Questions For The Next Design Revolution

(I gave the opening comments at a keynote panel on The Next Industrial Design Revolution for IDSA’s Future of the Future event. Here’s an edited version of my brief talk).

The first industrial revolution may have been the most dramatic we will ever have. This is an unpopular notion as we suffer from what Tom Standage called chronocentrism – which is the belief that the present is the most amazing time ever in history and our most recent inventions will transform the world like nothing before. I don’t believe that. I don’t think you will either if you thought about it for a minute.

Consider life 100 years ago, and the the shift from hauling water on your back, walking up from the river every morning to having indoor plumbing or “instant water” as a modern marketer might have called it. Or the shift from horse power to electricity, and lighting dozens of candles with your hands to indoor light at the push of a button. Electricity had far more profound impacts on society than many of our hyped inventions of today.

As a simple test: if you could only have one of A) your mobile phone with internet, or B) running water, electricity for your home and modern medicine, which would you choose? We’d all eventually choose B. We take for granted the most profound technological advancements central to our lives.

We also forget that the  first industrial revolution centered on steam power and the mass manufacturing of textiles, the central industry of the industrial revolution. It wasn’t consumer technology, it was factory machines. And it’s overlooked that this revolution was predicated on slavery. Central to the revolution was a cheap mass labor force. It created the economic advantages these new inventions accelerated. And the lesson for us today is that in every revolution, at least in every industrial revolution, ethics and morality of some kind are likely overlooked. Here are three questions to help us.

Question #1: How Is Your Work Moral For The Future?

If we believe that “design is an extension of our identity”, as the conference program defines it, how do we explain consumerism? How do we explain advertising? The enormous consumer debt in the U.S. is predicated on the desire to upgrade to the latest versions of products we make. We are paid to manipulate people into buying and upgrading. How then do we reconcile our salaries with the moral challenges of American capitalism? How do we explain the environmental crisis and it’s connection to product and technological manufacturing? To the invasion of privacy that many of the most popular technologies today inflict on their own customers? Just as slavery was the unspoken crime of the first industrial revolution, what is the silent immorality of the one we are in now?

The next generation is more aware of moral issues than perhaps any generation before. They were born into a world with major economic, environmental and social problems, a troubling legacy that we are leaving for them. Is what you are working on today  designed for 5 years? 10? 50? If not, you are designing more for our generation than the next. This is not generational design, so much as indulgent and selfish creation. Our chronocentricsm blinds us from what we claim design does: improve the world.

Question #2: Will you respect “unprofessional” creativity?

When a new technology lowers barriers to entry, progress and regress happen simultaneously. For example, HTML was a huge step backwards for design, in that it took away the layout and typography control the technology of print had developed for centuries. But it was a huge step forward in inviting an entire new generation of young people without preconceptions to create and publish.

This is a fine line we have to balance: we have to be capable of respecting creative but untrained outsiders, and finding constructive ways to engage and elevate what their work. Rather than taking the natural stance that “people without our background are not designers”, we should be generous and curious. If we want to influence the future we have to make our knowledge accessible to the next generation. If we don’t they will simply pass us by.  They are not waiting for a torch to be handed to them, as that’s a metaphor so old it  predates all of us in this room.

Question #3: Is the value of your expertise more than pretense?

We are here at a glamorous professional event that presumes design degrees and professional events are valuable. But we are biased: all the people who question the value of these things are not in the room to disagree.

We must admit that as tools continue to improve, and the affordability of creation increases (kickstarter, 3D printing, etc.), the assumption that our profession and our professional society is necessary will be continually challenged. Great designs are being made by people without our pedigree and we are likely to dismiss them for this reason alone, presuming we have the power to dismiss.

But generational change is unforgiving. They are not waiting for our approval. The tools this generation has allows them to go directly to making, and to finding an audience, and for many of us this is terrifying. We can assume they will fail, or find their way to the path we’ve been on, but the history of revolutions suggests otherwise. Only if we are lucky will we even be asked, by younger and faster creators, how our past experience is relevant. It’s up to us to reach out to them, with open minds, to apply our wisdom to their work on their terms, not ours. Our terms are dying while theirs are just being born.

14 Responses to “Questions For The Next Design Revolution”

  1. Sean Crawford

    As for point three, just today I was thinking of something strange: When the Americans were occupying Iraq, ten out of ten interpreters, barbers, taxi drivers, street vendors and so on, would have said “No! Don’t disband the army! Are you crazy?” But Americans did so, being both crazy and having the original sin of the Ugly American: an unwillingness to listen.

    Canadians can be as bad: Tonight I was in a legion hall for a meeting about our provincial government being crazy, attacking us if we disagreed.

    The greater context is our culture. If we expect the next generation to respect us, then we must role model respecting each other, and this would then, needless to say, include respecting them too.

    Our principles of (quoting Scott) reaching out, applying our wisdom, on their terms, listening, being generous and encouraging, and on and on, would follow from our value of respect.

    For me, managing my ego and respecting others has been a lifestyle choice. To me it’s the honest thing to do.

    1. Scott Berkun

      I realized as I prepared to give this talk that the entire panel should have been replaced with people half our age. Who are we, as the older generation, to explain the next? We’re really in the worst position to explain it :) It would have been far better and more challenging for the panelists to all be 15-25 years old. So in a way my lecture betrayed it’s own message simply by the fact that it came from me.

  2. Sean Crawford

    Scott, I am reminded of one of my top five favorite management books, not counting Drucker, called Management of the Absurd. The author recalls being on stage for a panel about women, just before the Women’s Liberation movement started. All of the panel were male… —how crazy, by today’s thinking.

    Your plight might be mitigated by starting out with the words, “As well as I can see it, from my chrono view point…”

    I am reminded of how, here in the Bible Belt, a young student wondered how to answer a school essay-style question regarding evolution. The teacher (my roommate) offered, “Just start out with “according to science” as that way you are not saying it has to be true.”

    As for youth, sometimes ego obscures what is real. I remember the first fellow to write young adult science fiction (unless you count Tom Swift stories) would have his young heroes, and have folks middle aged, (mostly out of the way) but no one in their later 20’s or 30’s, because the lesson would be too hard on the ego: folks in their late teens and early 20’s, no matter how eager and talented, still have more to learn.

    As I recall, (since I was there) part of the reason, during the 1960’s, for the big emphasis on experimenting and being original and creativity and using, say, razzle-dazzle, was for the ego: nobody under 21 wanted to feel like a journeyman or apprentice, even if this meant ignoring the masters. I suppose this is why the heroes of young adult novels of that era were rebels or losers, or hopefully unclassifiable, never winners on a humble slow path.

    Of course “new” does not exactly have a beaten path, but it does have (insert your metaphor here)

    Scott, I thought your opening remarks were good for helping people to shake up their thinking, the only sane way to talk about the new. (As with lacking a sense of humour, no one admits to lacking an ability to brainstorm) I’m sure the group appreciated your help.

  3. Steve

    I’ve been following your blog for years now (and you answered one of my Ask Burkun posts :D), but I noticed these:

    Central to the revolution was a cheap mass labor __that__ force.

    We’_s_ all eventually choose B.

    Rather than taking the natural stance that “people without our background are not designers”, we should be __generation__ and curious.

    If we want to influence the future we have to make our knowledge accessible to the next generation, because if we don’t (comma?) they will simply pass us by.

    Yeah… not sure what happened with this one :P

    Either way, I love the topic. I’ve been thinking along the same lines. I’m curious though, what book about the first industrial revolution and slavery would you recommend?

    Thanks again.

    1. Scott Berkun

      I’m not sure what happened either. Apologies. All fixed now.

      I don’t have a specific recommendation on that topic. If I think of one I’ll let you know.

        1. Steve

          Thanks Louis! It’s on my reading list now :)

  4. James Breeze

    Great thoughts Scott.
    Consumer technology production still requires a cheap mass labour force. Some would call it slavery.

  5. Murali V

    Reading this from India, where in a recent news item, found that more people have access to Mobiles than toilets. This is good from one perspective.
    Read along with the persistent outbreak of Dengue even in New Delhi (country’s capital). For a year this has been raging and as late as last week there were Dengue deaths.
    Evolution rarely allows us to prioritise one over another i.e, mobile over toilets. Human invention of Water Closet and Sewage systems were fundamental technology and engineering advances which led to living healthier and happier lives.
    I am amazed that a first worlder like yourself has the empathy to recognize this.

    My wife who runs a grassroot NGO for village development 50 km from Bangalore, battles almost daily the cultural and social change, to gain acceptability of basic technologies. If you have time please visit,

    1. Jeff L.

      “I am amazed that a first worlder like yourself has the empathy to recognize this.”

      This is a hateful, offensive, and ultimately ignorant statement with a dose of condescension to boot.

      1. Murali

        Sincere apologies. It has come out badly. This was written in admiration. In the world i live in, don’t see too much of this kind of empathy



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