The world faces daunting challenges—complex, fast-changing, and unpredictable problems. Design strategy is uniquely poised to address what we term “global challenges,” the challenges that really matter as we move into this new millennium.

Existing political systems and traditional disciplines seem unable to cope. We need to invent new ways of approaching global challenges. We need to invent new frameworks describing what people desire and what can sustain businesses, society, and the environment to help us decide how our lives will fit into a future that is only starting to come into view.

We need to invent a new type of design.

The ongoing evolution of design

The practice of design is evolving in response to large-scale economic, social, and technical changes.

What we now think of as professional design emerged in the mid-19th century. As the industrial revolution accelerated and mass production became common, planning-for-making became separated from actual making, and professional planners-for-making emerged—what we now call designers.

Throughout the 19th century and well into the 20th century, designers focused primarily on the form of objects—on appearance, material, and finish. This aspect of design remains important, but it no longer confers competitive advantage.

Beginning in the mid-1950s, a number of designers began to focus on groups of related objects—that is, systems—such as grid systems for publications and exhibits, signage systems for airports and other large buildings, and identity systems for large corporations. Rather than designing individual objects, systems designers create rules for how objects relate to one another—processes, frameworks, and kits-of-parts—which then give rise to individual objects. Such systems may produce an almost infinite number of permutations, impossible for the designer to completely explore.

The rise of computers and the Internet brought interaction design—a form of systems design—into the mainstream. As information technology evolves, stand-alone apps are quickly becoming a thing of the past. In order to really succeed, apps have to become platforms, and more and more, apps are connected in suites or “constellations” and linked to hardware, online databases, and human services. These systems-of-systems or multi-systems or product-service ecologies represent an emerging new kind of design in which designers coordinate relationships between systems and foster conditions in which ecologies can grow. Design for service and design for social innovation are examples of this new kind of multi-system design. Multi-system design strategy requires new frameworks and methods.

The changing context of design

In 1850, goods were scarce for most people in most countries, but by 1950, goods had become abundant for most people in developed countries. In a world of scarcity, making more of just about anything was useful and could be profitable. In a world of abundance, however, where people are already overwhelmed by choice, placing the right bets on what to make is a strategic necessity.

Today, all around the world, large-scale manufacturing no longer confers competitive advantage. Mass production has become a commodity. How do we make more stuff, more quickly and more cheaply, is no longer quite the question it once was. Increasingly important is the question: What should we make?

Said another way, we know more and more about how to make things (and how to build businesses), while we know less and less about who it’s for. The growing gap between our knowledge of how and who is the “innovation gap.”

Most of the innovations of the last century were driven by cheap energy, large-scale fixed production, and standards that ignored intangible value because it’s difficult to count. (For example: What’s the value of clean air? What’s the cost of poor schools?) In contrast, most of the innovations of the next century will be driven by cheap information, flexible production systems, and counting both tangible and intangible value.

In order to move from 20th-century innovation to 21st-century innovation and bridge the innovation gap, we need to invent new design strategy frameworks for describing what people desire and what can sustain businesses, society, and the environment.

The role of the innovation dashboard

In the early 1990s, the Doblin Group pioneered use of the Balanced Innovation model. This model argues that successful products balance the needs of users, the needs of the business, and available technology.

User-business-technology was sometimes translated as delightful-viable-buildable. We might recast it as Who?-Why?-How? Of course, What? emerges from the intersection of Who?-Why?-How? These four lenses provide a new way of looking at innovation. Each lens asks a key question, which can be explored using related frameworks.

1. What? Offering
What should we make? What can we offer that will make a difference in the world?

The product, the object itself, the environment in which it will operate, the messages it will convey, services associated with it, and the rest of the brand experience should all be considered. Traditional design techniques, such as sketching, story-telling, and rapid prototyping and quick iteration are extremely useful here—as long as they are supported by the other three lenses.

2. Who? User
Who is it for? What are their goals? What is their context of use? What will they do?

We can design for personas, terrain maps, and scenarios of use. Ethnography and other social science research methods help designers find insights about users.

3. How? Activity
How are we going to do what we need to do? How does the company operate? How might our activities provide competitive advantage?

Michael Porter’s activity system framework is a useful tool for representing key aspects of operations. By representing operations in simple maps, it becomes easy to see, share, and discuss options, and it becomes possible to iterate quickly.

4. Why? Business Model
Why are we going to do it? How will we create a sustainable business?

Value webs can be represented by stock-and-flow diagrams showing transactions between the participants in a product-service ecology, who co-produce and consume goods and services.


Innovation comes from looking through all four lenses simultaneously. It’s a challenge in its own right, but it can help us understand what to build.

What should we build? is a design question. It offers a path in for addressing global questions. It’s the route IIT Institute of Design is taking, even as we continue to develop other new frameworks and methods. Won’t you join us?