Design: Inclusive creativity, not individual genius.

By Steve Martinuzzo.

From presidents to supermodels, famous sports stars to film idols, high flying CEOs to celebrity designers; it is starkly evident that today’s world is conditioned to believing that some individuals command almost superhuman abilities.

Personal bests
Breathtakingly individual brilliance is certainly true in all professions. Unambiguous examples of this would be sportspeople who excel within non-team sports. No one can say athletes like tennis player Roger Federer or sprinter Usain Bolt do not deserve individual recognition. Although even in these cases, coaches, trainers and family should share some part of their remarkable success. Apart from sportspeople, other professions that may be in a position to claim the lion’s share of their personal achievements are actors, artists and writers.

Logic Vs Belief
For the rest of the time, and certainly in the case in of business, most successful endeavours involve a group of people working together to attain an outstanding outcome. When thought about, we know that every successful CEO, restaurant owner or star football coach is at best, a very talented team leader of equally smart, motivated people working on well-defined goals, within well-structured organisations. This is logical.

Yet we continue to believe that the myth of the super-gifted individual is transferrable from the world of sport and art to the wider world. Is this because it is easier to relate to one person representing a large, complex organisation rather than the impersonal organisation itself? Or is it because we are living in a world of hype and celebrity?

The world loves its idols
The world of design is no different to other business sectors. In fact, its uncomfortable relationship with the creative arts proves too tempting for many designers.  Do we really believe John Galliano, Phillipe Starck or Calvin Klein personally create, draw, refine, prototype and specify every dress, product or perfume that bears their name?  And even below the celebrity design level, just look how many designers, architects and creative groups name their firms after themselves. Ego is alive and well in design.

These practitioners, and most commentators including both trade and mainstream media, fan the myth that an individual designer ‘conceives’ a brilliant idea, and injects their ‘creative genes’ into their work. It’s an obvious analogy to make and it’s an easy and lazy myth to propagate. After all, most of us want to believe the illusion.

Design as a team sport
The truth about successful design is far more complex but no less compelling than the inspired designer myth. Good design is never created by just one person, although there is certainly welcome room for designers with great skills and vision. Design is problem solving applied to real conditions, conducted by a well lead team of diverse people working toward the best product outcome.

Successful, well designed products are produced when a strong team comes together. Each of the team members should champion their own distinct expertise and requirements. Examples of these areas include sales, marketing, production and servicing. Broader stakeholders represented within the project team may include distributors, retailers and of course the user and wider community.

A women's group meets in Mityana, Uganda to discuss deployment of low-cost solar lights in a program spearheaded by Solar Sister. Photograph courtesy James Akena, Solar Sister

A women’s group meets in Mityana, Uganda to discuss deployment of low-cost solar lights in a program spearheaded by Solar Sister. Photograph courtesy James Akena, Solar Sister

Social Product Design
Whilst there is a place for individual celebrities to draw attention to pressing humanitarian events, there is no comparable equivalent in design.

The principle of design being inclusive, applied creativity and NOT about individual genius is even more pronounced when applied to projects involving developing communities. These projects are often a world away from the commercial business model most product designers operate.

In these cases the people and communities who would benefit from a design solution need to be part of the process, not passive benefactors. And in these cases, designers need to listen, learn and adapt.

Design is collaborative and inclusive. Design is not about preaching, individualism or exclusivity. And Socially Responsible Design is certainly much more than individual brilliance.

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