The goal of every organization is to shape a vision of the future, and convince people that putting effort into said vision is worth it. To create the context for it to be accepted. To install the future in the present.
Future doesn’t exist
We really like the motto of COLLINS, the design firm founded by Brian Collins and Leland Maschmeyer. Make your future so irresistible it becomes inevitable: with this value proposition, COLLINS has recently repositioned itself as a “transformation consultancy”.
The premise is that the future does not exist – or at least not just one. There are rather multiple futures, competing against each other at the same time, right now, and the present is the space in which many possible futures are struggling to assert themselves.
Each of us invests time and energy in building the possible future that we not only imagine and desire, but for which it’s worth fighting. In this scenario, design is the sum of all the means - mindset, skills and tools - needed to build the future we desire, making it visible to all. Designers don’t invent the future, but rather try to understand where the world is going, what it needs, making all of this comprehensible, shareable and desirable for everyone. In other words, they make it irresistible, so that it becomes inevitable.
In order to understand and shape the future in their line of work, Brian and Leland looked to the past, trying to figure out when was the last time an energetic and creative collective force had managed to capture the spirit of the future.
In their journey back in time, the two founders of COLLINS arrived in the 1960s at NASA, where they encountered an idea for the future so powerful it established itself as a widely embraced collective vision of the future.
Humans have always been fascinated by space and the exploration of the cosmos. From a place of adventure and unexpected encounters with aliens and flying saucers, towards the end of the 1950s space became the frontier of the Cold War. The United States responded to the first Soviet trips into space by creating NASA, the national agency for space exploration. The goal was to send a human being on the moon by 1969, as they wanted and needed to beat the Russians, who up to that moment were ahead in the space race. To succeed, however, they needed to convince an entire nation that it was worth accepting their vision of the future and committing to it. But how?
The decisive intuition came from President John F. Kennedy. Instead of framing the Moon conquest as a military mission, Kennedy opted to narrate it as the exploration of a New Frontier by humanity, tapping into the inherent pioneering spirit of Americans. Suddenly, space became a realm of discovery instead of a war zone, and astronauts were embarking on a journey towards a “sea of peace”, filled with abundant opportunities and benefits.
To further develop this storyline and ignite the nation’s imagination while steering it towards its envisioned future, NASA ingeniously drew upon a variety of archetypes and historical references. For instance, the initial astronauts were photographed in poses reminiscent of the portraits of early European explorers, effectively conveying the notion that the lunar voyage was akin to scientific explorations. The spacesuits, though not requiring a silver-plated appearance, were intentionally designed to evoke the attire of science fiction heroes from the 1950s.
Basically, Brian and Leland say, while NASA took humanity to the Moon, the creative class took society among the stars, in a collective effort that made the New Frontier tangible and present in people’s everyday lives.
NASA’s challenge is every organization’s challenge: to shape a vision of the future and convince people that it’s worth their effort, today and in the years to come. To create the context for such vision to be accepted. To ”install” the future in the present.
Beyond Design Thinking
This idea of “installing” the future into the present, of making it irresistible and therefore inevitable, is the goal that design should always set for itself. But even though design possesses the incredible ability to impact our lives, it seems like in recent years we've opted for something more straightforward, standardized, and readily marketable.
One only has to search online for the word design to be instantly flooded by images and articles that have no relevance for the actual inspiration of the future. What usually comes up are fairly generic approaches, typically made up of mindless rules: empathise, ideate, prototype… all this according to the established patterns of design thinking.
Not only does this diminishes the role of design, but it also turns its potential contributions into something far less significant and influential than they could - and should- be.
An article by Fast Company reports how IDEO, the design consultancy that popularised design thinking, is about to lay off a third of its workforce. This move was seen by many as a clear marking of the transformation of a particular idea of design into a commodity. Instead of bringing in new ideas to create distinctive services and experiences, design is now used to enhance existing processes and increase their efficiency.
Make the Future Present
The co-founders of COLLINS have a different idea of design. They have suggested a framework to start thinking about and shaping the future. This framework, called Knot, is composed of six elements that can be also divided into two groups of three.
In the first group we find everything related to the future we imagine:
- Want: our urgent desire for change;
- Belief: the ideal that motivates it;
- Means: the strength, the tensions, the technologies that make it possible.
The second group of elements, on the other hand, makes the future tangible for everyone else. Desire, ideal and social forces are linked together through:
- Story: the narrative that lets everyone know where we want to go;
- Symbols: the visual language that helps us show others the future we desire;
- Systems: the experiences that make our idea of the future concrete and tangible.
Brian and Leland urge us to use this framework for envisioning fresh futures and integrating them into our present. By crafting new stories, new symbols, and new systems, we can make the desirable futures we contemplate more concrete and comprehensible.