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Global detective and ‘Fast Company’ co-founder Alan Webber on why design is what makes change possible

When Alan Webber—the co-founder of uber-successful business magazine Fast Company—gives a talk on design, don’t expect any fancy PowerPoints. In fact, don’t expect a PowerPoint at all. A cardinal rule at Fast Company, he says, is that speeches aren’t allowed to utilise PowerPoint. But that’s just fine because Webber’s impressive professional track record stands him strong on his own, and the moment he opened his mouth as part of the NZTE Better by Design CEO summit yesterday, he had the audience captivated. The self-proclaimed global detective admits from the outset that he’s not a designer by training but jokes that he is married to a recovering architect. 

In an earlier incarnation, Webber was the managing editor for the Harvard Business Review, with his columns appearing in publications that include The New York Times Sunday magazine and the Wall Street Journal. Fifteen years ago in 1995, he launched Fast Company magazine, which became the fastest growing and most successful business magazine in history. Most recently, he wrote the book, Rules of Thumb: 52 Truths for Winning at Business Without Losing Your Self. 

According to Webber, old practices, assumptions, problem solving—even the categories in which we put problems—are now obsolete.

“We have 19th Century organisations trying to wrestle with 21st Century problems,” he says. 

While most organisations want to change, he says they’re stuck in the old. The question that needs to be asked is not  “what if?” but “why this?” 

The world is changing in rapid, volatile and unpredictable ways, he says. The challenge isn't to stop change from happening—it's to understand change, make sense of it, and try to influence it in ways that produce a better, more equitable, and more sustainable future. 

But where does design fit into all of this?  Webber says design is a tool, a set of skills, a discipline, and a way of thinking. Design can bring together ideas, silos, ways of working, ways of bringing people and institutions together. Design, it turns out, is about more than design in its most obvious form; it's about political expressions, economic choices, and social engagement.

“If you really want to have the capacity to change, design is the basis for that change—it’s what makes it possible,” he says. 

Having also worked as a policy advisor for the mayor of Portland, Webber discussed how design transformed the once degraded city into the vibrant, personality filled city it is known as today. Strong and smart investment has created a distinctive city and placed Portland as one of the most environmentally friendly cities in the world. He says people in Portland realised that if they didn’t change the status quo, they’d loose what they loved. The design principles used in the transformation of Portland are ones he says can be applied to businesses, organisations and even Auckland’s Supercity. 

The first is that design serves as a problem solver. You can’t change what you don’t clearly understand. Design is a tool that can be used to look at reality point-blank in the eye and see what you don’t like. Design, he says, can be used as a modelling exercise. 

Next, design acts as a problem solver and it also serves as a tool for sense making. Webber maintains the job of a CEO is to make sense of things and added that the problem with many companies is that there is too much noise and not enough signals.

Webber cited Apple, BMW and Nike as leaders of principle number four: Design is differentiation. But why should that principle apply only to companies he asked? Webber posed the question: Why can’t a city differentiate itself through design? 

With the fifth principle—design as aspiration and inspiration—Webber says design is all about metaphors and story telling (story telling proved a common thread over the course of the days proceedings). Story telling is a way to appeal to people’s emotions, he says.

Sixth, design is a test lab for change and lastly, Webber discussed design as a provoker of change. “Change happens when the cost of the status quo is greater than the risk of change.” 

He says people are reluctant to let go of the old and embrace the new. But what design does more than anything is offer a vehicle to break old ideas. And that last point, he says, “is the power of design thinking”.

It's not just about how things look or feel or perform; it's about what they and the organisations behind them stand for.