Design as a Power of Change

“Design is a team sport and will only effect change if a large group of individuals joins in,” says Mette Mikkelsen, newly appointed affiliate professor at Design School Kolding

”If you don’t want to change the world, don’t become a designer.”

These are the words of Mette Mikkelsen, newly appointed affiliate professor at Design School Kolding. Her basic tool box was filled when, as a student at the school in the early 1990s, she learned to weave, but many years passed before she came to the fundamental conclusion – years when she was weaving, then managed, then, was Head of Development at the Design School Kolding – to utilise the tools of design to change people’s way of thinking. This was the gist of her inaugural lecture where she quoted the Nobel Laureate Herbert Simon’s definition of what design is and can do:

- To design is to devise courses of action aimed at changing existing situations into preferred ones. She used that quote throughout her lecture and emphasised that we must keep doing what we want to do, even more than we used to. She stressed once again:

- You should only become a designer if you want to change the world. If you don’t, find something else to do. Design is a team sport, she said, and the most important thing designers can do is to involve the users.

- Designers possess tools that enable us, in collaboration with the users, to gaze into the future. We are acutely aware of target groups, users and stakeholders, and we reach our goals in close interaction with these groups, she stated emphasising that an important part of the task is concretising the future, defining and implementing.

The designers’ tool box
The designers’ tool box was the recurrent theme of the lecture about the development of design over the past 25 years. When Mette Mikkelsen left the Design School as a weaver, she said, she knew she had thorough knowledge about colours, form, material and textile construction.

- I had learned to evaluate, “Is this what we are looking for?” I had learned to open up and view the problem areas and create meaning and structure through analysis.

Later she discovered that her tool box contained much more: It also included a deep awareness of target groups, of the exclusive market, of techniques, and of aspects of pricing.

- It was a time when the prototype inspired the future. The market as such was stream-lined and uniformly conservative, and the tradition of classical design overshadowed innovations in material and ergonomics, Mette Mikkelsen explained.

A large exhibition at the Trapholt museum in 1995 changed that perception. It was a huge success. There was a lively debate within the design community, and that is when we learned, in earnest, that design is a team sport.

- Design at a museum. It felt like a paradox, said Mette Mikkelsen during her lecture. The exhibition inspired experiments about the nature of design, and eventually the perception of design was broadened to include knowledge of materials, construction principles and cross-disciplinary collaboration.

- We challenged the common form, the common material, the common tradition. We challenged the Danes, the users of design. We started a debate about more sustainable materials and new construction principles, she said.

Future trends and cultural diversity
By 1999 times had changed. Design thinking was being established as a concept. During her employment at the design firm Gabriel A/S Mette Mikkelsen learned to collect systematic information about the customers in a CRM system that provided a multi-disciplinary and holistic understanding of the customer. Sustainability became a meaningful concept, and the traditional tool box came up short when technical specifications and prices of materials did not live up to the customer’s expectations.

- Designers had to work with future trends; we were the ones who directed the customer’s future. Relationships and cultural diversity became crucial, she explained.

In the early 2000s, when Mette Mikkelsen started working with design management at Gabriel, the new values became all-important. The customer cared that Gabriel sorted its trash. The relationship and the added value of choosing that exact supplier played a decisive role in a time when anyone could design a nice piece of fabric with the correct specifications at a good price. The tool box from the student days again proved its worth:

- What we had learnt at the school – strategic components in the company’s entire value chain – provided us with tools to go from production of fabric to product service systems, as well as tools to drive design management when the target moves along the way, said Mette Mikkelsen.

Love your electric car
The next buzz word became ”user-driven innovation” – a method she used in the etrans project at Design School Kolding. The assignment was clear: Make Danes love the electric car – although there were no electric cars on the market as yet, so the design tools were used to acquire knowledge about the users which is now used by the people who are working on electric cars; knowledge about people’s opinions about owning a car, their recognised and, not least, unrecognised needs; knowledge about wind energy, knowledge about the Danes’ everyday life; but the knowledge was also used to design products which are entirely new in the world, for example charging stations (for electric cars), educational material and car sharing arrangements with home cleaning as an additional acquisition option, a 360 degree round trip in the lives of citizens. Finally Mette Mikkelsen described yet another design approach she has used to change people’s way of thinking: A group of designers from a lab established at Design School Kolding was tasked with creating unpaid relationships for some of our weakest citizens. They succeeded – friends from outside joined, the relatives of those citizens felt that they were happier. The institution received more job applications when vacancies were announced.

- What happened in that project exemplifies what we do: The designers’ toolbox and method collection are activated 100 per cent around the citizens’ world, but also on the vertical hierarchical axis within the system. We challenge power structures. We create change, which creates disruption, which creates friction, and the prototype can be the subject of discussions about the situation and make it a ”preferred one,” says Mette Mikkelsen ending her lecture by stating:

  • Sustainable changes cannot be effected in isolation. Lest we are joined by many others – users, technicians etc. – we cannot create the changes we want 
  • Design is not change. The designer can create change. Creating change causes friction – and hence courage is a vital capability that the designer has to possess.