Tim Brown once designed a fax machine that was redundant within a few short years, leaving him with the thought that maybe design wasn't all that important.
"Somehow making things look a little bit better, a little easier to sell, a little easier to market was not all that useful in the world," said Brown, who heads the design firm IDEO. "By focusing on just a thing, I was being sort of incremental."
Over the last century, the focus of design gradually narrowed from the systems level to the product level, Brown told business leaders Tuesday at the GreenBiz Innovation Forum, reducing opportunities for the kinds of innovations that can reinvent the world.
"But it hasn't always been that way," Brown said. "I would suggest that by focusing less on the design of an object and more on the process of design, and design thinking as a process, design can have a far greater impact."
Brown pointed to Isambard Brunel as an example of the potential for design to both meet the needs of people and also stretch technology to the limit. Brunel designed railways with the intention of creating the "experience for his passengers of floating across the countryside."
"He didn't stop there," Brown said. "He didn't just want to build the best railway journey that he could, he actually had this idea of building an integrated transportation system where it was possible to get on a train in London and end one's journey getting off a boat in New York."