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Scott Berkun

Innovation

Questions for the Next Design Revolution

We should be generous and curious about the new generation of creatives

Published: Thursday, December 10, 2015 - 12:35

The first industrial revolution may have been the most dramatic we will ever have. This is an unpopular notion because 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 inventions will transform the world like nothing before. I don’t believe that. I don’t think you will, either, if you think about it for a minute.

Consider life 100 years ago, and 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 think about the shift from horsepower to electricity, or lighting dozens of candles by hand to indoor light at the push of a button. Electricity had far more profound effects on society than many of our hyped inventions of today.

We take for granted the most profound technological advancements central to our lives. Here’s a simple test: If you could only have either your mobile phone with an Internet connection, or running water and electricity, which would you choose? We’d all eventually choose B.

We also forget that the first industrial revolution centered on steam power and the mass manufacturing of textiles. It wasn’t consumer technology; it was factory machines—and it’s overlooked that the first industrial revolution was predicated on slavery. Central to its success was a cheap mass labor force. It created the economic advantages these new inventions accelerated. 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 think about.

How is your work moral for the future?

If we believe that “design is an extension of our identity,” how do we explain consumerism? How do we explain advertising? The enormous consumer debt in the United States 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 U.S. 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’re leaving for them. Is what you are working on today designed to last five years? 10? 50? If not, you’re designing more for our generation than the next. This is not generational design, so much as indulgent and selfish creation. Our chronocentrism blinds us from what we claim design does: improve the world.

Will you respect “unprofessional” creativity?

When a new technology lowers barriers to entry, progress and regression happen simultaneously. For example, HTML was a huge step backward for design, in that it took away the layout and typography control that print technology had developed over 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 find constructive ways to engage and evaluate their work. Rather than taking the natural stance that “people without our background aren’t 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’re not waiting for a torch to be handed to them—a metaphor so old it predates all of us.

Is the value of your expertise more than pretense?

We presume design degrees and professional events are valuable, but we’re biased.

We must admit that as tools continue to improve, and the affordability of creation increases, the assumption that our professions and our professional societies are necessary will be continually challenged. Great designs are being made by people without pedigrees, and we’re likely to dismiss them for this reason alone, presuming we have the power to dismiss.

But generational change is unforgiving. The next generation of creative people isn’t waiting for our approval. The tools that these people have allows them to go directly to making, and to finding, an audience. 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.

First published Sept. 15, 2015, on Scott Berkun’s blog.

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About The Author

Scott Berkun’s picture

Scott Berkun

Scott Berkun is a bestselling author of five books and a speaker known for his work on creativity, management, and philosophy. His work has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, Forbes, The Wall Street Journal, The Economist, The Guardian, Wired magazine, USA Today, Fast Company, and other media. His latest book, The Year Without Pants: WordPress.com & The Future of Work (Jossey-Bass, 2013) was named an Amazon.com best book of the year.