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Designer Sylvia Harris passed away Sunday, leaving a gaping hole in the design world. Sylvia was a true pioneer, breaking new ground with virtually every move she made in our profession. Sylvia was participating in a meeting of the of the United States Postal Service Citizen Stamp Advisory Committee in Washington DC last Thursday when she suddenly collapsed.
I was introduced to Sylvia several years ago by designer Katie Osborn, who worked closely with Sylvia. We instantly connected around our mutual passion for the possibilities designers have to improve the patient experience in healthcare. Whether you knew Sylvia Harris or not, your experience as a designer has been positively impacted by her—all too short—time with us.
A 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 exhibition). 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: