Which Skills Does a 21st Century Designer Need to Possess?

Which Skills Does a 21st Century Designer Need to Possess?

by Don Norman | | 42 min read

What is the future of design? Which skills will you need in the 21st century? In this video, Don Norman gives four examples of the tasks that designers might be doing in the 21st century, and the four types of designers that will be needed.

“So there you are. Four different kinds of design problems, each of them requiring different skills and different change from the traditional design of designers of craft.”
— Don Norman

Don Norman, co-founder and Principal Emeritus of Nielsen Norman Group, is trying to mobilize the current and next generations of designers to use their insights in design as a way of thinking to solve the world’s major societal issues. Those issues may be deep and complex, but the potential for effective solutions that can improve the lives of people across the planet is vast — and reachable if designers adopt this as the approach to tackle such troubles.

Which type of designer are you today? Which type of designer would you like to be? Please consider these questions as you watch the video.

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4 Types of Designers We Need in the 21st Century

In the video, Don Norman gives four examples of the types of challenges designers are likely to face in the 21st century, and four different types of designers who can meet those challenges. This list of challenges, designer types and skills is not meant to cover everything, but to help you understand the range of possibilities for the future of design.

Performance Challenges

A card for Li Na, the Industrial Designer. It has a label that says A Performance Challenge. It also says that the design task is to design a new lighting system for the home market, and that it will probably be LED

Persona: Li Na.

Task: Design a new lighting system for the home market. 

Skills required: What would you need to know and be able to do:

A card that says the skills requires are out of the box thinking, traditional design as a craft, expertise in materials and manufacturing and a traditional performance-based skillset

The first type of design challenge that Don Norman sees in the 21st century is what he calls a Performance Challenge. The task is to maximize the performance of products using new materials and new ideas for their form and function. It is a traditional design task, so Don argues that our traditional design education is well-equipped to teach designers the necessary skills, such as these:

  • “Out of the box” thinking

  • Traditional design: design as craft

  • Expertise in materials and manufacturing

  • Traditional performance-based skills

Systemic challenges

A card for Jin, the Designer. It has a label that says A Systemic Challenge. It also says that the design task is to design a new radiological imaging system for the medical profession, and that it will require multiple ways of presenting the information differently for different people

Persona: Jin.

Task: Design for the medical profession. 

Skills required: What would you need to know and be able to do:

A card that says the skills required are extreme knowledge of the technology, knowledge of modern imaging and graphics, as a generalist to bring together and manager a multi-disciplinary team of technologists, to understand how to match technologies and the needs of people, and design research

The second type of design challenge that Don Norman sees in the 21st century is what he calls a Systemic Challenge. In this case, the task is to design a complex product by bringing together experts in each of the technologies that are involved to create an outcome that serves the needs of multiple people who will use the different parts of the system. This is a much less traditional design task, and it requires that a designer can:

  • Match the technologies to multiple people’s needs.

  • Understand the underlying technologies.

  • Conduct design research.

  • Bring together and manage a multi-disciplinary team of technologists.

Contextual challenges

A card for Kim, the Designer. It has a label that says A Contextual Challenge. It also says that the design task is to develop a whole new sanitation system for a rural town in southern India, where there is no electricity and there are no pumps

Persona: Kim.

Task: Develop sanitation system for southern India. 

Skills required: What would you need to know and be able to do:

A card that says the skills required are to work with people: experts, government officials and community leaders, to co-design with people rather than design for them, and to practice diplomacy, management and leadership

The third type of design challenge that Don Norman sees in the 21st century is what he calls a Contextual Challenge, where you must build something with local people so that they can use, maintain and improve it themselves. These sorts of challenges go far beyond traditional design, and may require that you build trust and navigate local resource constraints, institutional, political and cultural dynamics. This sort of challenging task requires that a designer can:

  • Work with many stakeholders including experts, government officials and community leaders.

  • Co-design solutions with local people.

  • Use diplomacy, management and leadership to facilitate cooperation between stakeholders.

Global challenges

A card for Erin, the Manager. It has a label that says A Global Challenge. The card says that the design task is zero hunger. The card also asks what that means, and where to get food.

Persona: Erin.

Task: Heading a United Nations team: Social issue: Hunger. 

A card that says there are four required skills.  First, insights into large, complex sociotechnical systems such as supply chains, transportation and economics. Second, diplomacy, management and leadership with an emphasis on cultural and political acceptance. Third, understanding the culture and needs facing the target population. Fourth, work with large budgets, large groups of people with an array of political and cultural differences.

Poster of the United Nations 17 Global Goals for Sustainable Development

The 17 Global Goals for Sustainable Development.
© Jakob Trollbäck and The Global Goals, Fair-use

The fourth type of design challenge is what Don calls a Global Challenge, where you are taking on a large-scale design challenge like addressing one of the United Nations’ Global Sustainable Development Goals, consisting of poverty, hunger, education and 14 others. These challenges are very different from traditional design, and require that a designer can:

  • Understand large, complex socio-technical systems such as supply chains, transportation and economics.

  • Practice good diplomacy, management and leadership with an emphasis on cultural and political acceptance. 

  • Understand the culture and needs facing the target population.

  • Work with large budgets, large groups of people with an array of political and cultural differences.  

The Take Away

As design continues to include larger and more complex production, systemic, contextual and global challenges, we will need all four of the types of designers that Don Norman talks about. Each type will require slightly different education that will not necessarily have to happen in a design school. 

Regardless of the type of 21st century challenge you will take on or the type of designer you are, Don Norman’s advice to you is the same: 

“Remember to think in systems. Remember to always be learning. Remember to always be observing. Remember to always, always focus on the needs of the people you are designing for and use their creativity. You don’t have to have all the answers. Quite often the people you’re designing for have the answers. They just don’t know how to implement them properly.”

— Don Norman

References and Where to Learn More

Norman, Don and Meyer, Michael. Changing Design Education for the 21st Century.
She Ji: The Journal of Design, Economics, and Innovation 6, page 13-39. 2020

Norman, Don. Changing Design Education for the 21st Century, 2020

Help Us Rethink Design Education, Future of Design Education. Here you can nominate people who are passionate about changing design education. It’s a long and difficult task, but it’s essential. The committee encourages self-nominations too, so go ahead and nominate yourself if you have a relevant background, passion for the project and time to collaborate with like-minded people.

Images

© Interaction Design Foundation, CC BY-SA 3.0

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