Harvard Conference Discusses Power of Design in Digital Age

Post-it notes line the concrete walls of the Harvard Graduate School of Design where student projects, ranging from plastic models to abstracted structural forms, are on full display for all those who now roam the halls and loiter in the lobby. Graduate students position themselves behind a long table near the conference entrance, handling check-ins through their smartphones and distributing gift bags containing branded notebooks and pencils—a hint at the learning that is to come. The fully catered café drew attendees for an early morning caffeine boost before taking their seats in the impressive auditorium. At the annual HarvardxDesign conference, designers, engineers, psychologists, marketers, and corporate professionals rub shoulders in a powerful exchange of insights and experiences. Here, insecurities about the future of issues like social media reporting, multidisciplinary collaboration, and online agency are embraced. The point of the conference is to illuminate the lingering questions that must be addressed and draw from the expertise of some of the world’s brightest design-driven problem solvers to propose solutions.

Created as a two-day conference starting Feb. 23 and hosted a stone’s throw from Harvard Yard, this year’s iteration of the sixth annual HarvardxDesign series was called InfluencexDesign. Sponsored by Cognizant, a professional services company providing IT models, and in partnership with McKinsey & Company, the conference was a result of a cross-disciplinary collaboration between the Harvard Business School, the Harvard Graduate School of Design, the Harvard John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, and Harvard College. The day was organized into four temporally separate but thematically linked panels: the experience of individuals, the fabric of communities, the structure of organizations, and the dynamics of systems. Each panelist was given the opportunity to present his professional work and personal views on one of the four issues to an intellectually curious crowd.

Many feverishly scribbled down notes as legibly as they could, raising their eyes from the page only to take pictures of the slides with their phones. Others typed away at their computers, and some recorded voice memos for future reference in the hopes of savoring every word. This was all done with good reason, as the lineup was an unorthodox mixture of leaders with backgrounds in academia, as well as self-educators working at small design consultancy and strategy firms. For example, the “Individuals” panel featured Ida Benedetto, a senior designer at SYPartners and formerly an experiential designer at Sextantworks. Benedetto built a career around curating site-specific experiences inspired by generosity, location, intimacy, and transgression. Her stance was that the only way people engage in meaningful, transformative experiences is by designing environments that challenge their way of thinking.

“If the only thing that happens because of your design is what you’ve anticipated, you’re probably leaving something on the table,” Benedetto said. “Control is overrated.”

On the other side of the spectrum was Shannon O’Malley, an associate at BEworks, a management consulting firm combining behavioral science with strategy. O’Malley comes from an academic background in cognitive psychology with a particular focus on attention and visual processing, and has sought to use these insights to construct compelling marketing “nudges” that can influence decision-making simply by way of how choices are presented. She also highlighted the impact of what she indicated as “social proofing,” which explains the tendency for humans to enjoy doing what others are doing. In many ways, O’Malley said that this marriage of psychology and design is intuitive.

“We [humans] are predictably irrational … we tend to be predictable in the way that we deviate from what is expected if we were optimal decision-makers,” O’Malley said. “No matter what business you think you’re in—whether that’s design, product development, marketing, sales, human resources—at some level you are really in the business of human behavior.”

The other panels continued this theme of design as a powerful tool for directing human decision-making, applying it to diverse initiatives such as sustainable fashion supply chains and the elimination of privilege and power structures within racial, cultural, and social contexts. Particularly in the “Communities” panel, emphasis was placed on how to offer agency to individuals through design instead of restricting it. In short, design is a collaborative endeavor that also acts as a double-edged sword and can be misused as a force for control unless democratized and shared with everyone.

“You can’t start a revolution if you don’t invite everybody,” said Kathleen Talbot, vice president of sustainability at fashion line Reformation. “This idea of accessibility and diversity is very important.”

The conference was diverse indeed, as other speakers included representatives from the Obama administration’s digital strategy team, a research and development lead at WeWork, and even computational poets that designed algorithms to create poems based on Project Gutenberg archives. Despite coming from seemingly unrelated fields and areas of expertise, the speakers approached the opportunity as more of an opportunity to learn rather than teach. There was humility in the discourse, even as they spoke of concerning issues plaguing the digital age.

“Intention tames uncertainty,” said Benedetto as the crowd filtered out of the auditorium after a day full of inspired conversation and networking.

Upon exiting the Harvard Graduate School of Design, attendees were challenged to consider the question: “How do you influence?”

Featured Image by Alessandro Zenati / Heights Editor

February 25, 2018