Technology is the answer. But what was the question?

6 min read

I’ve been bouncing this Cedric Price quote around my head for weeks. This question – posed by the architect in 1966 – is always an excellent pretext for reflecting on the nature and impact of technology. It’s also made me think about how design can provide questions, answers and even give meaning to technology. Let me explain…

I have the feeling that many people are confused about the value of design. About how it helps us understand how to be relevant. I think this confusion exists because, on one hand, we understand that design is intertwined with the artifact it manifests, the object that’s been designed. On the other hand, it’s because we designers haven’t been able to communicate its true value.

For a long time, we haven’t spoken in the same language as business. That usually leaves us talking about the interface or whatever the thing is we’re designing. And that’s precisely where I think design loses a lot of its value.

“Design explores contexts that, in turn, redefine entire strategies of value chains.”

Design goes far beyond the objects that embody it. It even goes beyond the problems it solves. It explores contexts that, in turn, redefine entire strategies of value chains. Put simply, design is a process for solving problems and understanding contexts.

Now we’re beginning to understand how design transcends the objects that it produces and takes more holistic approaches to problems. If we think about problems as part of the hypotheses that we produce after understanding the nature of a project, we admit that the problem lacks absolute certainty. That leaves us open to redesigning the problem as we advance in our understanding of the project.

“The meaning of a man’s life is to solve the problems generated each day by his mere existence”

Most of the time, problems are part of our lives. As Joaquina Fernández would say: “The meaning of a man’s life is to solve the problems generated each day by his mere existence.” This understanding of problems as part of human nature helps create more flexible frameworks of uncertainty. Design is used to navigating in this realm.

Besides, if we understand design as part of a process to solve problems and understand contexts, we are associating design with an inevitable part of life since it helps us solve the problems that we ourselves create.

“Design is the story that gives meaning to the strategy”

The wonderful field of strategy invites us to reflect on these frameworks of uncertainty and makes us realize that no strategy can work without design. Design is our MacGuffin. It triggers the plot, it begins the story.

Design is the gravitational force that makes sense of all the adjacent pieces and strategies. Data is data, AI is AI, technology is technology, they all have their own story. But we need to understand and make sense of those stories through design. Design is the story that gives meaning. Without design, we are just technology. And with only technology, we cannot find the problems to solve.

“People who understand problems as systemic, bigger than the single issue they have in front of them, are working with a design mindset”

I would also like to demystify the idea that the design process is owned by designers. Anyone in an organization who approaches a problem by putting the user at the center or understands them as systemic, bigger than the single issue they have in front of them, are working with a design mindset.

Remember that design goes beyond the object it produces and that sometimes this object acts as a Trojan horse, bringing with it multiple players from other areas of expertise like development, data, processes, etc. They are all part of how design thinking can help solve problems. As my friend Cesar Astudillo likes to say: “now we’re sitting at the grown-ups’ table.”

If you don’t understand that the design process has a multidisciplinary gaze and that it’s a fundamental part of strategy, it will be difficult to get a seat at the coveted table. At the end of the day, if we don’t solve problems beyond the tangible objects we produce, our focus will remain limited to a tiny part of the impact we can generate from design.

We know that the design process helps understand problems more than any technology, data or screen. We know that the design process is part of the strategies of companies themselves.

“If we limit ourselves to designing interfaces, we’re just putting lipstick on a pig”

Ok, but what normally happens is that companies are looking to solve a specific need and that need is usually associated with a list of functionalities, with the object that design produces. In these initial conversations with clients and with the understanding we have about a project, the degree of uncertainty is very high and the client just expects us to solve the concrete problem that they currently have. Maybe they understand it as a problem, but it’s usually closer to the tangible side of things – a website, an app, a dashboard, etc.

However, we understand that this particular task is the immediate problem to be solved. As we know, it is also almost always urgent. But we can use that artifact, that object to be fixed, as a Trojan horse to understand, as we progress, the true implications of the specific problem. You can bet that they go far beyond the tangible thing we’re designing.

This Trojan horse helps us understand the entire value chain, which helps us understand the organization (its context, bureaucracy, politics, culture, etc.). This understanding can help us make the impact of the project have a much larger reach than the object we’ve produced. If we limit ourselves to just designing interfaces, we’re just putting lipstick on a pig. This, we understand, won’t help completely solve any of the problems of a business.

So, if we understand that the problem has a lot to do with the context, and that the context has a lot to do with the condition of being human, we can ask ourselves how we’d answer the question that got us here.

In my view, design is what helps us see patterns, make connections and understand relationships. It helps us make sense of technology. In the end, it also helps us answer the question posed in the headline – and the answer is design.