How design for the 21st century is shedding traditional disciplines to take a systemic, holistic approach to tackle grand global problems.


Over the past decade, there has been a movement within the design community to seek out what Design (with a capital D) really means within the complex fabric of today’s society. The value of understanding and considering design in this sense means to understand how design decisions affect the politics of personal and social liberation.

A large part of this journey is redefining design in a very broad sense. Design is now starting to encompass fields like agriculture, education, health, energy, transportation, and others that have not been typically associated with the discipline. It is looking at old problems, reframing them and creating new approaches to answer our human needs more appropriately. Because of the inclusion of such fields in this evolution of design, new methods, theories and techniques are being demanded to better address complex emerging problems.

This redefinition of design is asking designers to take on a systemic approach to problem solving using more collaborative processes. It is design that integrates the user as co-creator, a more human-focused approach, rather than just to meet market demands. It is requiring designers to see things differently, and to no longer view design in the material sense, but to see how design can be applied and how it can affect the immaterial and metaphysical realm.

So what does this mean for us and for our future? Where can we see examples of this being done well in “practical” life? Where are those examples of models, wild approaches and thinking that push the envelope of what is possible?

Let’s take the Sustainable Dance Floor project, for example. How much energy do you think can be produced during a night (or nights) out at Berghain by an individual? Of course, it might depend on the individual, but Studio Roosegaarde actually created an interactive dance floor in Rotterdam that generates electricity through the act of dancing. The solution produces up to 25 watts per module, which, in turn, creates energy to power the lighting and DJ booth. But it doesn’t just end up as some tacked on ideology, it enhances the experience itself, using interaction and light to drive more user involvement. The purpose-built space integrates the concept fully in their design. The original club concept also used rainwater-fed toilets and low-waste bars and it was developed using recycled material, and even the heat was partly supplied from the showcased bands’ amplifiers and other equipment.

A girl on a sustainable dance floor
4SEE Opinion – Design Beyond Borders // Photo by BERT SPANGEMACHER //
Dance floor photo by courtesy of Daan Roosegaarde // www.studioroosegaarde.net

The Plus Pool in New York City’s polluted East River, which came out of a casual discussion with friends and became a highly successful kick-starter campaign, takes the concept of system integration through design to a whole new level, providing recreation, public amenities, and giving back to the environment all at the same time. The concept proposes the creation of a 9,000-square-foot pool in four modules whose perimeter forms a “plus” sign. The floating swimming pool would actually purify the water as you swim. Still fighting the city for approval and final installation in the river, the project plans to uses a triple-membrane filtration system which will keep solids and bacteria out of the pool and make it safe for swimmers, while simultaneously improving water conditions in the East River.

The Plus Pool in NYC
4SEE Opinion – Design Beyond Borders // The Plus Pool in NYC // Rendering
By Family New York // Courtesy of Friends of + POOL
The Plus Pool in NYC
4SEE Opinion – Design Beyond Borders // The Plus Pool in NYC // Rendering
By Family New York // Courtesy of Friends of + POOL

The application of these new methods and thinking strategies like Sustainable Dance Floor or Plus Pool utilize tools from design, specifically relying on the distinct toolkit of a particular field of study within design, however, it is not limited by the toolkit or by the boundaries of this particular discipline, it amalgamates the tools with new concepts, consistently working with experts outside of design.

As we are bombarded with a world seeking the “newest innovations”, “future-facing technology”, “disruptors” it is easy to lose sight of what often is the simplicity of what we are here to do. Often all it takes is a look back and a look at what is around us to see those systems and structures that have been there all along, underpinning our existence. And to use these insights and observations to think strategically and solve problems.

The transformation in 21st-century design calls for more interdisciplinary collaboration. Lying at the foundation of this need for interdisciplinary is the disciplines, themselves, are ill-suited to address complex problems. Richard Buchanan says it best in his book Design Research and New Learning, “We possess great knowledge, but the knowledge is fragmented into so great an array of specializations that we cannot find connections and integrations that serve human beings either in their desire to know and understand the world or in their ability to act knowledgeably and responsibly in practical life.”

The intricate nature of the grand challenges of today requires us to step beyond the structures of past design practice—to conduct more comprehensive research which requires the knowledge of disciplines well outside Design. If Design wants to be qualified to address the concerns of the 21st century, concerns that are consistently complex, and even wicked, it is necessary that the discipline not just frivolously attempt to work with other fields of study intermittently, it must unequivocally reinvent the practice. Otherwise, what is the purpose of a design discipline that cannot address the most pressing design concerns of the day, today?

Author Bio

Jill Yoe Graves is a digital strategy specialist focusing solving sustainability challenges through design. She is currently the head of global design for Yara International, a leader in providing digital farming solutions, benefiting the farmer, while also positively impacting environmental efforts and the longer-term goal of feeding our future generations.

This article originally appeared in the WILD issue // published in August 2019.