The Responsibility of Design: Adopting a Futures-Oriented Mindset to Support a More Responsible Design Practice
By Adam Zeiner
Reposted from UT School of Design and Creative Technologies 2019 Journal
In 1968, Herbert A. Simon wrote in The Sciences of the Artificial that “the natural sciences are concerned with how things are.… Design, on the other hand, is concerned with how things ought to be, with devising artifacts to attain goals”. Vocationally, as designers our day-to-day consists of conveying how things ought to be, as gleaned through interactions with intended audiences and increasingly participatory production processes. Simon goes on to posit that “everyone designs who devises courses of action aimed at changing existing situations into preferred ones”. Conveying how things ought to be should begin with understanding how and why things are the way they are before catalyzing a transition to a future state. Meeting people where they’re at is key. Simon then arrives at his grand assertion that “design thinking is always linked to an improved future.”
Improved for whom?
In theory, I want to agree with this sentiment. The idealist in me really, really does. Having worked as a designer in some capacity since 2012, with and for a variety of organizations, I’ve come to understand that, unfortunately, design thinking alone is not always linked to an improved future, and often whatever form that future takes is largely the responsibility of design practitioners and the organizations of which they’re a part.
On Design and Futures
In looking to the future, it is wise to begin with a scan of the past.
Design as a verb, meaning “to make” or “to shape,” has roots in the early 14th century and can ultimately be derived from the Latin designare, to “mark out,” “point out,” “devise, choose, designate, or appoint”. Kostas Terzidis writes, “The prefix de is used not in a derogatory sense of opposition or reversal, but in the constructive sense of derivation, deduction, or inference”. To frame the verb design as “the derivation of something that suggests the presence or existence of a fact, condition, or quality” might seem at odds with the commonly held notion of designer comfort with ambiguity. In reality, Terzidis’ postulation positions design as an act of sense-making within uncertainty. Considering design as an act of manifesting a balance between indefiniteness and anticipation, one can be led to accept that “in the largest sense, design signifies not only the vague, intangible, or ambiguous, but also the strive to capture the elusive”.
What is more elusive than any certainty about the future?
They say your future self is a stranger. What then is more intangible than your own future — much less a future not your own?
As a means of interpreting and giving form to an ambiguous aspect of someone else’s possible future, practicing designers would do well to employ methods from futures-oriented disciplines, including but not limited to: strategic foresight, futures studies, and anticipation studies, which focus on the “practice of thinking about the future in a structured way” by “postulating possible, probable, and preferable futures and the world-views and myths that underlie them”. These futures-oriented disciplines have influenced nascent, design-centric disciplines like speculative design, critical design, design fiction, experiential futures, transition design, discursive design, transdisciplinary design, systemic design, and strategic design — not to mention design futures, a “discipline developed at the crossroads of Design Fiction, Interaction Design, Ethnographic Research and [Strategic] Foresight”.
Any futures-focused effort, strategic plan, or provocation about an alternate future scenario is not a prediction of the future but a means of exploring and learning from generated possibilities, considering our moral alignment or misalignment with those possibilities, and determining what we or our organizations have the agency to do about it. “Design-Futures does not deal with the future of design, but with the role of design in shaping future alternatives.”
Academically trained Futurist Richard Lum, with whom the Design Institute for Health is collaborating with on an initiative to equitably envision and bring about a new future for health and well-being appropriately named FORESIGHT(link is external), has described the approach of FORESIGHT as the “ability to understand, strategically plan for, and attempt to influence possible futures”. This is something we as designers, researchers, strategists, and developers inherently do throughout our varied “design” processes — if not directly, then indirectly and unknowingly. Inherent to the process of introducing something novel or remixed into the world is a sequence of understanding the context one intends to affect, planning how to mount the solution into said context, and by nature of doing so, attempting to influence the future state of that focal context.
Nick Foster, head of Design at X, posits on his personal website that at the core of futures-oriented efforts is the focus on creating detailed depictions of the future to aid in present-day reflection and decision making. It’s worth reiterating that like the applied method of foresight, adoption of a futures-oriented mindset by designers and the application of futures-oriented methods to their design processes is not intended as a way of making predictions about the future; it is instead a strategic approach to solution generation “starting from a data-driven observation of present and past trends, and leveraging on key anchor points (artifacts and/or experiential settings)” that can result in the more responsible design of products, services, experiences, engagements, and social interventions.
Thinking Beyond Artifacts, Release Cycles, and Fiscal Quarters
Adopting a futures-oriented practice is about thinking beyond what it is that you are designing. Moving beyond the artifact to the service those artifacts enable. Beyond the service to the business model underpinning that service. Further beyond to the operational or governance infrastructure(s) informing that business model. Even further beyond to the cultural climate within which those infrastructures currently exist, and so on. All the while considering the responsibility and repercussions of what producing the artifact and interjecting it into the context of the dynamic world entails. It’s about working against inherent short-termism and practicing the mental gymnastics of projecting 10, 20, 30, 50 or 100 years out. Interjecting a change agent into the world comes with owning the responsibility of the implications of the change produced. Perhaps that change contributes to something as societally dominating as our growing dependence on social media or is as close to our day-to-day lives as the type of promotional content served to us based on our digital usage patterns. That change might even contribute to something as immediately intangible as the manufacturing and natural resource extraction practices that provide the materials comprising the devices we use to engage with social media platforms and interface with the promotional content that funds them.
As a working designer, the consequences of the change produced by the work you contributed to the creation of partially rests on your shoulders.
Sit with that for a minute.
If the notion of your personal contribution affecting broader societal — and in some instances global — trends is daunting to you, good; it should be. Don’t take your role in imparting change onto individuals who aren’t you and communities you aren’t a part of for granted.
Building Capacity for Longer-term Thinking in Industry
In industry and in many traditional design disciplines it’s not as common a practice as one might expect to critically consider, much less explore, the possible alternate implications of introducing a produced artifact into a system as complex, adaptive, and often reactive as our world has become. It’s even less common to critically consider those implications 20 years or more into the future. Nick Foster writes, “When you take on a contract with a design firm, you are making a commitment to them. There is an understanding that you work for that organization with the goal of capital growth. This is design as industry”. This capital-growth mindset brought about by more immediate (read: shorter-term), often release-cycle-centric project constraints can be a tricky reality for many of us designers to navigate. Our thinking and approach to problem solving can become framed by operational constraints and stakeholder goals.
“Over the past few decades, we have helped build a corporate culture that systematically prioritizes short-term gains over longer-term product health”. Short-termism manifests in our ways of working and the artifacts we work to produce. I’ve observed how this operational tunnel vision fuels or agitates a characteristic common amongst designers, myself included, who feel an insatiable need to produce, to constantly create, or to ship a product, feature, or sleek new interaction pattern. It doesn’t help that these yearnings to produce aren’t always fulfilled by the day-to-day of our vocation, or that personal creative fulfillment often becomes an avocational “off-the-clock” endeavor. This desire to produce or to ship is at odds with learned patience, consideration, contemplation, and the process of reflecting on the implications of what it is we’re working to produce inherent to a futures mindset.
That’s not to say there aren’t corporate and government organizations who contract and hire futurists, foresight strategists, and other futures-oriented practitioners to engage in and facilitate the exploration of alternate future scenarios — there are. Google, Autodesk, and Shell are a few cursory examples, but these types of roles are few and far between and are often held by individuals with a very specific (often advanced) academic pedigree. Further, these roles are typically situated in large-scale organizations, or are offset by an adjunct position with an academic institution, and as far as I’m aware they are nascent within smaller-scale, leaner-funded organizations in the United States.
Designerly and Futures-oriented Practices
Futures thinking is not a new term nor a hot new take on design thinking. Futures thinking is a “method for informed reflection on the major changes that will occur in the next 10, 20 or more years in all areas of social life, including education” — a method that “uses a multidisciplinary approach to pierce the veil of received opinion and identify the dynamics that are creating the future”. This manner of approaching or identifying a problem of focus is inherent to design.
Moving forward, this manner of longer-term, larger-scale thinking will be a crucial aspect of our design practices as we continue struggling to confront global and intergenerational issues like “climate change and the havoc it will wreak, the battle for an equal, just, and democratic society, and the rise of artificial intelligence”. Referencing again what Nick Foster said about “creating detailed depictions of the future to aid in present-day reflection and decision making,” many designers already intuitively produce artifacts to facilitate reflection and incite discourse about a preferred path forward. Providing designers an adopted, normalized, and evolving set of “futures” terms and methods will afford an easier process of application, discussion, and dissemination interpersonally and at scale. A fantastic example of this kind of codification is Nordkapp(link is external)’s Actionable Futures Toolkit(link is external),” made to work for you in building and aligning a future for an organisation, service or a product”.
It will be increasingly important that practicing designers participate in driving adoption of a futures-oriented mindset and the application of futures-oriented methods amongst their peers working in emerging and traditional design disciplines. These terms and methods will likely be more readily adopted by practitioners of emerging design disciplines, who will in turn drive dissemination to traditional design disciplines. In reference to traditional disciplines, I’m speaking to “architectural, industrial, interior, information, interaction, and visual communication design, [disciplines] established as design for formal outcome”. In reference to emerging disciplines, I’m speaking to “recent efforts that move towards a more cyclical, wholistic, or macroscopic conception of design [that] intend[s] to design for outcomes”. These may be engagement-focused, like experience and service design. They may be systems focused, like complex systemic design or systems design. They may be socially focused, like design for social good, transformation design, sustainable or circular design, or transition design.
Drivers of Responsible, Futures-oriented Practices
Encouragingly, there are a growing number of individuals and organizations working to drive adoption of a longer-term, larger-scale mindset, often through the production and dissemination of methods, frameworks, and works for practicing designers and design-adjacent practitioners to reference and repurpose as a means of baking responsibility into the design process. I’ll reference some of those bridging the gap between futures-oriented practices and design, blurring the line between them as they do. The references mentioned in this graphic are by no means exhaustive, and are meant to serve as a basis for personal inquiry.
A note from the author
The bulk of my vocational experience prior to joining the Design Institute for Health has been in the traditional design discipline of Interaction Design. As such, my perspective stems from the application of a futures-oriented mindset and methods to the design of predominantly software-based products and services. The ways in which I practice Interaction Design and my evolving conception of this discipline have been challenged and expanded in my role as the Interaction Designer at the Design Institute. A systems-oriented mindset common at the Design Institute, and the macroscopic scale of the efforts we’re engaged in, has led me to understand Interaction Design beyond how it’s currently conflated with hardware and software and as it relates to a broader definition of technology beyond “high tech.”
Avocationally, I hold a position on the inaugural Design Futures Initiative 501(c)(3) Board of Directors. In this capacity I have the unique privilege of representing “Big-D Design” and practicing designers, in particular those of us in individual-contributor roles. This position affords me the opportunity to witness and shape the coherence of Design and Futures practices and to collaborate with and learn from others in these respective disciplines far more qualified than myself to do so. I, like my colleagues on this board, hold the fervent belief that designers the world over stand to benefit from being introduced to futures-oriented methods, and in turn, a futures-oriented mindset to approach the wicked problems they endeavor to solve.
Adam Zeiner is an Interaction Designer at the Design Institute for Health
 Advancing Design Research: A “Big-D” Design Perspective; Christopher L. Magee, Kristin L. Wood, Daniel D. Frey, Diana Moreno https://www.sutd.edu.sg/cmsresource/idc/papers/2013-_Advancing_Design_Research-_A_Big-D_Design_Perspective.pdf(link is external)
 Design; sign; de-
https://www.etymonline.com/word/design(link is external); https://www.etymonline.com/word/sign?ref=etymonline_crossreference#etymonline_v_23500(link is external); https://www.etymonline.com/word/de-?ref=etymonline_crossreference(link is external)
 The Etymology of Design: Pre-Socratic Perspective; Kostas Terzidis
https://www.mitpressjournals.org/doi/pdf/10.1162/desi.2007.23.4.69(link is external)
 Futures Thinking: A Mind-set, not a Method; Zoë Prosser, Santini Basra
https://www.service-design-network.org/touchpoint/vol-10-2-designing-the-future/futures-thinking-a-mind-set-not-a-method(link is external)
 Gaining Foresight with Future Scanning; Richard Lum
https://foresightforhealth.org/futureforhealth/timeline/#796(link is external)
 On Moonlighting; Nick Fosta
https://www.hellofosta.com/selectedwriting/on-moonlighting(link is external)
 Futures studies
https://www.wikiwand.com/en/Futures_studies(link is external)
 Futures Thinking In Brief; OECD https://www.oecd.org/site/schoolingfortomorrowknowledgebase/futuresthinking/futuresthinkinginbrief.htm(link is external)
 The Only Three Trends That Matter; Leah Zaidi
https://medium.com/predict/the-only-three-trends-that-mLatter-ee705e8ff9ce(link is external)
 The World Needs a Tech Diet; Here is How Designers can Help
https://essays.uxdesign.cc/tech-diet/(link is external)
 “Experience Design: Embracing Transdisciplinarity.” Dennis Cheatham; Iterations Design Research & Practice Review, Issue 5, June 2017
 Actionable Futures Toolkit; Nordkapp
https://futures.nordkapp.fi/(link is external)
 Design Futures: A New Discipline, Tool and Medium; Andrea Paraboschi, Pierluigi Dalla Rosa
http://files.cargocollective.com/757295/15-1-59-1-10-20170624.pdf(link is external)
 Problems with Problems: Reconsidering the Frame of Designing as Problem-Solving; Hugh Dubberly
http://presentations.dubberly.com/Yale2019.pdf(link is external)
 FORESIGHT initiative; Rippel Foundation