The keynote speech at the innovation forum was given by Richard Buchanan, who is currently professor of design, management, and innovation at Case Western Reserve University. Before that, he was head of the School of Design at Carnegie Mellon University.
Buchanan is well known in academic circles for his work on design. A frequent speaker, he has also written books on design including “Discovering Design: Explorations in Design Studies, the Idea of Design” and “Pluralism in Theory and Practice. He has a doctorate from the University of Chicago. He was once hired by the Australian Taxation System to redesign an entire bureaucracy to be more user-friendly and efficient.
So why then, did he leave university post that was all about design to take a role that had more to do with management? Because, he says, designers must be educated in how organizations work. He recalled one year from his teaching days, when a class of students worked for a semester on an urban planning project for a city. They presented their proposal to a meeting of the city council, which roundly praised their ideas.
At a dinner afterwards, the students were feeling great about their work until the mayor took one of them aside and made sure they realized that none of their ideas would ever be implemented. The students were crushed that their hard work had amounted to nothing. The episode drove home the point for Buchanan that good design is only half the battle — the other half is making sure it is implemented.
Buchanan says there are three pillars of good design thinking. First is that a product has to be useful. However, many products that are useful don’t make it to the marketplace because they lack the second to quality. They must be usable. Lastly, and most terrifyingly for engineers, it must be desirable. It must possess that intangible quality that makes people want it.
However, different products require different amounts of each quality. For example, he says, firefighters’ equipment must be high in usefulness and usability, but desirability is not so important. On the other hand, high fashion demands desirability and nothing else. This dynamic can play out in unexpected ways. He recalls consulting at one company that was manufacturing industrial equipment and was turning out products that were not only highly useful and usable, but were well designed, sleek, and beautiful. No one wanted the products because they looked out of place on the factory floor. The company redesigned its machines to look more utilitarian, and they started selling.
The idea of “design” itself can be hard to grapple with, he says. “Design has no subject matter,” he says. “Its subject matter is created with every new product. Its subject matter is the possible.”