Citizen Design: Bottom-up-Innovation, Collaboration and Creative Mindset

The New Citizen Designer

Title: Citizen Designer

Proliferation of Design-Skills for Bottom-Up-Innovation

At the end of 2019, IDC estimated that over 500 million new apps will be developed by 2023. An enormous number for which, measured against current processes, the personnel is unlikely to be available. In light of this, Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella suggested that we will need “citizen developers” in the future who program these apps with easily accessible low-code/no-code applications. This would enable non-specialists to produce technical solutions themselves.

However, it must be said that for many applications, mere development is not enough. Because as soon as their users play a role, requirements become more complex and issues such as experience design or usability become relevant. The Citizen Developer therefore also needs appropriate design skills to realize the project. (Because always bringing a design agency on board will hardly work with the mass of tasks at hand). Fortunately, many of the relevant skills are inherent in humans, and that’s why I want to establish a new concept of the Citizen Designer, analogous to Citizen Developers. And on top of that, my goal is to create opportunities under which people can easily gain relevant training in this regard.


Designers: Collaborative Problem Solvers or Unique Geniuses?

Before we get to the heart of the idea, I want to briefly clear up two misconceptions that many have when they hear “design.” First, design is about much more than just aesthetics. Yes, artistic creativity, the design of experiences, and expertise on the underlying theory of these things are important parts of the work. But design is also very much about using the cultural technique of prototyping to develop solutions to problems. It’s about pragmatic ways to go from an idea to the testing environment, and design methods can be applied in many ways to shape innovation from the get-go. In reality, of course, this also includes a skill set around collaborative and cognitive capabilities.

The focus on aesthetics is probably due to the fact that design training (at least in Germany) is preceded by an artistic aptitude test. However, such a test calls for skills that have to be cultivated over a longer period of time, and it creates the misleading impression that only exceptional talents can become designers. This is wrong of course, and relevant creative abilities are inherent in every human being. It is absolutely clear that everyone can be at least somewhat creative in their work. Under the right conditions, anyone can become competent at using design principles, regardless of their company or occupation; and in the corporate context, this is especially feasible without in-depth design training, as tools such as style guides or design systems help simplify the design work there. Additionally, the employees can bring expert knowledge from their fields to the table when working with design methods, which is a further advantage.

Citizen Designer: The Current Term and Our Interpretation

A Little Less Elitist, Please

Unfortunately, the term “Citizen Design” has already been coined, which is why we have to enter into a tongue-in-cheek dispute over the sovereignty of interpretation. The term has been prominently discussed by Steven Heller in the book of the same name. He argues that designers work too often in the service of economic enterprises and should be more aware of their social responsibility. In other words, they should take a closer look at the influence they exert using design, which clients they choose to get paid, and when to assert themselves for the social good and against corporate interests.

Heller thus demands activism from designers, and that they commit their creative efforts for the greater good of society and its people. Overall, they should cultivate the self-image and identity of a “good citizen”. Heller also calls for the design industry to further professionalize this type of citizen design, so that we can offer something more than purely economic interests. (You can find a longer conversation with him on this topic on YouTube.) I see two problems here: First, we have a very combative narrative of the “good designer” versus “evil capitalism.” This is certainly due to American political conditions, and Heller makes no effort to hide his views in this regard. Second, the image of the designer as a “good citizen” still paints a sublime creator who has to come to the people to solve their problems with the great tool of “design.” Overall, I think we need to dissolve both of these images in order to really move forward in the future.

Steven Heller on his idea of Citizen Design. A video well worth watching, even though our own interpretation of the term is a little different from his.

For a Design Culture of Participation

I can certainly understand Heller’s approach of the “good citizen,” but in my opinion it is not enough. After all, the concept of the citizen strongly implies a moment of participation, of taking part in a community, of cooperation, and of acting in a way that is more than just driven by self-interest. In this context, John Dewey already suggested that cultural systems such as democracy only really blossom as a “way of life” based on applied practice, i.e., action. And under the right conditions, everyone can learn the necessary skills to participate – we just have to create them. And this can be transferred very well to a modern concept of design. Under the right conditions, design can serve as a platform for people in any company to engage creatively and to design solutions together as a team.

Everyone has the skills necessary for designing, even though within different biographies they will be nurtured to different degrees. In our society, for example, most people with a formal design education had the opportunity to cultivate their creativity early on and later professionalize it due to the priorities of their parents. German organizational psychologist Peter Kruse spoke of “biographical accidents” in this regard. Our goal now must be to create the conditions for others to engage in creative and meaningful work, too. However, these conditions are rarely a reality in our highly specialized economy which often focuses on the application of software and work processes that favor linearity over collaboration. Thus, what is needed is a work context in which the relevant skills can be trained; one that relies on the principles of human-centeredness and collaboration, on thinking in prototypes, iterating, failing forward, and testing under real conditions. Our aspiration is to make a reality in organizations the idea that everyone can become a Citizen Designer and work creatively.

Democracy is a way of personal life controlled […] by faith in the capacity of human beings for intelligent judgment and action if proper conditions are furnished. John Dewey, Creative Democracy

Citizen Design: Our Defintion

Citizen Design describes the ability to engage in design work even without a formal design education. Citizen designers use design as a strategic element for problem solving in a given context or system, such as an organization. Within the system, problems are defined and handled in a team and in multidisciplinary cooperation. This problem-solving process makes use of methods, principles and processes that are well known in design. Practicing those means fostering creativity and design skills in the employees. The methods are geared towards an iterative process of finding, testing and continuously improving purposeful, beneficial ideas. The focus is on collaborating on meaningful solutions that benefit the people directly affected and responsibly avoid negative effects. Last but not least, the meaningful activity changes the workplace experience in a positive way and thus generates further creative energy.

Image: Citizen Design Tasks
Distribution of Task Types
The work of designers differs depending on the role and project requirements. While UX design focuses on production, strategic design concentrates on product development, customer value and the strategic level. Citizen Design is also production-oriented, but with a focus on promoting the development process and cooperation within the team.

Image: Citizen Design Skills
Skill Set for Citizen Designers
A Citizen Designer needs a new set of skills. They are chiefly characterized by cooperation within interdisciplinary teams. The good news is that there’s nothing here that you can’t learn. The talents attributed to formal design education, such as above-average creativity and artistic expression, are not that relevant in this context.

Significance for the Economy and Society

500 Million Apps

What this means for the economic context should be pretty clear. When hundreds of millions of applications have to be designed, it saves a lot of budget if employees can simply do this themselves as Citizen Designers. To make this possible, Strategic Design provides toolset and framework to successfully integrate design principles in the project context and develop solutions. It can therefore be a platform to train citizen designers, for example, in collaboration between skilled designers and a team. For example, by providing suitable design methods and the use or promotion of relevant skills.

In the process, the stakeholders can then design themselves, with two major advantages: The teams know much better than we designers what they actually need, and they can bring that knowledge to bear to a greater extent. But they then do so in a collaborative environment that enables a joint creative process. In the process, both learn from each other: designers create the conditions for this new way of working, moderate, coach and guide the participants, and bring their design education to the table; in doing so, they in turn benefit from the expertise of the participants, who in the best case come from different areas of activity. In this way, the process not only establishes a new view of innovation, but also breaks down silos.

I am convinced that many companies that Strategic Design will enable organizations to tackle the bigger problems in our society and develop solutions for them.Felix Guder

Creative and Meaningful Innovation

This is precisely why cultural techniques from design enable companies to solve the complex tasks they face today: Economic and technological issues must be balanced with the human context and environmental challenges. To this end, the concept of Citizen Design has a lot of innovative potential. Coupled with the methodology of Strategic Design, it is suitable for much more than “just” the development of technological innovations: Rather, it is a basis for problem solving that can be applied to different subject areas in which we are currently experiencing the need for transformation, be it education, urbanity, mobility and many others. I am convinced that many companies that Strategic Design will enable organizations to tackle the bigger problems in our society and develop solutions for them.

Last, but not least Heller’s argument gives the impression that companies generally tend to be up to no good. It is only the responsible designers who oppose their base capitalist interest. I find this impression difficult, to say the least. After all, every organization is made up of real people, who also want to do good things and are committed to be good citizens in most cases. What’s more, many companies have also committed themselves to social, ecological and other important projects. Therefore, there should be no talk of “us against them”. After all, a creative, meaningful activity is something that many of today’s employees desire, something that they enjoy and that gives them a good feeling. Therefore, in order to tackle transformation, I am in favor of a more optimistic outlook in this regard as it will make the increase in creativity we will need much more attainable.

Strategic Design as a Platform for Professional Training

Now, How Does One Become a Citizen Designer?

At Iconstorm, we’ve been tinkering for a long time to develop the right approaches for the new path. And I believe we are now very well positioned in this respect. With Strategic Design, we have a structured process with which we can anchor design tools, but also the appropriate mindset, in client companies so that the aforementioned participatory and creative culture can grow. At the same time, our Meaningful Innovation Framework offers an approach with which we can work towards the designing the next big thing; from this, meaningful innovation emerges that yields more than “just” an economic benefit.

The combination of both turns employees of all backgrounds into Citizen Designers. Yes, the skills required for this are not insignificant. McKinsey recently attempted a phenomenology in regard to the modern work context that includes, for example, cognitive and interpersonal skills as well as self-management and knowledge about digitization. And from our own research, we know that this is by far not a complete picture. But it is precisely these skills that can be learned by practicing design, whether directly in the project or via learning opportunities such as in our M1ND Academy. Thus, my final plea would be: let’s embark on this route. Because we will definitely need change and innovation in the future, for reasons that should be well known to everyone at this point.

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Author and Contact

Bild: Felix Guder, Gründer und Geschäftsführer von Iconstorm

Observe, challenge, improve, test: As Iconstorms’ managing director, Felix Guder is a constant motivator for the development of our strategic design approach. And as a convinced practitioner, he carries our ideas to our customers and partners. If you are interested in a collaboration or simply want to know more about Strategic Design, feel free to get in touch!

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