Design is systems thinking applied to problem-solving

The article below, reproduced from the 10 Mar 2016, Globe and Maillogorefreshed the tired volunteers of Water for Riley like cool water on a hot day. This article cleared away any doubt of the value in a student design challenge. One paragraph of the article in particular boosted the spirits of the Water for Riley volunteers. It is in bold in the middle of the article below.

The article echoes a long-ago discussion with the late Jack Layton, who said: It isn’t about the world of design; it’s about the design of the world. Water for Riley is about both.

What we can learn from the Massachusetts Drawing Act

by Todd Hirsch, Calgary-based chief economist of ATB Financial, author of The Boiling Frog Dilemma: Saving Canada from Economic Decline

In 1869, Massachusetts was facing a serious problem. The state was falling behind economically because of trade with Europe and the importation of what were regarded as superior goods. Furniture, mechanical items, industrial machinery – the quality and design of the domestic goods just couldn’t compare with the imports. Massachusetts’ furniture was, well, ugly.

The solution? Legislators were petitioned by educators and business interests to introduce An Act Related to Free Instruction in Drawing. Known more commonly as the Massachusetts Drawing Act of 1870, it mandated the instruction of creative and technical drawing in schools.

It was one of the first examples of art education – both creative and expressive art, as well as industrial art – to be introduced as part of the broader school curriculum. And while drawing may seem like a trivial concept, it helped revolutionize industrial design and manufacturing in the state. Eventually, it established Massachusetts as a leader in furniture and industrial design.

Drawing. Something as simple as teaching children how to draw, create, explore and invent with a pencil and paper did more to boost the economy of the region than the memorization of the multiplication table or the regurgitation of historical facts.

This isn’t to say that math, history and other subjects are unimportant for future economic growth. They are essential. But combining a mastery of math, social science and literature with drawing – something creative and visual – gave Massachusetts an economic edge.

Today, Canada faces the same problem Massachusetts did 146 years ago. We are falling behind the rest of the world in a number of areas. Some see cost as the problem: Canadian manufacturers simply can’t compete with Mexico, Bangladesh and other countries where labour costs are lower. Some see tariff barriers on imports as the solution. Some call for tax credits and other financial incentives.

While there may be a time and place for government actions, perhaps the Massachusetts Drawing Act provides some guidance for what we really need.

Some of our students might well benefit from drawing lessons. But more broadly, all students could benefit from design lessons. We need the Design Act of 2017, an intentional effort to instill a design emphasis into our education systems.

Good design is really just applying systematic thinking to problem-solving. Usually we think of design in the visual industries: interior design, graphic design, clothing design. These are important industries in Canada, but good design mentality can be applied to all of our major industries.

How can we design systems to extract natural resources in a way that is more efficient and less harmful to the environment? How can Canadian manufacturers design better and more visually appealing consumer goods? How can Canadian architects lead the world in designing more efficient and aesthetically pleasing buildings, pushing the edges of architecture rather than following the Dutch, Danish and Spanish designers a decade or two later?

None of these problems are solved with import tariffs or tax credits. All of them can be solved with good design, but that requires a shift in the way we teach and train our students.

From an early age, children need to have a designer’s mentality infused into the curriculum. This doesn’t mean less math, science or social studies – just the opposite. It means teaching these subjects in a way that encourages the student to solve problems. That’s what good design does.

The failing Massachusetts economy wasn’t solved with import tariffs, tax credits or some wild Buy America scheme. It was solved when educators gave children pencils and paper, and said, “Draw something, create something, design something.”

But the economic success that the Drawing Act brought to the state was not immediate – it took a decade or more to see results. It’s a good lesson – there are no quick fixes to curing our economic woes. It may take some time, but infusing design into our education systems will give our economy an edge. It can become Canada’s special sauce.


Thanks for this heartening article, Mr. Hirsch.

donate button

To participate in Water for Riley, email or call 403 862 1923. To donate through the Parks Foundation, click the button. Specify your donation is for Water for Riley. Tax Receipts are issued.