Promote design-led innovation to help reduce illness and strengthen health and well-being

Following tremendous response to our “Youth In Design” series last year and in the lead up to our 30th General Assembly in Torino where the World Design Organization will feature a spotlight on young designers, we sat down with Maura Cass, IDEO Design Researcher, to talk about the challenges and main issues facing young designers today. As the organization realigns to help achieve the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals by design, pure industrial design must also be complemented by design thinking and user experience approaches in order to truly achieve our mandate to design for a better world. In this interview, Maura highlights how complex challenges can’t just be solved by products alone.

What made you decide to be a designer?
I’m a design researcher and believe strongly in design thinking as a problem solving mindset. I focus on finding empathy around human need and inspiring actionable design. I began my career focusing on improving health in more traditional ways, but I found that there were often so many things happening at a systematic level that the challenges could become overwhelming, not only stagnating progress, but also disregarding the core human experience.  Design thinking provides the structure and creative freedom to progress with optimism, purpose, and a multidisciplinary approach. It requires empathy, compassion, and creative action to begin to make change. Design is where these three things come together.

What’s the most important thing you learned in design school?
I actually have a degree in anthropology so my design mentality and chops have come from on-the-job experiences. I think one of my biggest learnings overall has been how to balance intuition and insight. As designers, we intuitively get things and creatively see ways forward. As a researcher, I can make sense of need and rationally find a way forward.  But without equilibrium between the two you won’t be able to focus creativity towards real human needs.

Has your perspective changed since you entered the work force?
I’ve been continuously reminded of how complex the challenges we continuously face as designers are. As humans we’ve built systems to solve challenges as they’ve developed, but those systems have often been disconnected and are not layering themselves upon one another. The more time passes, the more and more we will have to work with these layered legacy systems. It will take more creative, multidisciplinary, and evolving design approaches to find paths forward.

What is something that you believe all designers, across all disciplines, should know?
I think we have to constantly challenge ourselves to ask who we are designing for and why we are designing. Understanding this intention and letting it drive our work is critical to creative focus and impact.

What are the challenges or obstacles for young designers entering the work force? Are there additional challenges for women?
Design is and will continue to be a key part of any business or organization. Those who have embraced it are thriving, and those who don’t, won’t be able to compete. This is good for designers but it means that the future will be more competitive and harder to differentiate and harder to focus. I think Design as a leadership category in-house at organizations will continue to grow – and this is a good thing for us designers.

I think more broadly there are big concerns about designing for inclusivity and diversity. We have to challenge ourselves to acknowledge our biases in our own design and work towards resolving those biases.

Tell us about the projects you’re working on now?
At IDEO I’ve tried to focus work on healthcare – healthy aging, redesigning end of life care, and women’s reproductive health. More recently I’ve found a theme of designing meaningful relationships – between people, between people and organizations, and between people and technology.

How do you think young designers can contribute to designing for a better world?
This ties back to the first question. Our human challenges are becoming more and more messy and I believe design has a place in inspiring new approaches, breaking the complex down into actionable opportunities, and creatively activating new solutions. Designers are inherently optimistic and makers at their core. That’s a unique and killer combination.