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The Big Picture 1: A conversation on designing the future with U of M design dean Tom Fisher

In the first of our Big Picture interviews, we sit down with Tom Fisher, Dean of the College of Design at the University of Minnesota. The affable, insightful Fisher, a journalist and author as well as a designer and an academic, runs a multi-department College that takes in architecture, landscape architecture, graphic design, apparel, interior design, housing studies, and retail merchandising. In keeping with his broad mandate, Fisher has wide-ranging views on the relevance of design to our city and our world.

The Line: Tom, What are the strengths of the Twin Cities design community?

Tom Fisher: I don't know if this statistic still holds, but several years ago somebody ranked different cities according to the total of their design fees and we were fifth in the country. And I think we're 15th or 16th in size. So our design community is much larger than you would think a city this size should have. We're a net exporter of services by quite a bit--there are many design firms here doing work all over the nation and the world. I think that is something that isn't often understood by people here. We all know we're good in medical devices, retailing, and food, but I don't think people are aware of how strong we are as a design community.

The advertising industry and the graphic design-related industries, printing, web, all of that is very strong here. Our ad industry does a lot of national and international work. We're also quite strong in architecture. We have a number of very large architectural firms here who are doing work all over the world and even though that industry has taken a hit in the last couple years because of the recession, the international work is keeping a lot of our firms busy, as are health care and some other areas.  

There's a pretty active clothing design community here. It's not New York or L.A. but there's a lot of energy. We have small but well-respected landscape architecture and interior design scenes. And of course we also have a lot of companies that are very design-dependent, like Target, and even our medical-device companies. If you start to look at design in its broadest definition you realize that it is a big component of the Twin Cities economy.

In each one of these areas there are practitioners here who are known nationally and internationally, so we're I think widely viewed across the country as being a kind of outpost of a strong design talent in a part of the country that isn't necessarily known for that. There isn't much between us and Seattle going west and not much between us and Chicago going south, and in many of these areas we're as strong or stronger than Chicago. We're much stronger than other cities in the Midwest that are comparable in size, like Kansas City and St. Louis. We're actually stronger than Texas cities like Houston and Dallas.

Are The Twin Cities Ready to Explode?

Tom Fisher: I think one of the things that we need to start to get ready for is the potential of very rapid growth.  I was telling a colleague that I was just reading this book on climate change, and one of the things they say is that as the climate changes not only is there going to be coastal flooding but more and more droughts. People are going to move to where there's a lot of fresh water, and we have it. There have been discussions we might get to a million people in a few more decades, but I don't think we're ready for the idea that we might have many millions of people coming here.  

We are away from a coast sitting on or near the largest concentration of fresh water in North America, including Lake Superior. I think that is going to be a magnet for people. The city is already becoming a magnet, but I think we could see more growth than we currently imagine. I'm not sure we're ready for that.

The Line: Some observers here think we need to upgrade a somewhat provincial mindset.

Tom Fisher: I think we have been a little bit provincial, though I don't think that's as true in the corporate sector. I actually think our large corporations totally get it. These are super- global companies, Medtronic, Cargill. I think the problem lies in the politicians in the public sector. We're in these endless debates about raising taxes, not raising taxes, cutting spending. We should be talking about infrastructure and education, because those are the things that only the public sector can invest in. Companies don't build roads and highways. 

Is Design Socialist?

To me part of the underlying problem is a kind of hostility to design and planning. Design is about looking at the future, thinking about the way things could be. Planning is about figuring out the steps we need to take to achieve where we want to go. Any corporation is doing this all the time, planning and designing and envisioning where they're going. How come it's viewed as socialism when it's done in the public sector, when in fact smart design and good planning will make us more competitive and enhance the business community?

Somehow we have got to get past this extreme political discourse and just pragmatically get on with things.  Designers are pragmatic. We make things that work.  Sometimes people like to think that we're idealistic artists, and that's how the media likes to portray us, but every designer I know wants to make things that are efficient, practical, functional, and also look good. A lot of the design community would just love us to get on to solve problems, not endlessly debate ideological positions.

A Completely New Vision for Design

The Line: Where do you see the College of Design contributing to the future of Minnesota?

Tom Fisher: Design thinking as a way of creative problem solving is getting to be deeply embedded in the business world and many other areas. And we've just started a program with our School of Nursing on redesigning healthcare delivery.  We're talking to our Humphrey School about a design studio that would help redesign government. We've been talking to the Carlson School about a design thinking track in the MBA program.  We're talking to Public Health about some sort of public health design degree that would enable students to look at the impact of the physical design environment on people's health. We're starting conversations with schools in the College of Education, looking at how to bring more creativity into K-12 education--because a recent survey of CEO's that IBM did said that the number-one trait that CEO's look for in their employees is creativity.

The Line: Are these alliances between design and other fields happening in other schools as well?

Tom Fisher: Yale has a partnership between its design school and their environmental school.  There are a few other schools that have partnerships between design and business, but I don't know anybody that's got it with agriculture, nursing, public health, government, education, as well as business and other fields. I think we are out ahead in this evolution in thinking about how design can bring value to all aspects of human life.

Design Beyond Objects

We're going through a change similar to what occurred in law schools in the 20th century. You used to go to law school to try cases in court, and over the 20th century law schools changed to be places where you went to think legally about problems.  Only a minority of law graduates ever set food in a courtroom today.  There are very similar changes going on in design: we will still have designers who design buildings and clothes and cars and websites, but there is this whole other area of need where people will bring creative design-problem-solving to systems and infrastructures and organizations and services of various sorts.  

For example: one of my top recent grad students is about to join a big health care company here to help them redesign their service delivery. He's a designer. I think they reached a point where they realized that medical personnel didn't really know how to think and analyze and come up with creative new solutions without having a designer with them. This emergence of whole new areas of design thinking will change the design fields, but our goal is to improve our competitiveness, our effectiveness and efficiency in all of these areas.

I think that these emerging areas will lead to new fields: systems design, experience design, service design, organizational design--fields that don't really exist yet but will in the future.

The Economic Meltdown: A Design Flaw

Tom Fisher: I just finished a book manuscript called Fracture Critical: How We Design Our Way to Disasters, and I look at system flaws and how the same flaw in thinking led to Katrina, led to the BP oil spill, led to the financial collapse, led to the housing price collapse. These are not disparate, unrelated phenomena but part of a series of system mistakes we've made, bad design that has led to a series of failures. Once we see things as design systems we realize that we're designing a lot of things really badly and their failure is having catastrophic effects on us.

The Line: What does design thinking bring to our view of these systems?

Tom Fisher: First of all, a lot of people don't realize the way designers work. You do a lot of research, develop some ideas, and then you put them up for critique and people try to shoot them down, saying: "This won't work. You've got to change that." You do it again and again. It's an iterative process, and by the time you've gone through many phases of it you've got a solution that basically nobody can find many flaws with.

We don't do that in a lot of areas.  I mean, imagine if we had designed these financial products on Wall Street iteratively so that people said, "If that product fails you're going to bring whole banks down with you. You need to go back and redesign that hedge fund so it won't do that." They never did that. They just put "products" out on the market. That is bad design. The design process and its critical iterative form is really necessary.

Designers Help Us Face Change

Tom Fisher: Designers also help envision alternative futures. Designers work with what could be rather than what is or what was, and they're very good at coming up with lots of alternatives.  

There's a lot of change going on a lot of people are afraid of the future, because that future is going to be quite different from the one that we're used to, and rather than be afraid we need a systematic way to say: we could do this and this is what that would mean, or we could do this alternative. It would help people get their minds around alternative scenarios for the future.

The Line: It's very pragmatic and un-mysterious.

Tom Fisher: Design is about 95 percent perspiration and five percent inspiration.  It tends to attract very creative people, but the discipline of learning design makes it so that they apply creativity to practical solutions.  It isn't like fine arts, which tend to be very high on the creativity quotient but aren''t about solving practical problems. Design solves problems in the world.

Photos of Tom Fisher by Bill Kelley

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