The Daily Heller: Define the Word ‘Change,’ Then Define the Word ‘Design’

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Dr. Gjoko Muratovski is a strategist, author and educator who helps organizations become human-centric through design systems. For 20 years the Macedonian-born designer has collaborated with Fortune 500 companies, governments, NGOs and institutions from around the world, including NASA, the International Space Station, World Health Organization, UNESCO, Greenpeace, Johnson & Johnson, P&G, Toyota, Ford, General Motors, Fiat Chrysler, Amazon, and Facebook.

Muratovski is a project partner with the BMW Group + QUT Design Academy, innovation consultant at Stanford University, mentor-in-residence at SAGE Publications, adjunct professor at Queensland University of Technology, and visiting professor at the University of Zagreb. Currently he is leading the establishment of a new government-funded research commercialization hub at Deakin University in Australia.

I met him when, during the pandemic, he was endowed chair and director of the Ullman School of Design, and invited me to be a speaker in “The New Normal” series, the transcripts of which turned into his latest book of interviews, Design in the Age of Change. I decided to turn the tables on him with an interview about the book, its content and goals.

What is your definition of design today, and how, given the answers you’ve received in your book, do you speculate that it will change in the future?
Design is a field that defies a definition. This is because design is a field that constantly changes and evolves. On a very abstract level I can say that design today is a discipline that plays a corrective function in our society. Designers always aspire to make the world around us better or more beautiful in some ways. Sometimes, their solutions can be very simple, even superficial. But sometimes, they can be deeply systemic and transformative.

Based on the subjects that I examined in this book, I can say that we will see a suite of new transformational changes in the years to come. We are at a point in time when we are witnessing the rise of a new generation of designers that are more humanistic, more empathetic, and more conscious about their impact on the world than any other generation before them. And what is even more important, the current design establishment is not standing in their way but is actively trying to support them. We have never before seen such frictionless transition of “power” taking place in the history of design.

What prompted you to do this speaker series and subsequent book? And why a book, given that access to online platforms is more accessible?
In March 2020 when the pandemic reached the U.S., I was in the last year of my tenure as the director of the Ullman School of Design. Little did I know then that this would be the most challenging year for me as a university executive. When the stay-at-home orders were issued, I had to urgently develop a remote teaching and learning strategy for the school. I had to understand what kind of new technologies we needed, what kind of provisions and support systems we had to put in place, and how we could deliver our content in ways we had never done before. The students were particularly worried.

Many of our students thought that these disruptions would have a terrible impact on their education, and subsequently, their career. I tried to reassure them that change is a natural part of life, and a dramatic change such as this one can be a great learning opportunity. While they would miss out on some of the traditional hands-on approaches to design, they would gain a whole new set of digital skills. I was convinced that these will be very useful to them, especially as we were also transitioning into a new Industry 4.0 world. I also tried to reassure them that it’s not just them who are adjusting to this new reality. Professional designers were adjusting as well. Everyone, regardless of their experience or professional stature, would have to relearn how to design under these very unusual circumstances and conditions. I told them the playing field would be leveled for all, and this crisis could become an opportunity for them.

To prove my point, I wanted to invite a leading design professional to address the students (virtually) on the first day of their new remote semester. My first idea was to invite Carole Bilson, the president of the Design Management Institute, to talk to the students about the challenges that professional designers are experiencing now. And that was it.

But why stop there. So, I decided to invite a few more design leaders to speculate on what the future of our field could look like. This is how the concept of “The New Normal” speaker series started taking shape. The title was very timely and appropriate.

As I started working on the series, many other subjects worth exploring resurfaced—gender, race, privilege, politics, diversity, inclusion, activism, and so on. So, I decided to expand the guest list further. At this point, I really wanted to document this moment in time, as we were living it, in real time. Even though the series was livestreamed, digitally recorded and made available online, I also wanted to leave a more permanent historical record behind. Digital may be convenient, but it lacks the permanence that physical artifacts have. We often say that what goes on the internet stays there forever. But that’s not exactly true. Things may stay online forever, but they also get digitally buried and forgotten very fast. A good, printed book, on the other hand, is an entirely different thing. There is a different sentiment to a book.

What criteria did you use for selecting your interviewees? And their subject areas?
Some of the individuals featured in this book are globally established design leaders, while others are new and emerging but important voices for the field. I felt that it was important to bring together a highly diverse group of designers, and each of my guests is purposefully matched to a specific subject—or to key questions that I wanted to ask them, if you will.

As I was envisioning this project, I wanted to invite people that I felt would provide the most interesting and authentic responses. Every individual here is closely connected to each of the subjects that I wanted to discuss. There were no specific criteria in place when I was selecting my guests; just my best judgment based on my knowledge and understanding of the field.

Overall, I have to say that this book is a very topical project. Each subject featured here represents a snapshot in time—an issue that we, as a society, are dealing with right now. The subjects were selected because of their broad relevance that often goes beyond the field of design itself. And I have to say, for better or worse, most of these subjects will remain relevant for a long time. Issues related to gender and race, power and privilege, politics and economy, are not going to go away easily.  

Which of your subjects was the most surprising in the end?
I have to say the subject of degendering society in my conversation with Alok Vaid-Menon. This was, and still is, a sensitive and polarizing topic. Also, this is a subject that is rarely discussed in the mainstream media in great detail. In our conversation, I think that Alok did such an amazing job articulating why it is so important for the broader society to accept transgender and gender-neutral people. We reflected on this topic from the perspective of fashion design, but we also touched upon many social, cultural, and philosophical notions that surround this topic. I learned a lot from this conversation.

Who should read your book, and why?
I’d like to say that this book is for everyone. The book covers many interesting, and often sensitive, topics. There are so many things here that everyone should be able to relate to, or at least show interest in some of the subjects. This is a book of broader significance, not only for designers, but also for everyone who is interested in how the world around us continues to be shaped and designed. After all, designers are the kind of people who thrive in times of change. In fact, it is their job to create change.

You are a very serious educator in your own right. From the U.S., you emigrated to Australia, clearly to start a new venture. Why are you so peripatetic?|
My desire to travel and embrace everything that the world has to offer is probably because I come from a very small country—Macedonia. When I was growing up, following our independence from Yugoslavia, we were faced with unbelievable economic and political embargoes, travel restrictions, civil wars, and all other kinds of challenges. We were not being recognized as a sovereign nation by many countries, and some of these issues persist to this day. For a long time, we just couldn’t travel anywhere like normal people. I like my country, but it was quite hard for me to just stay put in a place where you could drive from one side of the border to the other in less than two hours. When finally I was able to travel, I just didn’t stop.

But let me get back to your question of “why.” At first, I wanted to pursue diversity of knowledge. I wanted to learn not only about different design philosophies as they were taught in different countries and regions of the world, but also I wanted to learn about different design disciplines. I started studying design in Macedonia when I was very young. I was 14 years old when I enrolled in a design program at the national school of arts there. Our curriculum was based on the Bauhaus principles. I got a good foundation there.

From Macedonia I went to Taiwan, then to Italy, Bulgaria, Austria, France, Greece, Turkey, Norway and England. I trained in interior and furniture design, industrial design, architectural design, visual communications, and graphic design. As I could not really afford to pay for all this education, I had to work very hard and earn a lot of scholarships along the way. Finally, I received a very substantial scholarship ($250,000) to come to Australia to do my Ph.D. there in design research. This was part of a government program for attracting foreign experts. After I completed the Ph.D. (thanks to some of your books, Steve), the Australian government fast-tracked my citizenship here.

Then, I went on pursuing exciting new work opportunities, at first with universities in Australia and New Zealand, and then in the USA. I also had numerous professional and academic engagements all over the world—in Asia, Europe, Africa, and the Americas. I worked on all kinds of projects that you could possibly imagine—from a special design challenge for the International Space Station together with the World Design Organization, to developing smart farming strategies in Kenya on behalf of Stanford Institute for Innovation in Developing Economies. In the meantime, I also expanded my knowledge in areas other than design by taking executive education at places such as Harvard, Yale, MIT, and Oxford.

Now, I am back in Australia.

What is next in your future, and your future design plan?
I am very interested in pushing the boundaries of what designers do. I really want to do work that transcends the typical boundaries of our profession, as I strongly believe that designers can do much more than what they are doing today. With my work, with the educational programs that I have developed over the years, and with my books, I try to move the field a step further.

I am pivoting by working in a field where you don’t typically find designers. As I mentioned earlier, I am the director of a new government-funded hub called Digital Futures, which is based at Deakin University in Melbourne. The hub is essentially a network of autonomous but interconnected research labs, centers and institutes that explore and develop new and emerging digital technologies. Here I work with multiple teams of scientists and engineers who specialize in areas ranging from cyber security, artificial intelligence, robotics, blockchain technologies, quantum computing, and much more. And I think that it is amazing that they have selected a designer to lead such a project. This is the kind of thing that sets the bar higher for the field of design as well. Typically, designers are rarely entrusted with leading such efforts that sit so firmly in the domain of other disciplines. But here we are, making strides in areas where we don’t “normally” belong, and I love it.

It’s a brave new world out there for designers.