By Florian Plank
- 7 minute read
The fourth industrial revolution will affect the very essence of our human experience.
Our societies are entering an unparalleled period of change as digital, physical, and biological systems converge. What began with small but significant advances in AI has evolved into a rapidly approaching wave of complexity.
As we seek tools to adapt, design assumes a new role: it’s up to designers and design leaders to ensure innovation is not only technologically advanced but also centered around human needs and aspirations.
This has happened before.
The first industrial revolution caused substantial disruption. Industries were transformed and professions became obsolete.
The second (the one with the telephone) and third (the one with computers) were similarly disruptive, albeit less violently.
Companies faced sharp increases in complexity during the last two revolutions. Both times, design’s role and meaning evolved. In the late 20th century, companies shifted focus towards customer needs as the service industry rose. Previously, businesses concentrated on their products and production, with minimal consideration for customer needs beyond basic functionality. The emergence of personal computers, the internet, and social media in an increasingly saturated global marketplace created demand for better experiences. Customer loyalty and reputation required more than just exceptional products. Design had to rise to the challenge.
“Everything is about to change. Again.”
As we confront the fourth Industrial Revolution (the one with AI), we look to history for insights into what may be in store. Over the past three industrial revolutions, design has become a powerful tool, adapting to new paradigms and changing purposes. While technology drives and enables change, design has allowed companies to adapt and scale to challenges with focus. This time, design aims to lead the charge.
Over the past seven years, we at DK&A have helped companies build better digital products and services through design and especially Design Leadership:
- Better in fulfilling real customer needs.
- Better in aligning with our client’s brand and vision, strategically and tactically.
- Better in being unexpected, delightful, radical, emotional, and beautiful.
Companies engage us for a specific need: a new mobile app for a smart alarm system, a smoother service experience for mobility needs and rental cars, or an improved customer service experience for insurance claims. They stay with us because we go beyond our contract: our teams use their experience to guide and advise on vision, strategy, ways of working, communication, and organizational questions. The added value comes from designers and engineers considering business goals, brand, strategy, and teams. We’ve always been product-focused, not just skilled at coding or arranging interface elements.
If this sounds like a marketing pitch, it’s because it is. It’s an aspiration describing our ideal relationship with clients, and one we’re increasingly able to achieve.
As we prepare to guide our clients (and our own organization) through one of the most significant transformation processes of our working lives, we consider the following questions:
- If we believe that the role of design will change fundamentally again, what does this mean for us as designers and expert advisors?
- Our clients turn to us for advice when they need a North Star. How will our approach to Design Leadership have to adjust?
Leadership is highly contextual and can be hard to define in general terms. At DK&A, we think about leadership as a series of questions we ask and actively seek answers to.
When it comes to Design Leadership, we can cluster these questions into four main categories:
- Vision: How do we facilitate and communicate a motivating, long-term view?
- Strategy: How do we align our work with overall business goals?
- Communications: How do we identify key decision-makers and influencers early and keep them in the loop?
- Accountability: What metrics do we establish to track success? How do we create transparency for key stakeholders?
- Learning: What processes do we establish for continuous improvement?
- Evangelism: How do we communicate the importance of our work?
- Innovation: How do we encourage a culture of experimentation and risk-taking? How do we facilitate exploration, shaping and validation of new ideas?
- Culture: How do we foster a stable, trusting environment free from toxic influences? How do we ensure individual goals align with the company vision?
- Feedback: How can we encourage productive discourse and avoid homogeneity for continuous improvement?
- Conflict resolution: How can we detect and resolve conflicts early and productively?
- Staffing: How can we support internal processes in defining roles and attracting new talent?
- Fact-based decisions: How can we use research and data analysis to base our decisions on facts rather than intuition?
- Customer-centricity: How can we ensure decisions are based on customer needs rather than internal factors? How do we maintain continuous validation and iteration?
- Efficiency: How can we tailor proven processes to increase efficiency while maintaining consistency?
- Sustainability: How can we build lasting, reusable components, products, and tools? How can we consider our impact on the environment?
- Impact: Whose life will the products we build impact, and how? How do we optimize for value created, security, transparency, and inclusivity?
- Quality control: How can we ensure the best possible experience across all touchpoints? How do we recognize and react to what doesn’t work early?
- Structure: What organizational structures strike the right balance between oversight, control, flexibility, and freedom?
- Tools: Which tools enable us to achieve our goals efficiently and effectively?
- Education: How do we keep the team up to date on trends in project work and globally? How do we prioritize and share knowledge without overwhelming individuals?
- Ways of working: How do we collaborate and communicate? Are our spaces and channels for interaction effective?
Framing Design Leadership as a series of questions helps us avoid overly prescriptive or dogmatic approaches and fosters a more flexible and adaptable mindset. However, this approach depends on individuals’ ability to navigate complex client’s organizations.
Applied Design Leadership
At DK&A, our goal is to facilitate change for any client, digital product, or service, regardless of the life cycle phase. Depending on the client’s maturity, this may mean longer engagements deeply embedded within existing teams or shorter projects aimed at setting up operational capabilities and establishing processes and new ways of working.
Design Leadership and product thinking go hand in hand. We’ve learned that successful digital products require a cohesive, confident blend of design, technology, and product leadership. Balance is key, and organizations looking to deliver value to customers must ensure these three elements remain in equilibrium.
One example of our work is with Sector Alarm, an established home security brand. They approached us in 2021 at the beginning of the next step in their digital journey, aiming to deliver a new product portfolio of smart home products. With no internal digital UX team, they turned to DK&A to establish an approach and facilitate the development of a digital control center in the form of a new mobile application.
During an intense six-week concept design phase, we shifted the team’s viewpoint from product-oriented to customer-centric. We established a design-led, research-based approach, created a new interaction paradigm, and defined a new visual language for the mobile UI. In close collaboration, the client embarked on a new course, closely aligned with the overall company strategy. By mid-2022, Sector Alarm took over with a capable team onboarded, a design system delivered, and a Red Dot Award under their belt, establishing Design Leadership internally.
Generative AI will very likely change many areas of our work for good. As smart and contextual content generation, comprehension, and transformation becomes widely available and adopted we will feel pushed to reinvent Design and our approach to Design Leadership once more.
Sam Altman, CEO of OpenAI, noted in a recent interview that AI-driven automation developed quite differently than anticipated. Instead of first automating physical labor, then simple and more complex cognitive tasks, and only later (or perhaps never) addressing creativity, it took the opposite approach. Generative AI, like Dall-E, Stable Diffusion, Midjourney, and ChatGPT, targeted abilities once considered uniquely human.
Rather than focusing solely on empathy, emotions, or creative thinking, a better approach may be to look ahead. Previous industrial revolutions created more jobs than they displaced. To lead the charge in the fourth Industrial Revolution, Design Leadership must forecast and adapt or extend our approach by asking more questions:
- Adaptability and innovation: How do we prepare organizations to evaluate change intentionally and embrace opportunities fiercely? How do we prevent complacency and foster a culture of innovation?
- Ethics: How do we ensure products and services of tomorrow adhere to today’s ethical standards? How do we balance opportunism with individual and societal needs and weaknesses?
- Cross-functional collaboration: How do we promote collaboration between designers, engineers, data scientists, and other specialists to address complex challenges effectively?
- Culture of learning: How do we support continuous learning and development to keep up with emerging technologies and new approaches?
- Inclusivity: How do we create products catering to diverse user groups, including those with disabilities, different cultural backgrounds, and varying levels of technological proficiency?
- System thinking: How can we adopt a holistic approach to design, considering the intricate interplay of elements within larger ecosystems, to create adaptive and resilient solutions?
- Integration: How do we effectively integrate emerging technologies into our design and engineering processes and product offerings today?
- Resilience: How do we build operational resilience to navigate uncertainties and disruptions?
Asking the right questions
During the first Industrial Revolution (the one with steam engines), the world of product design experienced significant shifts. New manufacturing techniques allowed for increased production and precision on a larger scale, leading to a need for consistency. This required larger factories with specialized machines and skilled workers.
To manage the growing complexity, business owners turned to standardization. Designers seized the opportunity and shifted their focus. Design, once a discipline aimed at delivering contemporary aesthetic ideals, became an enabler for efficiency. Over 100 years ago, designers followed Frederick Winslow Taylor’s “scientific management” principles to optimize work processes and enhance productivity using data analysis.
As we enter the fourth Industrial Revolution, it falls to Design to ask the right questions, and to Design Leadership must push for the right answers, honestly and with integrity. Many organizations may be tempted to address new challenges superficially, defensively, or insincerely. A solid, structured approach, led by design, can serve as a powerful antidote.
Design has already weathered three Industrial Revolutions by anticipating challenges and adapting to meet them head-on. Through thoughtful, dynamic leadership, we can empower other industries to harness the power of design in the same way.