For the 2,400 design professionals in the room, Daniel Pink’s words in closing this year’s HOW Design Conference were golden: The future—the near future, at that—belongs to the right-brained. The audience roared.
Pink wasn’t just playing to the crowd: His theory about the importance of creativity, innovation, empathy—and design—in the emerging economy is based on extensive research he conducted while writing his new book, A Whole New Mind, which is due for publication in January.
After the conference, HOW followed up with Pink and asked him to explain why and how design will shape global business. His responses will make you love your job even more.
You’ve said that in the emerging economy, the smartest thing someone can do is to be a designer and tell their children to be designers. Why is design a great career move these days?
Because the working world that you and I live in is very different from the one that our parents prepared us for. When I was a kid—and I grew up in a middle-class family, in the middle of America, in the middle of the 1970s—parents told their kids to become doctors, lawyers, accountants or engineers. Those jobs were the pathway to a happy and prosperous life. But that’s not true anymore. The economy that’s emerging today confers the greatest rewards on a different kind of person with a different kind of mind. It rewards not “left-brain” knowledge workers, but “right-brain” creators and empathizers. The future belongs to those kinds of folks—artists, inventors, caregivers and, yes, designers.
We’ve heard about this left-brain/right-brain division before. How does it apply here?
The best metaphor to describe what’s going on in work and business today is right inside our heads. The structure of our brains reveals a lot about the contours of our times. Our brains are divided into two hemispheres. The left hemisphere is logical, linear and sequential. It works like a computer. The right side is holistic, artistic and big-picture. Of course, we use both sides of our brain for most things. But the sorts of abilities characteristic of the left hemisphere are becoming less valuable. And the sorts of abilities characteristic of the right hemisphere are becoming more valuable.
Why is this shift happening?
Three big, unstoppable forces. What I call the three A’s—abundance, Asia and automation.
What do you mean by abundance?
I mean that in material terms, Americans are astonishingly well-off. Let me give you some examples. It used to be that the American dream was to own a home and a car. Well, today, two out of three Americans own the home they live in—and we have more cars than licensed drivers. Or think about self-storage, an industry devoted entirely to housing people’s extra stuff. Self-storage is a $12 billion a year business in this country—bigger than the motion-picture industry! That’s abundance.
Of course, we still have too many people living in poverty. But the standard of living in this country, for the vast majority, is breathtaking. Most of our material needs have been met and even surpassed.
Is that where designers come in?
Exactly. For businesses, it’s no longer enough to create a product that’s reasonably priced and adequately functional. Anybody can do that. Today, it must also be beautiful, unique and meaningful. That’s why people buy Michael Graves toilet brushes, Karim Rashid trash cans and Philippe Starck flyswatters. My gosh, one of the heads of General Motors says that GM is in the art business. The art business! GM! That’s a big deal.
In an age of abundance, appealing simply to rational, logical and functional needs is insufficient. If those things, experiences or images aren’t also pleasing to the eye or compelling to the soul, fewer people will buy them. Mastery of design—as well as empathy, play and other seemingly soft aptitudes—is now a key way for individuals, firms and consumers to stand out in a crowded market.
So what about Asia? I guess this has something to do with the shift of jobs—a generation ago, they were manufacturing jobs, and now they’re technology jobs—from the U.S. to Asia.
Right. Last year, I went to India and visited a bunch of software companies. One afternoon I sat in a room with six programmers. All of them had degrees in engineering or computer science. All of them did work for North American companies that would earn an American or Canadian about $75,000 a year. None of those six Indian programmers earned more than $12,000 a year. Scary.
We’ve heard a lot about outsourcing this year. But here’s the reality: Outsourcing is woefully over-hyped in the short term and woefully under-hyped in the long term. We’re not going to lose huge numbers of jobs in the next year or two—but over time we’re going to lose millions of jobs and entire categories of work.
And it’s not just computer jobs. There are chartered accountants in India completing American tax returns, Indian lawyers doing research for American lawsuits, Indian radiologists reading CAT scans for American hospitals. And it’s not just India. It’s Bulgaria, it’s Romania, it’s China, it’s the Philippines. Any job that’s knowledge-based and routine—that can be reduced to a set of rules—is gone.
Now, this doesn’t mean that all jobs in America will disappear. But it means the jobs that remain are those that depend on forging relationships rather than executing transactions, tapping emotions instead of manipulating logic, handling novel challenges instead of processing routine problems, synthesizing the big picture instead of calculating the details.
Sounds a lot like what designers do.
Then there’s automation. That had a huge influence at the start of the Industrial Age. How is automation changing the game now?
Computers are now doing to routine knowledge work what robots and other fancy machinery have already done to routine factory work. They do the work faster, cheaper and often better. If a $200-a-month Indian chartered accountant doesn’t swipe your comfortable accounting job, TurboTax will. Again, computers and software won’t eliminate every left-brain job. But they will destroy many and reshape the rest.
Now, add up these three forces and the consequences are stark. The jobs that remain in the U.S. and elsewhere won’t be “high-tech.” Instead, they’ll be “high-concept” and “high-touch.”
What do you mean by that?
High-concept means the ability to create artistic and emotional beauty, to craft satisfying narratives, to detect patterns and opportunities, to combine seemingly unrelated ideas into a novel invention. High-touch means the ability to empathize, to understand the subtleties of human interaction, to find joy in the pursuit of purpose and meaning. Those are the things that computers can’t do faster and foreigners can’t do cheaper—and they result in the kinds of products, services and experiences that are in greater demand in an age of abundance.
You’ve mentioned that, in your research, you identified six high-concept, high-touch abilities that have become crucial. What are they?
Well, one, of course, is Design. The others are Story, Symphony, Empathy, Play and Meaning. Mastery of them—I call them the “six senses”—will increasingly mark the fault line between who gets ahead and who doesn’t. Fortunately, design is one profession that relies on all six of these abilities.
Design certainly makes sense. What do you mean by Story?
I mean the capacity to explain, understand and persuade not only with logic, but also with narrative. There’s this notion that stories are either deceptive or ornamental—that they’re used to mask the truth or that they’re just a frivolity. But that’s wrong. Stories are how human beings have communicated since human beings began communicating. But the business world has largely neglected them. Now, with the surplus of information and products available, stories have become more important. Think about those great Apple ads a few years ago in which PC users told the stories of their conversion to Macs. Or go into a high-end grocery store. Half the labels tell the backstory of the product. Story is where design was maybe 10 years ago, when people began recognizing it as a point of differentiation in a world of abundance.
What is Symphony?
That’s the ability to see the big picture, to make new relationships, to think metaphorically, to put things together, to make the whole greater than the sum of the parts. This is something that computers can’t do very well and that foreigners, since they’re responsible only for a tiny piece of the pie, can’t do very well, either. But it’s something that designers do every day. Sidney Harman, cofounder of Harman Kardon, has a great line about this. He says he doesn’t like to hire MBAs. Instead, he wants poets as managers. He says poets are our original systems thinkers—and that it’s from their ranks that we’ll draw tomorrow’s business leaders.
Empathy is pretty understandable. But why is it especially important now?
Because computers can’t do empathy. Anybody who’s dealt with an automated phone service understands that. But human beings do it innately. It’s the ability to read emotions, to empathize with people, to understand where they’re coming from, to see with their eyes, to feel with their hearts. Those qualities weren’t so important back when a high SAT score and an aptitude for math meant you could get ahead. But today, it’s what going to separate the stars from the also-rans.
You mention Play as one of your six aptitudes. What do you mean?
I mean bringing to work a spirit of joyfulness and fun. For instance, there’s evidence that managers who are funny do better. If you go to offices where people are laughing, you’re likely to find that people are productive. And by Play I also mean the play industry in particular. Those of us over 35 or so have no idea how important and influential the video-game business is. And quote me on this: Games are the future of advertising. Even the U.S. Army is using video games in recruiting.
This, too, is a really big deal. I wish we had more time to talk about it. As the Baby Boomers age, and as societies grow more prosperous, the pursuit of meaning and purpose is becoming a key part of middle-class life.
Think of the 10 million Americans doing yoga or the 15 million who meditate or the countless more who just want to live lives of meaning. Commentator Andrew Delbanco has said, “The most striking feature of contemporary culture is the unslaked craving for transcendence.”
OK. Show us your skills at Symphony, and put it all together.
Let’s go through the list. You’ll see that designers are great at all six of these senses. Design? Of course. Check. Story? Yep, designers are pretty good at that. Symphony—putting it all together, seeing the big picture, combining disparate things into something novel? Three for three. Empathy? That’s also a crucial part of being a designer—putting yourself in the shoes of the person who’s going to read your brochure or see your poster. Same with Play. Designers certainly bring a much greater sense of fun to their jobs than, say, lawyers or accountants. And finally, there’s Meaning. That’s something else that designers accomplish—or at least try to accomplish—in their work. Indeed, that’s one reason you get out of bed in the morning—to do something great, to make a difference, to create an image or a typeface or a look the world didn’t know it was missing.
So you’re six for six. Not bad. In fact, in many ways, design is the quintessential high-concept, high-touch field. Tell your mother that the next time she calls you wondering when you’re going to get a real career.