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Conference insights from Vancouver and Boston to Paris and Beijing.

Supply, Demand

I was running a seminar on design and creativity at the 2010 RGK Center Institute on Social Entrepreneurship, discussing the basics of design process and talking about how qualitative research helps drive insights, which in turn evolve into design ideas.

Peter Frumkin, a Professor of Public Affairs and Director of the RGK Center for Philanthropy and Community, organized the seminar; we had talked before in some depth, and he had told me he was interested in learning more about design thinking. He had been carefully listening to the lecture, and he approached me at a break to discuss the role of sample size – “how can you be sure your sample isn’t biased?” he asked. Of course, it’s entirely biased; I described how design is provocative instead of predictive, and how marketing focuses on making sure a small insight represents a larger behavior, while design explores the possibility of what might be. Peter’s response was that it seemed like design is about supply, while marketing is about demand. Design, he said, looks at what they can best supply to a given market, while marketing judges what the market demands.

I’ve never heard it put in those terms before, although it’s similar to Alan Kay’s famous quote that "the best way to predict the future is to design it". But after reflecting on it during the remainder of the day, something didn’t sit well with me. Comparing design to supply-driven production seems to the human aspect of the work itself, and places an unfortunate emphasis on mass production. Simply, I’m wondering how and when design became conflated with “scale” and “growth” – business terms, no doubt, but terms that you would be hard pressed to find in design’s arts and crafts roots or in its digital evolution. What if design has nothing to do with either supply or demand at all, and in the style of Scandinavian design history, instead emphasizes facilitation or co-design? In these models, size and growth and the prescriptive qualities of supply aren’t present, and demand is irrelevant entirely. Instead, the goal is on the creation of a supportive infrastructure in which problems can be solved together, often by a transdisciplinary team of experts. This is the model Pelle Ehn is driving at Malmo University, and it’s quite similar to the approach Liz Sanders has advocated for years in the US.

At frog, we’ve had success moving into strategic levels of engagement in companies where the upper leadership not only values design and the intellectual aspects of design, but also wants to participate in the process. This isn’t heavy-handedness; it’s a desire to reach beyond old models of growth for growth sake and embrace a new method of solving old problems. It’s often not about supplying new products to consumers, or understanding what consumers demand from us – that’s much too reductive for the complexity of the problems facing companies, governments, and culture. The process almost always takes a dramatic level of facilitation, and that facilitation is co-design of business strategy through empathy, understanding, relationship building, and cooperation.