BOOK REVIEW: THE POWER OF DESIGN

20 May 2009
In this review of Richard Farson's book The Power of Design: A Force for Transforming Everything, Paul Nini describes how the author stresses the importance of design in the future of both the profession and society. Though perhaps not a typical design publication, Nini certainly recommends this book as a 'roadmap' for positive change.
Paul J. Nini

In this review of Richard Farson's book The Power of Design:  A Force for Transforming Everything, Paul Nini describes how the author stresses the importance of design in the future of both the profession and society. Though perhaps not a typical design publication, Nini certainly recommends this book as a 'roadmap' for positive change.




The Power of Design:
A Force for Transforming Everything

by Richard Farson
Ostberg/Greenway Communications LLC, 2008

The book The Power of Design, by American psychologist and educator Richard Farson, will no doubt be met with a certain amount of skepticism by some in the profession. It's not the typical book that we encounter in the design press - such as volumes on prominent designers or firms, or "how-to" guides devoted to specific practices. Instead, Farson attempts to chart a path for design to move beyond its current definitions and advance toward an even more significant role in society.

The Power of Design appears to proceed from the theories of Christopher Jones, who, in his influential 1970 book Design Methods: Seeds of Human Futures, describes a hierarchy of design problems that increase in complexity - from components and products to systems and communities. Clearly it's the upper range of this hierarchy that most interests Farson; that is, how design can make an impact at the societal level.

The book's sub-title, A Force for Transforming Everything, should be taken literally, as Farson makes an argument for design's potential roles related to many of our world's current ills. He focuses first on defining what he refers to as "meta-design," where practical approaches to solving problems are used to guide interdisciplinary teams charged with affecting positive change. From there he guides us through the current (United States) criminal justice, health care and education systems, and demonstrates how design thinking can be applied to these often problematic human undertakings.

To his credit, Farson also expends quite a bit of effort explaining the current roadblocks that keep designers from moving forward with his ambitious agenda. He argues against the isolationist effects of professional protectionism, licensure, etc., all of which run counter to the concept of interdisciplinary collaboration. He also goes into great depth on the subjects of design leadership and innovation and explains convincingly how failure is a positive and necessary part of the process of creating outcomes that serve the public good.

I have often wondered why governments (especially in the United States) typically craft legislation and spend huge sums on social programs that may or may not be effective. There is often no process of prototyping and testing prior to implementation, as we typically do in design practice. In other words, there's no opportunity to learn from our mistakes as we develop improved iterations and eventually arrive at a satisfactory outcome. Clearly this type of thinking and problem-solving typical to design is applicable in almost all aspects of our society.

Farson's insights on design as a transformative force are, to my mind, invaluable contributions to current discussions concerning future roles for the profession. And while this book may fall outside the interests of the typical design practitioner, it would be a shame if it were to be ignored. The potential for positive change is simply too great not to be acted upon, and The Power of Design provides an excellent roadmap for the coming journey.



About the author
Paul J. Nini is a Professor of Visual Communication Design at The Ohio State University (OSU). He actively consults with organisations on and off campus on design issues. He worked with the OSU Department of Transportation and Parking to develop and implement new parking design standards and parking garage signage. He is also part of a university committee working to develop a directional way-finding signage program for the university. Professor Nini's writings have appeared in Eye; The International review of Graphic Design (UK); Information Design Journal (UK); Design Issues(US); Statements, The Journal of the American Center for Design; and Voice, the journal of the American Institute of Graphic Arts. Professor Nini has served as editor and designer of the Industrial Designers Society of America's Annual Education Conference Proceedings and is a past board member of the Graphic Design Education Association.
http://design.osu.edu