Bill Moggridge On Socially-Responsible Design, Connectivity, and Globalization

Bill Moggridge has pioneered evolutions in design by responding to the quick global transformations in communications technology. He founded the design and business consulting firm IDEO, which is piloting an fellowship this year. And his current work has him directing the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum in New York City, which has an exhibit,  “Design with the Other 90%: CITIES,” on display at the United Nations.

Here Moggridge shares some front-line observations about changes in the field that led to the birth of socially-responsible design.

Rachel Signer: How can we distinguish socially-responsible design from just ‘design’?
Moggridge: To me it’s really about the expanding context of design. If you look historically, back at really everything that happened in the last millennia, design is thought of as relatively craft-oriented. It’s about doing things. So you find designers in a discipline, learning how to actually do the actual designing, but not necessarily work out what to design. So this question of what should we do has somewhat been separated from how to do it. And the craft and the skill of design tend to be the ‘how to do it’ part, and the ‘what to do’ came from somebody else – a leader or a boss.

Why is socially-responsible design becoming popular at this particular time?
I think there were two major changes that started to expand the context for the way designers think they need to operate. First was the increase in digital technology, which started to make the tools very much more sophisticated, so that you could do things with computers that you never dreamt to do before. The skills started to be much more fluid, easy, and accessible for people. And the second is the Internet, which connected everything together. Suddenly you find this connectivity that gets into everybody’s head – that’s like Wikipedia instead of Encyclopedia Britannica, but it’s also the whole world rather than your country. What happened then is that the context in which people think about design started to expand. And this only has happened in this last ten years.

So, the Internet and digital technology presented new challenges for designers, which required new forms of thinking.
My background’s in industrial design. Until recently I would think of myself as designing things. But with this expanding context due to these two things, I’m now thinking of health and well-being. I’m thinking of people in a much more holistic way – because I can actually put the thing in the context of the whole person. And that’s both the design opportunity and the design challenge. The digital technology means that it is a design issue as opposed to just being a behavioral issue. And then if you look at the architectural scale, the same sort of expansion of context happens, but it’s now in terms of, instead of the architect just designing building, they’re thinking about designing the social relationships of people who use a building. So it becomes social innovation. And then if you think about that on a more global scale, you’ll find that it’s the ‘design with the other ninety percent,’ as opposed to design with yourself.

What shifted in order for this kind of thinking to emerge?
I think it’s really the Internet, and connectivity. People started to realize that globalization was a fact. Over the last century, designers were feeling a bit threatened by globalization. They were thinking, oh, dear, my work’s doing to China. Or, all the manufacturing’s leaving the country, so I’m no longer connected to the means of production. And then you find that people start to realize that there are potentially positive sides, as well, and they say, okay, not only can we do new things that are global, but also we are sort of forced to take notice of the world in a more holistic way. Instead of thinking, oh, I’m just worried about myself, my town, my village my country, now you’re thinking about the planet. You’re thinking about trying to help people all over the world. And the young people in particular get passionate about trying to make a difference.

Is social design an aspect of post-industrialism, in a sense, since there are fewer opportunities to make things?
I don’t think the opportunities to make things go away. It’s additive, more than a replacement. The making gets to happen in a different place, probably often with different people, but the opportunity is there. There’s still people who are in love with designing things and they want to do that their whole lives, and they can – they can make a beautiful lamp, or chair. But then there are other people who think, it would be better if I could change the world. If I could make changes, or make social innovation, make something that’s sustainable, something that benefits people in a broader, more holistic way.

When did you first become aware of the possibilities of socially-responsible design?
I was in Silicon Valley for over thirty years, so I saw these changes from the inside. There were phases in Silicon Valley where we could see that the startups were moving away from new product development. When I first arrived in Silicon Valley [in 1979] most of the Valley was still just doing chips. Then they moved from chips to products – just at the right time for me, because I was a product guy. For the next ten years or so, it was mostly, a new startup company does a new laptop, a new product, a new whatever. And then it became clear that systems would be more important than individual products, because of the connectivity. So you started seeing people like the Cisco’s of the world, designing communication devices – like the Cisco telephone we us here, in this office – and getting the IP Internet protocol telephone to work. And then thinking of systemic issues like sustainability, or complicated problems like the ecology of a city, all of those things became design possibilities – but need, as well.

What’s one product area where you’ve watched design go through these transformations?
If you think of a telephone, for example. In the traditional world of telephone, you still had the telephone in the wall, and you would grab this thing, stick it by your ear, and wind this handle. And then you’d speak to another human being. And the human being – the operator – would be the one to connect you to the person you wanted to talk to. So the designer didn’t think of the service as being a design problem or opportunity because it was actually training the operator that mattered most. And the operator had to know how to be polite, how to deal with awkward people, as well as the mechanisms of making the connection. But as soon as that becomes automated, digitally, and you go to an automatic exchange, then it’s obviously a design problem – because you’re never going to be in contact with another human being until you reach the person you’re calling

That’s interesting, because at its core, design is human-centered.
Well, you have to flip it on its head in order to recover from that, really. If everything’s so technology-based, then you’re losing touch with the human.

How did the conversation at IDEO turn toward socially-responsible design, and the launching of the fellowship program?
People within IDEO got more and more fascinated by the possibilities of this kind of social innovation work. Initially we started to do it pro-bono, and we tried to get funding from foundations. The original book that was put out about process, the Human-Centered Design Toolkit, which is available as a PDF, was funded by [the Gates Foundation]. We then realized that it was going to be really hard to get that kind of funding as a for-profit firm. After I left [IDEO], they came up with the idea of making a non-profit arm.

The “Design with the Other 90%” exhibit currently at the United Nations showcases how designers are helping solve problems of urban living. To what extent can socially-responsible design deal effectively with global sustainability issues?
Nobody believed that Wikipedia would be more significant than Encyclopedia Britannica. So, this whole shift toward crowdsourcing, toward democratization of idea-generation, is something that’s universal. And that’s caused, again, by the connectivity. The fact that it’s here means it’s here to stay in every arena, really. You could take the principles of that kind of movement- collaboration, hybridization, participation – and apply them across any context. You could certainly apply them to problems in this country. That’s what we’re hoping that the open-source network site we’ve launched along with the exhibition will help with. It’s just a network where people can upload their own examples [of socially-responsible design].

What are some challenges around socially-responsible design?
Objective measures [of impact] are difficult; they tend to emerge as stories. But overall, I think this is a good example of how the younger generation is going to change the world by caring.

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