Design in the Era of Disruptive Paradigm Shift

The 1st Pre-Forum for 2022 Seoul Design International Forum has obtained written consent from the speaker to publish the summarized and edited content

Presenter : Lee Geon-pyo(Hongkong Polytechnic University, the Dean of the School of Design)

In today’s world, we’re facing a rapid paradigm shift. This presentation focuses on the role and significance of design in the midst of such changes and the future direction of urban public design. My personal experiences on paradigm shifts in the realm of design come into play in assessing the past and the present. The presentation also aims to facilitate the exchange of ideas on how we should change and adapt in the face of the paradigm shift. 

Evolutionary Change and the Future

Design, by nature, seeks positive changes. The scope and impact of a change are determined by the extent of its influence across the society. We often observe temporary, small-scale fads that emerge and disappear. A small change needs to stay around for at least a year to be given the title of ‘fashionable fad’. Those that survive longer with a strong presence are turned into ‘trends’. And changes that occur less frequently, every 30 to 40 years, are what we refer to as ‘paradigms.’ When a new paradigm is born, existing theories, frameworks, methodologies, and definitions no longer apply. And the unseen phenomena that are difficult to explain by the previous theories cause somewhat disruptive divides and disorder. An academic field capable of responding to such changes with flexibility may further flourish and strengthen its very core, but failure to do so may lead to an extinction of an area. This is why we should closely watch how changes occur over time and get ready to take the right actions. 

1. Changing the Rules of the Game in Design

Looking at the changes we’ve been through for the past 15 or 20 years, it is clear that the rules of the game are being rewritten in the design field. Until the early and mid 2000s, many large-sized electronics manufacturers including LG, Samsung, and Sony took part in a somewhat stable competition designed within a consistent competitive landscape, all trying to achieve similar goals. But the recent introduction of smart electronics expanded the scope of competition covering not just traditional hardware electronic businesses but also platform service providers such as Apple, Amazon, and Facebook. It also blurred the boundary of the standardized industry. So what can we draw from this example? It’s important to think about what are the new rules to understand as systems are changing and platforms are growing. 

Fortune, one of the most well-known economic magazines, revealed ‘The 100 Greatest Designs of Modern Times’ in 2019. The list was compiled jointly by Fortune and the Institute of Design at the Illinois Institute of Technology (IIT). Professor Jay Doblin, the founder of the Institute of Design at IIT, published a book titled ‘One Hundred Great Product Designs’ back in 1959 that consists of the most popular product designs of that time. Automobiles, refrigerators, consumer goods, furniture, and other industrial products with physical forms made it into the publication. Fast forward 50 years to 2019, the Fortune’s list still included traditional consumer goods and hardware products but also had more diverse categories such as internet service, software, and healthcare. Due to such segmentation, design is no longer executed independently. Instead, the design field is expanding in its scope and being converged more and more.  


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2. AI is also beginning to design

‘Design with AI and Data’

AI and big data are another example of major transformations happening close to our lives.  

Globally, OTT services are attracting more viewers as people spend longer hours at home and social distancing or quarantine has changed the way we live. To name one example, Netflix. A developer from the platform says “Netflix has 3 million different design versions.” Is it even possible? The answer would be yes, since Netflix relies on AI to collect data on subscribers’ viewing habits and areas of interest and leverages user modeling to personalize interface. At the same time, the significance of designers tends to fade away as the process consists of AI, big data modeling, and design is repeated. The ability to think and execute, previously considered uniquely human, is now carried out by AI. This phenomenon is one of the major paradigm shifts we’re witnessing.  

3. Forced Acceptance of Virtual Experience

Another paradigm shift has been brought on by COVID-19. 

In February 2019, companies and schools in numerous cities shut down their doors and had to bring their businesses and learning online. The change was forced upon us and it took some time to get used to through many trials and errors. But there were some upsides too. 

For several decades, remote learning and why it’s needed in our society have been discussed to some extent. There have also been conversations on remote collaboration among designers, but without the right chance or moment. Then there came the pandemic and we had no choice but to learn to cope with non-face-to-face settings. As a result, remote collaboration and virtual experiences became our norm and many people are expected to not return to the pre-pandemic lifestyle. Given this, it’s important to think about how to embrace and advance virtual experiences we have already gotten used to and thus are no longer unfamiliar.  

Development of Paradigms and Changes

When the machine civilization was first introduced during the craft-centric era, it ended up replacing the core capabilities of master craftsmen and artisans. And designers were perceived as those with a talent for drawing. With the advent of computers later on, everyone could draw like experts which further altered the perception of designers. And wide adoption of computers enabled new concepts such as design thinking, interaction, and user-centered design to become core design capabilities. Now with technologies based on AI and big data in the mix, we’re preparing for days ahead. 


The perception of designers changed over time. Prior to the industrial revolution, designers were viewed as craftsmen with potential skills. Then they were perceived as stylists who improve external appearances and add aesthetic factors. More recently, designers serve as facilitators much like a midwife because they help non-professionals tap into their own creativity.  

What about the perception of users? How did it evolve throughout the years? The idea of users was not present before the industrial revolution because most of the production was for self-consumption. It was after the industrial revolution that the consumer class was formed along with mass production and design for many was offered unilaterally. In today’s world powered by computers, individual desires and preferences of users are considered for market segmentation and personalized design. Based on the understanding of users, user-centered design and participatory design have been introduced. And now, actual users are given more chances to get involved in or lead the design process.  

As for problems designers have been targeting, most of them in the past mainly focused on how an object is viewed and the execution phase in the process. But since the 2000s, designers started actively exploring what they can design and looking toward the front-end of the process. In recent years, there have been discussions on experiences and platform-based ecosystems. 

In the era of paradigm shifts, we need to ask ourselves a fundamental question – ‘why is this needed?’ In addition, we witness a common phenomenon in which professionals’ core capabilities are democratized. We’re in need of new design problems, methodologies, and processes and accordingly propose new questions. For instance, designers capable of drawing intricate letterings by hand have witnessed their capabilities being democratized for all to use with the introduction of computers and digital fonts. We can formulate a metadiscourse by applying three perspectives of democratization, new design problems, and new questions to our current urban public design and social innovation. 

1. Democratization of Design

When it comes to public design and social innovation, democratization is tied up with designers’ social responsibilities. Public design takes on an active role in changing people’s behaviors, encourages donation or sharing, and contributes directly to the society. For instance, angled toilet paper rolls help reduce waste while vending machines selling contaminated water from the Third World effectively draw donations. As these types of design are increasing in number, design thinking, workshops, and various methodologies are democratized and a process in which anyone can participate is forming. In the current environment with areas traditionally set aside for experts now being democratized, how should the identity and positioning of designers evolve? 

One solution can be found in the concept of empowering design. In general, people are used to buying and using finished products. What if, instead of offering complete units, we give unfinished products to people so that they can build and personalize themselves? Many consumers will create products uniquely customized to their own lifestyles and behaviors. To help with users’ creative activities, designers can offer their expertise by providing clues for reprocessing and creation and ultimately serve as facilitators guiding the creative process. 


2. New Design Problems

When computers were introduced and widely adopted in 1983, people started to think about what can be done using the new machine. Against this backdrop, a conference on new information landscape and design was held. To quote an opening speech from the conference, “the industrial revolution ended in the 1950s. And a new information environment is here. Unless designers try new things to find their roles in this changing circumstance, a fate given to them will cease to exist. Industrial designers will be remembered as blacksmiths and graphic designers as linotype men.” This applies to our time, too. If designers fail to think about their new roles under the paradigm shifts, it may not take much for the field of design to disappear. Faced with the emergence of computers, designers took a crack at new types of design problems and came up with interaction design, UX design, and interface to better grasp technologies. This highlights the importance of recognizing and ruminating on newly formed design problems to embrace and utilize new technologies.  

3. New Questions

We talk about big data and AI a lot these days. It’s essential to think about interface or process in using AI technologies, but the following questions should also be explored – ‘how can we leverage these technologies?’, ‘are we on the right track?’. A new paradigm always comes with a certain bandwidth. Once the paradigm passes the initial stage with autonomy and motive but no standards, it becomes permanent and certain standards are formed. Given this, we should ask new questions, seek answers, and set the overall direction during the initial stage. Some books written by designers and scholars are based on the expanded version of human-centered thinking, focusing on ecosystems within the universe and a better world. Such approach to the topic may help us pose new questions in the realm of public and social innovation today. 




Designers leverage newly emerged technologies and trends to come up with new design. And we use resources available now to determine the future. This is because we create objects based on technologies. But from now on, designers should be able to work together with various stakeholders to make predictions and shape technologies and policies aligned with the future we envision.  

In the ‘Notes on the Synthesis of Form’, Christopher Alexander covered paradigm shifts during the establishment of a new environment after the industrial revolution saying “[…]our innocence is lost. […] the innocence, once lost, cannot be regained. The loss demands attention, not denial.” The innocence here refers to methodologies, perspectives, and values that designers used to have. 

We’re now living in an era where everyone can design thanks to AI, big data, and other technological advancements. This brought on the paradigm shift, compelling us to think about the positioning and identity of the field of design. It’s now time for us to explore the implications of changing technologies and environments by focusing on the democratization of core design capabilities, new design problems stemming from shifts in the design process and methodologies, and new questions. 

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