Hughes is a clear thinker and as a designer he creates a very clear picture of where design is headed and how it needs to be integrated into strategic decision making at a high level. 

Hughes spoke recently about Design Thinking, Co-creation and Design Ecologies at the Icograda Conference in Brisbane, Australia, where the theme was: Optimism.

“Design Thinking is often misunderstood. In essence, Design Thinking is simply the process of design, which is a process of reflective action. It is not simply action but rather it is a process of learning by doing,” says Hughes.

To explain what he means, he often uses drawing, the natural tool of all designers. He acknowledges that all of the discussion and discourse about Design Thinking by governments, business people and designers alike are a huge step forward.

To understand what Hughes is saying, you need to look at the process of design.

He starts by defining the two functions of design. The first function is to start with nothing and then create something. The second function is to improve something. Both functions should focus on bringing value to the world.

“As humans we all have the ability to think and operate, but as designers it is the balance between action and reflection that occurs when designers think and operate – that is Design Thinking. Design is a process of thinking and taking action, a creative process and you can’t separate the two. Essentially, it is learning by doing,” says Hughes.

Referring directly to nature, Hughes sees the three levels of design echoed in natural environments.

“The first level of design is all about the Design of Components, with the focus on form and function – something all designers are very familiar with.”

The second level of design is what Hughes calls the Design of Connections, the system and process in which components are a part.

And the third and most interesting is the Design of Context. This is about focusing on strategy and policy,” he says. The best example of this is seen in nature. It is called ecology – or Design Ecology, as Hughes defines it.

“Within these three visions of design, there are specific roles we play at each level.

"The first is the role of an individual in reflective action. The second is the role of an individual within a group to co-create – this is when you learn to consult within a group. The third role is played within a larger context, or Design Ecology of selfless actions.”

In order to create a Design Ecology, explains Hughes, “You need to create an environment and culture that allows design to flourish.

"The Dutch Government has an impressive record in this area. It has been commissioning design for decades. This has resulted in a mature and well-established Design Ecology in Holland.

"It has been very successful and has benefited the country and community enormously,” he explains.

“To create an environment and culture for design to flourish, you need to look at the principles of nature. What makes an ecology work?

"Solid connections, short connections, decentralised systems, decision making across the board and a rich level of diversity. There is also an ability for the components of an ecology to step out and others to step in – like the semi-permeable membrane of a cell structure.

“If we look to natural ecologies for inspiration, we get a clear model that creates feedback for individuals about what they can do.

"One goal is to create unity – unity doesn’t mean ‘sameness’, but rather it means ‘unity in diversity’. Another goal, from an individual level, is to be altruistic, to shift from ‘me’ to ‘we’.

“So design moves from being dictator to facilitator,” says Hughes. “This is very important because we live in an interconnected world with many new challenges ahead of us. We can’t solve these challenges alone.

"We can analyse the past because it exists; the future, however, doesn’t exist. Therefore, we need to design the future. It’s that scope of design – designing the future – that design needs to be placed in,” he says.

“When we consider this, in an interconnected world, the global challenges we have today are actually design challenges. I am optimistic that the design community can help to solve world problems.

“The skills of collaboration, co-creation and consultation, where we work together and collectively, interact in a way to overcome our global challenges. This is an altruistic interaction, an ego-less interaction. This,” he says, “is what a mature design process is.” 

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