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What a year it has been! With a historically rotten economy, the design industry has taken a serious beating, leaving us all looking around to see who is still standing. The main theme of Merge is the idea that, in order to survive and thrive, designers must begin to look beyond the “client service” business model and explore ways to market their creative ideas in a more direct way. 2009 has certainly underscored the relevance of this point of view.

In reflecting on the year, five stories have emerged as central to the design and entrepreneurship convergence, for a variety of reasons. Some are simply emblematic of the unique time we are in, while others may offer a glimpse into the future for designers and creative professionals. Here they are (in no particular order):

1. iPhone App Development and the iTunes App Store

According to the website GigaOm, roughly $2.4 billion were spent on iPhone Apps in 2009. That’s a staggering number for a tech category that basically did not even exist a couple years ago. The good news is that this has emerged as an area in which a wide range of designers, web developers and creative professionals have been able to bring their product ideas directly to the consumer—I’ve written frequently about this phenomenon on Merge and profiled a couple of App developers with roots in the design world.

While the media has focused on the relative handful of “kitchen table” developers who hit the jackpot with app releases in the early months of the “app bubble,” I think the real story here is the iPhone Developer Program—the back-end machine that Apple has built to facilitate the process of development, sales, and distribution of these products. Without fail, when I ask would-be entrepreneurs what holds them back from pursuing a business idea, the complications—and expenses—related to the supply chain are cited as primary reasons. With the iPhone Developer Program, which feeds into the iTunes App Store, this complication has been greatly simplified.

Ironically, I see synergy between the Apple case study and other design-friendly online marketplaces, like Etsy or Mohawk Paper’s Felt & Wire Shop. My hope is that the success of these programs will inspire similar marketplace opportunities in other categories, hence making it easier for more designers to bring their ideas directly to the consumer.

Here are links to some of the posts I’ve written on this topic in 2009:
Discussing iPhone Apps with Terry Anderson
HartungKemp Gets Wasted
iPhone App Development Primer from The Nerdery

2. Necessity Entrepreneurs
Not all entrepreneurs are the same. While the classic entrepreneur is struck with that brilliant “aha” idea, and methodically develops it into a thriving business, many people starting new businesses today are doing so because they lost their job and have slim prospects for finding a new one. With the creative and design industries being particularly hard hit in this recession, one of the lasting stories from 2009 will undoubtedly be the high number of creative professionals who have opted to pursue an entrepreneurial venture rather than competing for the few remaining job openings.

While many of these new ventures will be built on the tried and true client service model, my hope is that we will see more products and services brought directly to the consumer by people with backgrounds in design, hence bringing the design sensibility and methodology to the process of building a new business.

Here’s a link to a post I wrote earlier this year about this topic:
The New Breed of Necessity Entrepreneurs

3. Service Design (or whatever you call it)
“Suddenly there is a whole population of designers trying to use their skills to have an impact on the world around them.” This is how Bill Drenttel of Winterhouse Institute and Design/Change Observer introduced the Aspen Design Summit in November. I would only argue with the “suddenly” part—in fact, I think designers have a deep heritage of working to make the world around them a better place dating back to the Bauhaus, so perhaps after decades of immersing in a relatively one-dimensional way of working, we are rediscovering how to apply our skills for a greater good.

The distinct practice of Service Design is more established in Europe than in the U.S., a result, in part, of the support and funding given to the design professions by many European governments. In fact, the term itself is not very common here—we might call it “design thinking,” “social impact design,” or even “new design.” While a single definition of Service Design is difficult to pin down, a common principle is that inter-disciplinary teams of professionals are using the methodology of design to engage in complex social problems like healthcare, poverty, and hunger.

2009 was filled with promising examples of designers putting their skills to work on such issues, as well as commenting and writing about it. Bookshelves were filled with new volumes by design gurus like Tim Brown of IDEO and Nathan Shedroff of CCA. INDEX presented their prestigious design award to Kiva, an institution that, seemingly, has nothing to do with design, provoking us all to rethink the parameters of our practice. And the Aspen Design Summit itself brought designers, policy makers, educators, and institutional leaders together for a vigorous exercise in design with a social impact emphasis.

My hope is quite simply that this trend continues, and that these exercises begin to spawn some meaningful success stories.

Here are links to some of the posts I’ve written on this topic in 2009:
Hillary Cottam and Participle
INDEX Announces a Surprising Winner
Continuing the Conversation About Service Design

4. Alternative Funding for New Business Ventures
Access to a relatively small amount of seed money can completely change the complexion of a startup business plan. As little as a few thousand dollars can allow a designer/entrepreneur to produce a run of prototypes or conduct valuable user testing. But not everyone can reach into their pockets and find that kind of cash, and traditional sources of funding like small business loans are much more difficult to come by than they were in better economic times.

That’s why the emergence of alternative sources of startup funding is such an important story right now. I’ve written several times about this in 2009 and I continue to be intrigued by the possibilities it offers. Microfinancing (also known as peer-to-peer lending), a model similar to the one used by Kiva where individual donors connect with individual entrepreneurs in an online venue, offers one way that designers can get that initial boost for their startup idea.

My hope is that alternative funding sources like microfinancing will continue to mature into a viable and stable option in the year ahead—and that more designers will take advantage of it.

Here are links to a couple of the posts I’ve written on this topic in 2009:
Microfinancing: A Model that can Work for Designers?
Peer-to-Peer Lending and Other Funding News

5. The Online Social Media Wave
Creative professionals have, for the most part, been early adopters to the online social media wave, and many of us have found ways to use it to enhance our business. This is a trend that has evolved at an explosive pace over the last few years—as evidenced by the recent story that Facebook overtook Google as the most-visited website in the U.S. on Christmas Day this year—and I don’t see it slowing down any time soon. While many of us have tired of the Facebook routine, Twitter, Flickr, YouTube and other online venues each provide distinct and unique ways to connect and interact.

One of the reasons I cite for designers not finding as much success as they should as entrepreneurs is that our professional networks are too narrow, and my view is that online social media provides a remarkable way to expand these networks and connect with the people who can help small businesses grow. My hope is that designers and creative professionals will continue to populate this online world (or to dive in right away if they haven’t already done so) and be involved in the continuing evolution of it.

Here’s a link to an earlier post on this topic:
Social Media 101

Picture 43Later this week I’ll have the pleasure of participating in the Aspen Design Summit, an interdisciplinary workshop which aspires to utilize the power of design to help solve large social problems. The unique format of this conference will split the 70 attendees—with backgrounds ranging from design to healthcare to public policy—into five “studios,” each of which will be asked to develop innovative solutions around a specific social problem.

The Summit, sponsored by AIGA and Winterhouse Institute with support from the Rockefeller Foundation, is the offspring of the original International Design Conference in Aspen (IDCA). IDCA was founded in 1951 by many of America’s rising stars on the graphic design scene, and sought to provide a forum for discussion on design. In 2005, AIGA took over the programming of the event and has transformed it into the current form.

The five “problems” being addressed at this year’s Summit are:
National Design Center for Rural Poverty Programs
UNICEF Education Programs
CDC Public Health Programs for Older Adults
Mayo Clinic Rural Health Program
Sustainable Food Innovation

Click here to read more about these initiatives.

I see the Summit as an innovative approach to service design, a topic that has been featured frequently here on Merge (including this September 1 post). I’ve written extensively about the business benefits that designers can find by exploring this new—and intensely collaborative—way of working, but I’m also hearing from many designers who talk about their personal drive to find a more meaningful way to use their skills.

I will be blogging and tweeting frequently from Aspen—most likely eschewing my typical format for a more immediate and off-the-cuff approach. If you’re not following my tweets, you can do so by clicking here.

children-holdingkirans-mediumAs societal values continue to evolve, social entrepreneurship has become an increasingly growing business category. Defined as entrepreneurial ventures that have a goal of social change rather than strictly financial gain, I see social entrepreneurship as a close cousin of the emerging area of service design, which I’ve discussed at length on Merge (Continuing the Service Design Conversation, September 4, 2009). It’s easy to spot fundamental design principles in empathic concepts like solar powered trash compactors and needle-free injection devices.

But regardless of whether the primary goal of these businesses is financial gain or not, they still require money—and sometimes in significant amounts—in order to fulfill their vision. So, where does a social entrepreneur go for funding? Well, as the business category grows, and the success stories accumulate, the funding community is beginning to pay attention. Last spring, BusinessWeek.com ran a series of articles on social entrepreneurship which included this overview of angels, venture capitalists and foundations that specialize in this area. Included on the list are: Acumen Fund, Commons Capital, Investors’ Circle, and others.

Picture 13
Additionally, BW.com has an ongoing series of profiles of 28 of America’s Most Promising Social Entrepreneurs featured in this slideshow. More recently, the site ran an update on one of the stories from the original 28: D.Light Design which pledges to commercialize and sell solar-powered LED lamps to those living on less than $5 a day in Africa and Southwest Asia, a safer, cheaper option than the more common kerosene. D.Light Design recently secured $6 million in venture funding.

Picture 34Since my post earlier this week about Service Design, I’ve been bombarded with content on this topic. Here are a few follow up notes to continue the conversation. Have a spectacular Labor Day weekend!

More on the INDEX Winners
In her post for the Fast Company design blog, Gadi Amit continues the conversation about the recent INDEX award winners that I wrote about earlier this week. Amit adds some interesting analysis by asking “Is any idea, whether it’s an initiative for social progress or a clever way to market movies, enough to be declared a work of design?”

And Still More on Service Design

Earlier in the summer I wrote about Winterhouse and Project M coming together on a collaborative summer program (May 22, 2009). These two organizations are among the emerging forces who are challenging the parameters of design, and I speculated in my post that their union would result in some surprising and exciting results. Click here and judge for yourself (I must admit, I was hoping for something more than a well-intentioned pizza party).

Yep, You Guessed It…
The Savannah College of Art and Design in Georgia was established in 1978 and has experienced phenomenal growth and expansion over the last three decades as Alissa Walker describes in her recent Fast Company post introducing SCAD president Paula Wallace. Now with more than 9,300 students and 1,500 faculty and staff, SCAD is gaining prominence nationally and internationally, as a leading force in design education. In her guest blog for FC, Wallace jumps right into the Service Design conversation with her excellent post entitled “The Architect of Experience: Conversation With a Service Designer” which profiles SCAD instructor Peter Fossick.

Picture 27A couple weeks ago I had an enlightening conversation with designer and strategist Sylvia Harris. Sylvia and I were comparing notes and sharing our experiences in the area of design for the health care industry—her work in wayfinding for hospitals and medical centers has led her into a consulting practice that focuses on user experience issues in health care (click here for a list of articles Sylvia Harris has written on these topics).

As we discovered the common professional ground we have traveled, our conversation began to focus on the emerging category of “service design.” Actually, this is a term that is more commonly used in Europe—here we might call it “design thinking”—but I actually think service design is a more accurate moniker. While both Sylvia and I share a background in communication design (or graphic design), we are both working in areas in which “graphic” design is only a fraction of what we actually do anymore. We’re working on complex projects that involve not the professional network that designers have traditionally worked with—photographers, writers, printers—but rather experts from a vast array of professional disciplines—psychologists, ethnographers, physicians, even policy makers. Likewise, the outcome of these projects is very different from what we might have delivered earlier in our careers—not a logo, brochure, or signage system, but rather a new nomenclature for a medical device, a new financial system, or health care procedure. Of course, this is a transformation that is happening throughout design as the value of what we do and how we do it is more recognized and accepted.

The memory of my conversation with Sylvia was refreshed yesterday when I read Alice Rawsthorn’s essay in the NY Times entitled “Winning Ways of Making a Better World,” which focused on the recently announced winners of the INDEX: Award 2009, the biennial design prize funded by the Danish government to celebrate examples of “design to improve life” (note: our Type1Tools product designs were included in the 2007 INDEX award kiva_logoexhibition). Ms. Rawsthorn pointed out one surprising recipient among the five impressive winners: Kiva, the micro-financing institution which has lent more than $86 million to entrepreneurs in the developing world in the last four years (which I blogged about recently).

As Alice Rawsthorn writes, “By any definition, it is a fantastic project, which undoubtedly helps ‘to improve life’ by raising money for people who desperately need it. But what does it have to do with design?”

I’m equally as surprised by this announcement as Ms. Rawsthorn, but I must say I’m thrilled to see INDEX, a leading force in the design world, making such a strong statement about what constitutes “design.” The definition of design has been morphing incrementally for generations, and I think we are on the cusp of a major transformation of what designers do and for whom we do it. This new way of designing is being exposed through the pioneering work of the London firm Participle, John Bielenberg’s Project M, Design for Democracy and designers like Sylvia Harris.

Ultimately, this change will mean huge opportunity for designers who are ready to seize it.

Check out this video about Kiva from the INDEX site:

Vodpod videos no longer available.

more about “INDEX:DESIGN TO IMPROVE LIFE“, posted with vodpod

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