As a design student, I learnt that design was all about solving problems.

The problem might be frivolous (I want better packaging to sell more fish fingers) or serious (I want to convince more people to get tested for cancer), but there’s always a problem. And whilst creativity is key to finding great solutions, solving problems is really what makes design different from simply expressing oneself. 

Design has become a major part of our economy, and for good reason. Companies like Apple build their entire business around solving people’s problems, and sometimes by providing solutions to problems people hadn’t even realised they had (like being able to carry all their music around in their pocket, with the iPod). Last year, Apple alone spent over $13bn on research and development, but it was repaid to them many times over in the profits they made as a result. 

But although designers are a key part of the economy, and recognised as problem-solvers, there’s still one big area of problem-solving where we’re not applying ourselves – the economy itself.

If we all burned ourselves every time we boiled water in a kettle, you can guarantee that it wouldn’t take long before a designer applied themselves to fixing it. And yet we’re living in a huge-man made creation – the economy – that is burning people out and driving the planet to the brink of destruction every single hour of every single day.

How could design thinking help?

1. Design gets to the root of problems

Great designers take the time to really understand the problem they’re trying to solve, and apply lots of techniques to research. 

There’s no end of problems to solve when it comes to the economy. Whether it’s the fact that billions of people live in poverty whilst others have more money than they could spend if they lived to be 1000 years old, or the fact that our obsession with constant growth is pushing (or has pushed) the planet to breaking point, a serious investment of design thinking into the economy could help us understand what’s going wrong and to get specific about the problems we need to fix.

2. Design brings in others’ insight

Design isn’t about having all the answers, it’s about collaborating with those who might and facilitating the collection of the right knowledge together to find solutions. Whilst some designers might work alone, countless others are part of multi-disciplinary teams coming together to bring specialist insight and translate it into solutions that solve real human problems. 

Designers might bring in economists or bankers, for example. But relying solely on traditional economics teaching to help us solve the world’s economic problems would be naive. Because of standard economic teaching, these people will often bring value that is nevertheless hemmed in by preconceived and learned ideas about what it means to be an expert on the economy – but with the economy being so far away from providing human-centered solutions, it’s time to challenge these prevailing orthodoxies. Design thinking brings in the knowledge, analyses it, and then frames it within the context of the problem you’re looking to solve.

3. Design focuses on user needs

Does the economy serve humans, or do humans serve the economy? 

It’s a question worth asking, and the answer isn’t simple; but in our current world it’s clear that many of us are bound up to act in ways that the economy dictates to us, rather than it freeing us to act in ways that would best enable us to flourish. If you don’t agree, then ask yourselves whether people in underpaid jobs with poor working conditions are being well-served by the economy.

Design thinking would help start this again by enabling us to get to the heart of the ‘purpose’ behind the economy. Unfortunately, we’re so used to the idea of the economy as something that simply exists, that questioning its purpose has become alien to us – it’s simply there: all-pervading and inescapable. But we simply must ask questions about why the economy is important if we are to create a future where it’s looking after people and planet better than it is today.

4. Design includes testing and iterative improvement

No matter how well I think I’ve designed something, there’s always room for improvement. And that’s something I embrace.

In the name of pragmatism it’s not always possible to hold out for a perfect design before launch, but you can keep testing (before) and reiterating (before and after) to improve and refine. 

5. Design challenges assumptions

This is really crucial if we’re going to get past the current state of tweaking different ‘economic mechanisms’ and coming up with bullshit ‘solutions’ (like printing more money, or fracking). ‘Solutions’ that only help some of the people on the planet and ruin lives for others, or ‘solutions’ that make craploads of cash whilst irremediably destroying the planet are not solutions at all. 

Design thinking is all about starting with a blank piece of paper and a goal. 

If you can apply that same thinking to the economy, what would we come up with?

Banks have been in existence for several centuries, so is it right to assume that they’re still relevant (even when they are causing huge amounts of human suffering)? ‘Growth’ has become something taken as an automatic goal to aim for, but if we achieve a standard of living that allows people to live well, why do we still need growth? ‘Deficits’ are used to get whole countries to tighten their belts, but the US is simultaneously the world’s biggest economy and has the world’s biggest national debt, so what if this is a false narrative?

Only by challenging our assumptions – a key element of design – can change happen.

I believe it’s time for design thinking to be applied to our greatest design challenge of all – redesigning the economic system. And if just a fraction of the $13bn a year invested in designing new iPhones was applied to that, just imagine what a difference we could make. 

Photo by Per Lööv on Unsplash