Lab Focused on Human-Centered Design Moves to Put San Diego on Map

For Michèle Morris, the big question hanging over organizers as they laid the groundwork last year for the first Design Forward Summit was whether the innovation community in San Diego understood the value of design.

“We didn’t know who was going to show up—and 600 people showed up,” said Morris, who is associate director of the Design Lab at UC San Diego and a founder of the Design Forward Summit.

Now, with the second Design Forward Summit set to begin Wednesday on San Diego’s downtown waterfront (and Thursday in Liberty Station), Morris said the question to be answered this year is “What’s next?”

The Design Lab was the driving force behind the first summit, and the driving force behind the Design Lab is the octogenarian Don Norman, a former Apple fellow and a leader in “design thinking.”  UC San Diego Chancellor Pradeep Khosla recruited Norman in 2014 to serve as the lab’s founding director, with the mission of making the Design Lab a magnet for the local innovation community and a beacon for design leadership in San Diego and beyond.

Morris said Norman asked her to organize the first Design Forward Summit with the idea of helping San Diego stake its claim as a global capital in the field of “human-centered” design. (She’s still a key organizer, as part of a non-profit organization that took over planning for this year’s summit.)

Don Norman at 2016 Design Forward Summit (UCSD Design Lab photo used with permission

Don Norman, director of the Design Lab at UC San Diego, at 2016 Design Forward Summit

In a phone interview Wednesday from Montreal, where she was attending the World Design Summit, Morris said design is no longer merely about how things look—especially in tech.

From the iconic design of Coca-Cola bottles to Herman Miller chairs to all things Apple, Morris said design has evolved to become a way of thinking, a process that focuses on how things work—and how users experience the way things work.

“The value of design thinking is that you’re first and foremost identifying the right problem and asking the right questions—rather than coming up with a solution first, and hoping the market embraces it,” she said. What was once industrial design has evolved to become an approach to problem-solving, a framework that can be used by disparate groups to collaborate, create better products, and to help people make faster decisions.

Morris said the answer to “what’s next?” for this year’s summit may depend on the small-to-medium-size businesses that pervade San Diego’s regional economy.

Bigger companies like Illumina (NASDAQ: ILMN), Qualcomm (NASDAQ: QCOM), and Thermo Fisher Scientific (NYSE: TMO) have been expanding their design teams and have more resources for training and workshops. But Morris said small-to-medium business owners, constrained by time and resources, have been slower to absorb the value of design. As a result, she said much of the Summit’s program has been organized with business leaders at all levels in mind, along with civic leaders and community activists.

“We aim to demystify human-centered design and inspire business and civic leaders with actionable ways to embrace the process in their organizations,” said James White, a co-chair of the Design Forward Summit, in a recent e-mail.

As the broader digital revolution evolves toward artificial intelligence, augmented reality, virtual reality, and other complex systems, Morris said human-centered design is playing an increasingly central role in technology innovation and development. “Life and change are going to happen,” she said. “I like to say it’s either ‘design or default.’ Either we need to design for [changing technology] or we’ll end up having to react to it.”

Aesthetics continues to be part of the design process. “But now design is really about intent and defining the set of actions behind achieving better outcomes,” Morris said. “If you’re not doing that with your user in mind, then your chances of achieving sustained better outcomes is limited.”

To Morris, who has worked at the forefront of human-centered design in Silicon Valley, New York, and Washington D.C., San Diego has the makings for becoming a major design hub. The vibe is different here, she says.

By one estimate, there are 2,000 practicing designers in San Diego, and Morris said, “The collaborative nature of what we have here is pretty phenomenal. We live in this very unusual city that has a strong component in technology, a strong component of military, and it’s a beach town at the same time.”

The non-profit Design Forward Alliance, which was created last year to organize and manage the Design Forward Summit, comprises nearly three dozen entrepreneurs, designers, and design-driven firms and companies that are supporting the cause in San Diego. As president of the all-volunteer Alliance, Scott Robinson provided some additional insights in response to questions from Xconomy. Robinson is founder and president of the San Diego design agency FreshForm. His answers have been lightly edited for clarity:

Xconomy: Is the design community in San Diego any bigger than other cities with tech clusters? For example, Austin, TX; Seattle; Boulder-Denver; Boston?

Scott Robinson: Bigger? Maybe. We have uncovered that there are well over 2,000 practicing designers in San Diego.

With Don Norman coming back to San Diego, combined with the world-class academic research from the UC San Diego Design Lab, and the energy of the existing design communities in San Diego—AIGA, UX Speakeasy, SDXD, and SEGD—we can harness these elements to quickly become the global hub for design-driven innovation. Illumina, Qualcomm, and Thermo Fisher are all continuing to build up their design teams. San Diego Startup Week has added a design track to their program.

X: What is the Design Forward Alliance trying to accomplish?

SR: The Design Forward Alliance is a new non-profit organization created by design leaders in the San Diego community who believe in a design-driven innovation economy.

The mission is to create a unified effort that promotes the value of professional design and design thinking for better outcomes in business, education, government and the San Diego community. We aim to have a tangible impact on the city as we articulate the value and process of human-centered design. The Design for San Diego (D4SD) Civic Design Challenge on Mobility is one initiative.

X: How do you know if you’ve succeeded?

SR: Short term success:

1) We increase the demand for design in organizations (corporate, nonprofit and government) in San Diego. This comes through more job posts for designers of all disciplines.

2) We also retain top design talent in San Diego. The talent will feel there’s plenty of complex problems to solve here in San Diego and the workforce knows that organizations are leveraging the process of human-centered design to solve these problems.

Long term success:

1) We draw college students and adult learners to San Diego as a hub for the best human-centered design education. UC San Diego, San Diego State University, University of San Diego, and Domus Academy are all offering design thinking courses.

2) We draw talent to San Diego as a hub for design leadership jobs, for example, by luring Amazon and others to open design studios here.

3) We consistently provide value back to the region through various design-driven initiatives (projects and tangible artifacts) and events.

4) Earn the designation of World Design Capital for San Diego by 2028.

2016 Design Forward Summit (UCSD Design Lab photo used with permission)

Bruce V. Bigelow was the editor of Xconomy San Diego from 2008 to 2018. Read more about his life and work here. Follow @bvbigelow

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