaces between these three areas are always in limnos. I also believe that it is in these liminal spaces that innovation occurs, naturally, as limnos, is always the threshold or the in between and to innovate, means to create something new. You could use the way a kaleidoscope works as a metaphor.”

And, metaphors are part and parcel of the visual designer’s craft. What do you think?

Luke Wroblewski (LW): Niti, so what I hear you saying is that the overlaps between business, technology, and people are increasing and that these broader overlaps are at least partially responsible for the greater impact of change found in today’s global economy. Because there’s more of an overlap between people and the technology they use -always on/always with you mobile phones and “infinite” memory via personal computers to name a few- any change in technology more quickly and directly impacts people. Likewise for technology and business and for business and people.

This increasing flux -which I’m defining as an increasing rate of impactful change on business, technology, and people caused by any one of the three- has an obvious impact on business strategy. To put it quite simply: the strategies of many businesses are in an ever-present state of flux. Things change frequently, and the impact of those changes is felt quickly. For me, this signifies why design and designers are becoming increasingly important to business strategy. To succeed today, many companies need to be able to:

1. Make sense of an increasingly complex market (especially one that is in a constant state of flux)

2. React and adapt quickly (learn to function within a state of flux)

3. Become increasingly aware of context (both cultural and temporal)

Design can help accomplish these goals:

1. As Niti mentioned, an inherent ability to recognize patterns enables designers to find relationships within the flux and their storytelling skills (visual communication and metaphor) allow them to communicate those patterns and their meaning to others.

2. Rapid prototyping and a “design is never done” philosophy make the design process well suited to react and adapt quickly to changing markets. Bruce Sterling articulated why design is always in a state of flux in Shaping Things: “People are time bound entities transiting from cradle to grave. Any ‘solved problem’ that involves human beings solves a problem whose parameters must change through time. A thing is no more stable than the humans who cherish it. Properly understood, a thing is not merely a material object, but a frozen technosocial relationship.” With globalization we also need to consider global technosocial relationships whose parameters shift when viewed though the lens of culture.

3. The right design answer is always: “it depends”. Context determines the right technosocial relationship for people at any given time. As Richard Farson put it : “Designers … create situations. (environments, forms, rituals, experiences, relationships, systems) and situations are far more determining of human behavior than are character, personality, habit, genetics, etc. Nobody smokes in church, no matter how addicted.”

It’s the last point about context that particularly interests me. As a designer and visual communicator, for me context is always king. But how do I address continually shifting context in a highly networked global economy? Is the answer more or less control? Open systems that enable multiple dynamic situations or closed system with clearly defined experiences?

Joseph O’Sullivan (JO): Let me first take one of Dirk’s points in defining Globalization: “creating a culturally and geographically diverse knowledge workforce” and couple it with Luke’s question concerning understanding the shifting context of a networked economy. Here I believe lies the opportunity for Design. Designers will be able to understand the shifting context by embracing the diverse knowledge workforce of other Designers around the world. Who better, other than an end user, to offer insights on a Design intended for a specific region or country, than another designer in that location? I am involved in many more conversations regarding the growing concern around the off shoring and near shoring of design jobs than I am on how our industry as a whole is going to gain from the movement.

My exposure to Designers in Asia has always been very encouraging. Their desire to embrace a user centered design approach is tremendous. This implies more products centered on user need/desire, driving bottom-line growth on a global scale has the potential to shine on a brand new light on the value of our discipline around the world. Our ability to leverage the success of this work will make a difference for our profession, our clients, and the consumers who use them.

Being a realist, that success is going to take some effort. If you took “the red pill, Neo” that opened your eyes to a User Centered Design approach, Globalization offers a complexity in your work that you might not have signed on for. It’s hard enough keeping track of the 2-3 personas for the U.S. release of your product, now add a 30-year housewife in Berlin. How will we judge your global success? Shall we use the Hasslehoff measure? You’re really, really big in Germany, but nowhere else — will that be good enough? Don’t think so. Get one country right before you move to another? Too slow. What if you only nail it for the “housewife” in Berlin, but loose in the U.S.? Back your bags, you’ve just been transferred to Munich. What will you have gained or learned?

Luke, I think you nailed it on the head when you stated the challenge as being “designing for a shifting context”. I’ll give you an example; we were recently discussing a product launch in Taiwan. Of course one of the questions was: “Will this meet the needs and desires of the Taiwanese people we are designing for?” Well, there is a interesting phenomenon happening in some countries in Asia right now. Korean youth culture/style is starting to drive culture in other Asian markets.

It should also be noted that Korean soap operas are killing in the ratings outside of Korea as well.

But I digress, back to Korean youth culture. What is influencing Korean youth culture/style? The answer: a mixture of early 90s U.S. B-boy styles and current NBA sports gear. Where does that put you as the designer, do you trend watch Taiwan or Korea? Probably both. Sugarhill Gang or the Knicks? Again, both…

So, how will we design for the “shifting global context”? I believe it is going to take an open source network of designers and researchers leveraging skill sets and intellectual property in ways we have not experienced. What do you think?

DK: A convergence that I’m seeing in this dialog is the inextricable relationship between design and culture. While this is an important part of the very DNA of design in a traditional sense, this connection has been largely absent from the digital design community. After all, since a majority of design professionals in strictly digital contexts lack formal design education and traditional training, they did not enjoy exposure to the more cultural, aesthetic and expressive parts of design that make it the human, soulful craft that it is. Indeed, reflecting on the very thoughtful insights expressed here so far, I might go so far as to say that issues around globalization are proving to be the path by which legions of digital product design professionals actually begin to understand and fully realize the fusion of culture and design.

Joseph, your comment about “an open source network of designers and researchers” really strikes a chord. In fact a friend of mine, Juhan Sonin over at MITRE, has talked for a long time about creating momentum around a formal open source design movement. Others have shown interest in that idea as well, but its somewhat instructive that there has been very little traction around open source design as any sort of meaningful movement, whereas open source programming has been an incredible phenomenon. I’ve got some ideas about why open source design hasn’t taken off in the same way, but I want to leave that for a later conversation.

Honing in very specifically on globalization, one of the issues I have with the rhetoric and conversations coming from the design community is a sense that design and designers are particularly or even uniquely suited to contributing to business success in the current and emerging global paradigms. I just don’t buy that. While these changes are empowering designers to fill a vacuum that other disciplines have been slow to fill – and in the process gaining some important respect and function for design in a broader business context – that is more an opportunistic reality than an essential one. Indeed, the most successful people in business in the future are going to come from many different backgrounds, training and roles. Just because design is beginning to find its legs and assert a role among the chorus does not translate into design being any more special or unique than the other approaches and tools that make for successful business. The design intelligentsia needs to focus less on ourselves – which, by the way, is a historical failing of designers, not just in this context – and begin looking outward into other disciplines and the symphony of business in order to maximize our success and find a realistic place among our peers.

NB: Taking both Joseph and Dirk’s posts into consideration, I see the emergence of something very intriguing – a global informal network of designers and researchers who share information with each other in order to best understand their customers; around the world, one could say. Much of what is available in the blogosphere is already indicative of this trend, now I’d like to throw out some questions to you –

Could this be an early indicator of the rise of a global ‘creative class’? One who is already connected to each other and in communication? For example, at the Design Directory I have Tasos Calantzis contributing on design thinking from South Africa, his views and ability to articulate them puts him in the forefront of thought leadership I would say. How would this emergent global ‘creative class’ [‘open source’ already in a way] change the way we work and perceive the world? As Joseph indicates in his post, he’s already in touch with designers around the world whose ideas he integrates into the products they develop for different locations. There is a cross fertilization of styles, approaches and insights already at work.

Dirk, on the other hand brings up a valid point – that this movement towards ‘open source’ information sharing or knowledge based networking is far more heterogenous and multidisciplinary. Perhaps the design community were the first to notice it – to fill the vacuum that Dirk refers to – but certainly if one were to look at the myriads of ways and means that technology, communication and the sharing of knowledge is being leveraged its a global movement. Del.icio.us recently celebrated its third birthday, a quick glance at the comments demonstrates the breadth and diversity of folks who are part of this community.

At the same time, I would ask “How can design and designers contribute to this? What would be the emerging skillsets, methods and ideas that will drive and empower this class? What will one need to do and be able to offer in order to create change on a global scale, and more importantly to function effectively in this always changing environment?”

Imho, we seem to be at an inflection point – particularly those of us who have to skills to visualize and then manifest the implications of this conversation. A social networking site of some sort for designers and researchers around the world, one that is categorized into different areas of interest? The internet originally began as a way for scientists and scholars to share their research data and collaborate with other thinkers around the world. If a community of designers could be created based on everything we’ve discussed – UCD, open source sharing, brainstorming or offering a sounding board, a means to capture, collate and share the knowledge that we all bring to the table, what could be the ultimate potential of such a ‘network’?

LW: First of all, let me acknowledge Dirk’s point about needing to look beyond design for global business success. Product Design, Design Thinking, and Design Principles all are an important part of the equation but they are not the only variables involved. As I mentioned in the Lifecycle of Design conversation: “sometimes a strategic business partnership is what enables a superior customer experience”. In the case of global markets, this is very often the case.

It’s also true that the design community has a tendency to discuss the importance of issues like context and culture amongst themselves but not with a broader audience. As evidenced by a recent quote from the Silicon Valley Product Group:

“[the design community] does a good job communicating among themselves, but in general I think these guys spend a lot of time preaching to the choir, and that the message about the value they deliver needs to get to those teams that need them the most, and these are the teams without designers.”

If you amplify this problem globally, it’s great if we get an international contingent of designers talking amongst themselves –but will that really address the state of global flux in which many companies find themselves? Let me suggest an additional approach.

A number of California-based user experience professionals (including myself) just attended the SHiFT 2006 conference in Portugal. The Portuguese attendees were quite eager to learn about the state of user experience design and strategy in the United States. At the same time we were eager to hear what made Portuguese and European design considerations unique. This state of mind was echoed an in-person conversation I had with Joseph. He pointed out that designers outside the United States are hungry for our domain knowledge (based on experience) and we have keen interests in their unique contexts (culture).

This was made quite transparent in a talk by Celso Martinho from Sapo (Portugal’s number one Web site). Martinho outlined Sapo’s inability to compete with the resources of global Internet companies. Due to the design and development talent of companies like Google and Yahoo!, Sapo was losing email, social networking, and instant messaging customers. To address this competitive situation, Martinho encouraged Sapo to focus on their key strength: understanding the language, culture, and Internet users of Portugal.

It seems to me that this situation is ripe for a partnership. Local companies may not be able to match a global corporation’s resources, but they can manage local implementation of those resources and adapt products accordingly. This type of collaboration might provide a sense of co-ownership that the current situation does not.

It was apparent at SHiFT that the Portuguese that spoke up had a strong distaste for their dependency on Microsoft software. They wanted to implement homegrown open-source solutions. Perhaps if they played a role in transitioning Microsoft products to need the needs of Portuguese language and culture, they might feel more like partners and less like technological colonies.

JO: I want to bring this to a close by revisiting the original question: What do designers and design firms need to focus on and be aware of to be successful in this changing hyper-global market? We started with Dirk’s definition of “Globalization” that was driven by words like “create” and “extend”. But what I find interesting about our conversation is that it has been dominated by the ideas of flux, understanding, and sharing.

I agree with Dirk’s earlier comment that design is not uniquely positioned to take advantage of the current surge in globalization. But, I do believe Design has the ability to reframe the issues and opportunities regarding globalization. This conversation is a case in point. Countries and culture became “context”. Rapidly growing markets in unstable economies became “flux”. Additionally, “open source sharing” became a tool to manage our lack of knowledge about user needs and behavior in countries we may never visit.

Ultimately what we are talking about, and I’m glad you got us there Luke, is all this work we do will eventually end up in the hands of a person in a singular location having an experience with a product or service that they will enjoy or dislike. They will decide at every click, flavor, color, smell, etc. The product will either need to address their local sensibility such as the example from your time in Portugal, Luke, or it will need to connect to a world far away like the influence of the U.S on Korean youth.

And who knows how to deal with this flux in context?

We will.

And we will do this through understanding and sharing. Just like we always have, except now the world will take advantage of it.

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