MDes Talks: Design Generalists in the Era of Design to Adapt

The role of a designer has transformed significantly in the past decade or two. As the world is moving away from the era of ‘built to last’ to the era of ‘design to adapt’, design has become a core strategy for organisations to stay competitive and consumer-centric. Consequently, designers are expected to be holistic in their approach, so that they can uncover real issues, and create solutions that add value to the business and its users at various emotional, social, functional and economical levels.

Far-reaching Consequences of Design

Design help transform the technology into tangible or intangible forms and influences the way people live their lives. Any design decision thus has far-reaching consequences than we usually think of. For instance, during US elections in the year 2000, a faulty ‘butterfly ballot’ paper design led to the victory of George Bush [1]. Similarly, a low height railroad ‘can opener’ bridge in Durham, North Carolina, has been the scene of at least 101 accidents since 2008 despite warning signs installed to alert the drivers [2].

A Solution Well-considered Is a Solution Works Best

It is, hence critical to foresee such issues and create a solution that works best given the possible scenarios and constraints. Conventionally, decisions that are made in boardrooms and political meetings are made with little or no inputs from designers and other stakeholders, including the end users. Many of such decisions are driven by organisation’s self-interest, false interpretation of limited data and for the sake of marketing. Unsurprisingly, many of the consumer products such as washing machines or toasters are complex and expensive as they are over-designed and over-engineered with non-essential features and functions [3].

Boardroom - unsplash - Benjamin Child
Conventiaonally, decisions are made in the boardroom (Photo: Unsplash/ Benjamin Child)

This can lead to complexities, add to increased costs, inefficiencies and devices can become prone to human error. For instance, Ford had to recall 13,500 of 2015 make Lincoln MKC car because drivers were shutting the vehicle off by mistake [4]. Therefore, the challenge for most corporations today is to innovate while mitigating risk. Designers must not only contribute to functionality and aesthetics, but also must understand a consumer's thought process and emotions [5].

Changing Role of a Designer: From a Stylist to System Creator

A designer now, is not only a stylist or a standardizer, but also a system creator, system adaptor, problem identifier, as well as an entrepreneur. A designer can utilise technology for continuous generation, consumption and modification of information such as databases, images, literature, etc. which further influence and transform cultures. In short, design has evolved into a multidisciplinary profession that is industry agnostic and can no longer be ignored or downplayed.

El Ultimo Grito on creating a new design ecosystem
El Ultimo Grito on creating a new design ecosystem (Photo Credit: Vimeo)

Bombay Sapphire Distillery designed by Heatherwick Studio | Photo Credit : joncrel on Flickr
Bombay Sapphire Distillery, designed by Heatherwick Studio (Photo: Flickr/ jon crel)

A designer’s design process can be applied to almost anything, for example, Spanish designers , have gone beyond discipline, crossing into art, interior, furniture, product and social services. Heatherwick Studio are taking up active roles as agents for change and collaborating with clients [6]. It is expected that over next five years, new wave of designers, formally educated in human-centered design, are able to integrate research, code and visuals to solve pressing issues, will move into leadership positions [7].

A Design Generalist: Putting Things into Perspective

Classroom, PolyU Design
In the classroom, designers are taught to develop a good understanding of the design context by applying a variety of research methods. (Photo: PolyU Design)

Though specialisation has its own importance, generalist designers who can operate across the entire spectrum of design process, from research till final product development, have a strategic edge [8]. Generalist designers can easily navigate through different fields, connect the dots and understand the big picture [9]. To meet the ever increasing user expectations, it is important to understand and think more holistically and generalist designers not just focus on the subject matter, but also take process, products, context and user needs into account [10].

Education to Train Designers Taking Decisions Objectively

During my Master studies at School of Design, The Hong Kong Polytechnic University, we were taught to develop a good understanding of the design context by applying a variety of research methods so that we can take design decisions more objectively. It also helped us to build the common vocabulary used among different domains - such as business and marketing - so that we can understand and communicate with various functional teams. In short, it enabled us to take different perspectives, communicate articulately, come up with holistic solutions and negotiate with stakeholders more effectively. And, such transferable design skills become indispensable when one move up the ranks in his/her career.

Hiring Trends in the Coming

However, currently in the majority of cases, designers are hired based on their specific skill set within a narrowly defined space [11]. This is changing fast and organisations are rethinking the way they are doing their hiring. No longer job descriptions at such organisations just focus on tactical skills, but also on strategic thinking, problem solving and interpersonal skills. They are putting a greater value on skills that allow a designer to work collaboratively with other departments and stitch together a solution that works in line with user expectations and business goals. Soon, we can expect more and more organisations to favour generalist approach as it allows for more agility, optimisation of individual’s potential and continuous development.


1. Npr. (2017). NPRorg, ”The Art Of The Vote: Who Designs The Ballots We Cast?”, Retrieved 5 February, 2017, from

2. Gutierrez, G. (2016), “North Carolina ‘Can Opener’ Bridge Continues to Wreak Havoc on Trucks”, NBC News. Retrieved 5 February, 2017, from

3. Norman, D. (2017), “Simplicity is highly overrated”, Jndorg. Retrieved 5 February, 2017, from

4. Isidore, C. (2017), ”Ford recalls SUVs because drivers are accidentally turning them off”, NNMoney. Retrieved 5 February, 2017, from

5. Sawhney, R. (2017), ”The Role of Design in Business“, Bloombergcom., Retrieved 5 February, 2017, from

6. Furniss, .L. (2016), ”What does it mean to be a designer today?”. Design Week. Retrieved 5 February, 2017, from

7. Labarre, S. (2016), "The Most Important Design Jobs Of The Future". CoDesign, Retrieved 5 February, 2017, from

8. Butler, C. (2013), “The Future Belongs to Multidisciplinary Designers”. HOW Design, Retrieved 5 February, 2017, from

9. Butler, C. (2012), “Why You Should Consider Being a Generalist”. HOW Design, Retrieved 5 February, 2017, from

10. Payton, J. (2014), “Why the best designers don’t specialise in any one thing”. WIRED, Retrieved 5 February, 2017, from

11. Kolko, J. (2011), "The Conflicting Rhetoric of Design Education". In interactions magazine, July/August, 2011, Retrieved 5 February, 2017, from

Posted by Aditya Kedia – Aditya Kedia is a strategic design consultant and researcher with expertise in human-centered and design thinking methods. Aditya graduated from Master of Design (Design Strategies) programme at The Hong Kong Polytechnic University and has experience working across sectors such as retail, e-commerce, banking, insurance, telecom and hospitality. Aditya has worked for global organisations such as EY, Standard Chartered and Sapient as well as several startups. Aditya has also organised and facilitated many design jams, events and workshops and is active within design and startup communities. 
MDes Talks is a series of Student Blogs contributed by students in different specialisms under the Master of Design Scheme. It is set out to share students’ first-hand experience in the d-school pedagogy, their projects, takeaways, and student life in general.