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Designer’s role in a Free Design world

On the beginning of the year, I gave a talk with my friend Gonçalo Ferraz at a Design student conference about the future role of the professional designer. We envisioned a big leap in design practice, moving from designing products to designing process.

Going further than Service Design and Co-design approaches, we expect that people themselves will design and redesign the services they need without any reliance on expert designers. Actually, that’s precisely what is happening on the streets right now.

Africa didn’t have a widespread banking service nor wire phone networks. The infrastructure is too costly for their current economy. Mobile communications is much cheaper and soon after its introduction, Africans started creating new services based on it. In a small village, one guy bought a pre-paid phone and offered it to the community, charging for its usage. Community phone booths spread fast.


Then, Africans started experimenting transferring money to distant relatives using the pre-paid phone cards. You buy a code, send to the destination phone booth and the clerk exchanged the code for money. That was the first m-banking solution in Africa, created by users themselves. It took a while until companies noticed the opportunity and launched official systems like M-Pesa.

With the aim of discovering such opportunities, big IT companies started to employ designers for going out on the streets and figuring out what to do next. The Design Ethnography goal is not only to describe consumer behavior, but to create product concepts on the field.

That’s a big change in design practice because today most of them are done inside offices, in a very different context where designed products are meant to be used. Even when there is some attempt to get the use context, it’s an insider approach; call the user for some usability tests or focus groups, create some pretty persona, fix findings on office walls and that’s all. Just plain User Centered Design.


Ethnography requires designers going out from their offices and get deep into use contexts. They can develop a stronger understanding of people motivations, real task flows (not ideal ones), eventual problems and ad-hoc solutions. All those findings contributes for a much more informed design creativity. As the first ethnographies made armchair anthropologists obsolete, Design Ethnography is challenging office designers efficacy.


Still, within the ethnographic approach, the designer design products and the user use them. They are closer now, but remains distinct.

A big claim from the Free Design movement is to liberate design from the designer. Design must be know and practiced by everyone, even for whom who didn’t have any formal training on it. This doesn’t means that there are no role for professional designers. Experts will be needed even more when people start figuring out the usefulness of design process. Then, designers can finally focus on what they are really good at: not on attractive products, but on creative process.


The design thinker is not an expert in any design specialization (Graphic, Product, Interaction, etc.). He has a broad range of interests, but he focuses on thinking about design process; how to improve them for better efficiency, learnability, and extensibility. Eventually, he design tools that embed or support those process. Those tools help domain experts access or create networks that is always changing, that’s why process need constant revision.

Famous design ethnographer Jan Chipchase commented on the African grassroots mobile payment system: ”If that kind of thing can naturally organize, what role do we have as designers?” For us, the answer is clear: design process, tools and networks to support grassroots innovation.

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  1. Very interesting article.
    I’m also wondering about the role of designers in the next paradigm and maybe conduct a phd on this subject; thus I note carefully your answer :)
    And strongly agree with the principle of designing “a tool that enable people” rather than a product itself (as my brother said, finishing to convince me, in his case of webdev he don’t make sites but custom wordpress plateforms; and now I’m openning some fablabs for my master thesis^^)