Design Forward SD | Why Design Matters to San Diego: A Q&A with Design Forward founder Michele Morris
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Why Design Matters to San Diego: A Q&A with Design Forward founder Michele Morris


Why Design Matters to San Diego: A Q&A with Design Forward founder Michele Morris

Michèle Morris currently serves as the Associate Director of the Design Lab at UC San Diego. She also founded Design Forward. We asked her why Design Forward started. Turns out the answer is simple: because good design matters to the present and future of San Diego.

Q: How did you come up with idea for Design Forward?

A: During my time at Stanford Graduate School of Business, I learned that Don Norman was launching a new design lab in San Diego. I knew I’d be returning to San Diego after business school, so I contacted Don, and in 2015, I joined the Lab.

One of my first priorities was to learn the San Diego innovation ecosystem. I met with civic, business, and community leaders; San Diego’s designers, design firms and design-driven companies. During my exploration I asked ‘How does San Diego define innovation? Who is working in this space and what are they doing?’   

As I networked around the city, Design Forward became the prototype of everything. A small, core group of us launched the inaugural Design Forward event to both show what design is and could mean for our region and to test whether there was an appetite for design at scale. The turnout revealed a resounding yes!  Almost 600 people attended the event at Port Pavilion. Speakers included Mayor Faulconer, C-suite business leaders, global design strategists, and leaders from a strong cross-section of business and public sectors (e.g. health, education, urban planning, technology). We started a dynamic conversation around the role of human-centered design in the already lively innovation ecosystem in our area. I’m really proud of Design Forward, and feel so humbled to have worked with and been accepted by a community of designers and innovators who have been working in this movement far longer than I.  


Q: Why is a focus on design so important for San Diego?

A:  I think about this on three levels:.

At an everyday level, the San Diego region is going through a lot of changes.  Regional growth rates, branding beyond “America’s Finest City”, burgeoning entrepreneur and maker communities, physical urban transformation, focus on smart cities, etc…..from the border to north county, we have seen and are living change. One way or another, our lives as San Diegans will be shaped by the local and policy decisions made around these changes. I often use the phrase ‘design over default,’ meaning, we can default to what organically happens or be organic to the nature of our community and design it so we evolve in a healthy, inclusive, effective way.  

At a mid or organizational level, we are seeing our institutions having to reconsider their value propositions and engage with current and prospective constituents differently. Take education for example. Whether K through 12 or at our top tier universities, people are questioning what they need and expect from today’s educational institutions and if the current structures are effective to the desired outcomes.  With changing workforce needs, an increasingly diversified knowledge base, and democratized access to technologies, education can no longer be solely in the classroom focused on lectures and limited projects. It now requires input and application in the real world to cultivate skills in craft and a strategy in order to adapt to rapidly changing circumstances.  Problem identification and problem solving using a design thinking approach can be effective in achieving this dichotomy – and a strong differentiator in the marketplace.

At a macro level, we are the 8th largest city in the country. We share a border with Mexico. We lead in life sciences/biotech, mobile technologies, tourism, sports and active lifestyle, military assets, and universities.  We are renowned for our Port, patents, theatre platform, climate action,  plan, and entrepreneurship, just to name a few things.  And yet as other industries arise and technologies reshape the known, we are being forced to figure out who we are and what our strengths are because the data shows that our young talent is leaving and those wanting to stay -or come- struggle with affordability and mobility.  It shows that we have work to do in order to attract and retain business enterprises of all levels and compete on an economic level. We are a diverse ecosystem, so if we are going to be viable at all these levels, we need to design that ecosystem.  We are fortunate to have strong, innovative leaders in public office, the Regional Economic Development Corporation, the Port, and community organizations across the region who are embracing design as an approach and toolkit for bolstering their efforts.


Q: Why does good design matter to San Diego businesses?

A: San Diego businesses need good design to attract and retain talent. Technological advances, the rise in customized convenience services such as Amazon and Uber, and social media have increased the bargaining power of employees and shifted everything from career trajectory expectations, the way jobs are sought, why professionals stay in positions, and what they care about – such as culture and flexibility.  If you are a business, is your organization designed for empowerment and action? Does your infrastructure allow for new ideas?  How do you compare to those companies highlighted in widely read articles focused on “The Best Places to Work”? How connected are you to your customer base? Is your value clear and growing? These are just some of the questions companies need to answer.  The application of human-centered design can add breadth and depth to existing approaches, processes, and business models. And help mitigate risks of the current velocity of innovation through connection with clients and customers.


Q: What can people who attend Design Forward this year expect?

A: Attendees will see how design is being applied in San Diego and hear stories from people who are using design in their businesses and sectors.  More importantly, they will be asked to engage in some of the regional design challenges affecting our community right now, such as mobility.  There will be opportunities to interact with designers (called design advocates) to have a more pointed and personal discussion around what design could mean for their work and lives.  There will be educational workshops for design beginners and executives interested in design-driven transformation alike.  They will see how the Design Forward movement has grown from a grassroots, UCSD Design Lab led-effort into something much larger with non profit Design Forward Alliance provided access and advocacy for anyone interested in harnessing the value of design.  And of course, endless networking opportunities.

By Steph Habif

Image credit: EDC –

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