A Conversation with Surya Vanka, Founder of Authentic Design

A designer, educator and author with more than 25 years of industry experience, Surya Vanka was inspired to become a designer when he found himself disenchanted by his chosen path of engineering. Taking inspiration from famed Italian designer Achille Castiglioni, Surya infuses everything he does – from leading the central design team at Microsoft, working with marginalized communities or facilitating interdisciplinary workshops – with lightness, honesty and humor. As both a learner and a teacher, Surya understands both the magnitude and minutia of design’s potential impact. We spoke to Surya about his design studio, Authentic Design, his theory of “design swarms” and the role of designers in addressing our most pressing global challenges.

Tell us about Authentic Design. What led you to found it?

I have always enjoyed exploring and using my creativity as a designer, whether it be with large corporate teams, in a classroom of students or leading various initiatives for design organizations or festivals. After almost twenty-five years in my design career, I found myself with a mix of experiences from industrial design, interaction design, design leadership and teaching design, which allowed me to pursue my goal of founding Authentic Design. In many ways, Authentic Design’s mission is the same as my personal mission: to unleash the design thinker in every person to become a value creator.

What can you share about some of the work you have done at Authentic Design with designers (and non-designers) for so-called marginalized groups (women in shelters, those struggling with addiction)?

Through Authentic Design, we have had the opportunity to be involved in a wide range of projects using the design swarms approach. These include: exploring ways to reduce homelessness in a number of cities, aiding seniors with independence, fighting water-borne diseases, enabling vaccine distribution in the meningitis belt, reducing gender violence, building frameworks to prevent opioid addiction and address shelter issues in refugee camps, helping immigrant refugee populations settle in new countries, reducing plastic pollution in oceans, and facilitating rainwater harvest in dry climates.

What significant changes have you seen within the design industry over the past two decades?

It is quite astonishing to see how much change has occurred over the past two decades. From being understood as a discipline primarily involved in the visual aspects of products and messages, design has now become a tool for the transformation of organizations, business and non-profits, to economic development in cities and countries. As our world grows more complex, volatile and uncertain, designers are increasingly being called up to lead the conversation. It is design’s strength as a process-centric discipline that allows it to rapidly transform problem landscapes, while other methods may quickly become outdated.

As the scale of design influence has grown from impacting products and communications, to experiences to organizations, the next opportunity and challenge for the design discipline is impacting social justice and planetary change.

It is design’s strength as a process-centric discipline that allows it to rapidly transform problem landscapes, while other methods may quickly become outdated.

What can you tell us about your ‘design swarm’ theory? Where does the name come from?

In having the opportunity to work in and with a variety of interdisciplinary teams around the world, I noticed a pattern among those that are successful in solving complex problems elegantly. These teams tend not to function like top-down command/control organizations, but have the nimbleness of an ant farm and the grace of a shoal of fish as they find their way around obstacles. Design Swarms was born from this observation, as a way to instrument and motivate the behaviors of swarm creativity.

You may wonder what swarm creativity has to do with design, but design projects are fundamentally about collaboration. The design swarm process is a way for teams to go through the journey of solving a problem by systematically exploring the problem space before moving into the solution space. To achieve this, design swarms use visual process maps that depict different parts of the design process, which allows both designers and non-designers alike to be included.

Benefiting from the clarity of a defined, dynamic and well-orchestrated process, design swarms also provide the advantage of increased velocity. While groups may be divided into multiple teams that solve the same problem concurrently, they all have access to each other’s work and process. Having continuous visibility to each other’s creativity breakthroughs enables an invisible leadership within each team that ripples out to the whole group.

We understand that there will be certificate courses for future Swarm leaders. Can you tell us more?

This is a very timely question. After building and testing design swarms over the past few years through various workshops on almost every continent, we are now moving to teaching people how to fish. We have just completed an in-depth 10-session certification programme for a large group of faculty members at a design school, and I am working with another large group now. We plan to launch the certification programme in Winter 2020. Stay tuned!

Your work acknowledges the existence of wicked problems – a class of social or cultural challenges that are almost impossible for designers alone to solve. In your opinion, how do we leverage our creative capital to actually make a difference?

We have indeed found ourselves in a difficult place where there are thousands, even millions, of wicked problems that need urgent solving. At the same time, we have some 7.5 billion creative minds, of which only a tiny fraction of that incredible creative potential is being used to solve these problems.

While raw creativity can be expressed, it does not always create value for others. It is through the systematic design process that creativity gets turned into social value. With this knowledge, we can collaboratively work to learn new behaviors and skills that will enable us to tap into our immense, unused reservoirs of creative capital.

In your opinion, given the current state of the world, what are some of the key areas that designers should be focusing on?

Design can be used as the instrument that includes or the instrument that excludes. Within the simple choices we make when we design a product, a message, a space or an experience, we can unwittingly disempower someone by not being thoughtful enough about the ripples of impact that our choices have. It used to be that those ripples impacted a few hundred or a few thousand in the past, but what we design and create today may be used by billions, and our thoughtlessness can have magnified consequences. Designers should be aware that if they are not designing inclusively, they are designing in exclusion for someone.

Looking to the future, what would you like your own design legacy to be?

I think of my own journey with design as a series of concentric circles. At the center was discovering and falling in love with design and becoming a design-powered person. The next was to help companies I worked for, become design-powered. As a design teacher, I then found myself helping create design-powered communities in cities like Seattle. As these circles expand, I hope that I can play a part in helping creating a design-powered planet.

If you had to define yourself in three words, what would they be?

Visual, empathic, holistic.

Any final words on the power of design?

As designers, we can sometimes forget this incredible power we have in our hands. Beyond our skills of empathy or visuality, we are experts at this infinitely elastic, malleable way of thinking that can be applied to any number of challenges of so many different scales. At these pivotal moments in our history, when we are all being called to make a difference, designers can use this power to be of true service.

Surya Vanka is a designer, educator and author—at the leading edge of physical and digital experiences for more than 25 years. He served as director of user experience at Microsoft, a tenured professor of design at the University of Illinois and a fellow at the prestigious Center for Advanced Study. Vanka has authored design books and other publications; lectured in more than 20 countries; and earned several industry awards.

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