We are all familiar with the phrase, change is inevitable. However, what we are starting to experience globally, the speed in which change occurs, and the complexity it presents to systems, policies, products, lifestyle, values and social and environmental justice, is not just surprising—it’s astounding, and often unpredictable.
We believe design will have an important role to play in helping us all embrace and work within these new scales of change. The skills to design for discontinuity will be a vital requirement for organizations who seek to make an impact, and (frankly) survive in this era. So, how do we, as designers, rise to the challenge of discontinuous change? How do we evolve our skill set?
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First, let’s start with what “discontinuity” means, a term coined by climate futurist Alex Steffen (at least in the 2020+ world context). Simply put, it means that change is not linear and expected, but discontinuous and difficult to predict. For example, we are seeing six-foot swings in the water level of Lake Michigan, when historically we have only known a six-inch range, drastically upending urban design and infrastructure principles for the city of Chicago. And discontinuity is not confined to climate change. Just think about digitization, material supplies, social equity or the concept of truth.
All images courtesy of MADO and illustrator Grant Philips
The era of discontinuity is marked by these remarkable departures from historic patterns and repositories of information. As designers, we rely on knowledge and insight to create meaningful work. So how do we design with this level of uncertainty? And at these scales?
To ride the rising waves of discontinuity, our studio MADO has developed three roles for designers and design teams collectively, to embrace in their practice— the Scout, the Stagehand, and the Gardener. These are mindset shifts and roles to play, or step into, within our organizations. They imply new tools and techniques (some of which we’ll share with you here) but more importantly, they are a creative challenge to us all to extend ourselves and adapt philosophically to this new era.
In the era of discontinuity, change is rapid and intertwined, but we can be prepared if we are able to see and interpret indicators of change early. Being the Scout means looking ahead as a regular part of our practice and continually thinking about disruptive scenarios. For example, as reduction in carbon footprint pressure mounts, will synthetic biology replace traditional agriculture products? If so, how will advances in those synthetic biology techniques fuel paradigm shifts in other industries like cosmetics or even electronics?
There are two tools we often use with our clients to bring the Scout role to life. The first are trend hives, where team members regularly gather to share signals of change and connect dots from multiple perspectives. And then there’s implication mapping, where we use the “If….then…” framework to imagine how changes in other domains might affect the ones we design for. The Scout is a mindset shift that will help us as designers stay agile and engaged, but also position design as an important player in building resiliency for our organizations.
In the era of discontinuity, change is dramatic—often unfathomable. The job of a Stagehand is to help an audience believe by bringing alternate realities to life. As designers, we are well suited to take on this role! Imagine your audience as your colleagues or your business counterparts.
Someone in a Stagehand role sets the stage and illustrates a new state of the world we’re anticipating by employing all of their narrative creativity. Shifting into this perspective means we’re not rendering products in blank backgrounds anymore—there is always a backdrop, there is always social context.
For example, the US Census Bureau expects 100 million people will migrate into and around the US by 2060. In that scenario, what do urban centers look like? How do you anticipate the daily life has changed for your US consumers? Why is your design important in this new scenario? Stagehands will use this experiential approach to strengthen their designs and communicate value to business stakeholders.
Discontinuity has more uncertainty, which means fostering multiple possibilities and staying agile to respond as change arises is critical. Gardeners know there are different environments that plants can thrive or fail in, right? So embracing a Gardener role means we push ourselves to generate ideas in a number of different ‘soils,’ or future scenarios, and we nurture those concepts simultaneously, expecting some to prove more resilient than others.
For example, digitization in consumer lifestyles is changing at a rapid pace. Within just 3 months of the pandemic, virtual collaboration increased 600% through Miro. Ecomm grew at a rate of 10 years of continuous growth in just 3 months, as reported by McKinsey. As we look forward, there’s the promise of an even more immersive Metaverse on the horizon. Will we understand the human and social impacts of these shifts right away? As designers of digital experiences, can we imagine 2 or 3 social contexts to design for by 2030 that explore different levels of normalized digital fatigue vs. fluency?
Fostering multiple possibilities is key here. The Gardener role challenges the traditional double-diamond design approach that has us often focus on one singular, “ultimate” design solution. The Gardener embraces co-creation to foster these many possible design solutions, inviting diverse voices from inside or outside the organization to imagine possibilities, wide in breadth and rich in context. Again, for digital futures, this means incorporating peoples perspectives with varying relationships to digitization, which may point you to a range of solutions.
As we engage this era of discontinuity, we challenge ourselves and our designer colleagues to embrace this new reality with confidence, and perhaps even excitement.
Elevate your design process to infuse the traditional design fundamentals with an evolving skill set incorporating the mindset of the Scouts, Stagehands and Gardeners. If we design alongside discontinuity – fully aware of the challenges and opportunities, we can establish a meaningful relationship with the chaos it presents.
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