‘The visionary’ and design: Interview with Katrine Rau
Katrine Rau

Katrine Rau is group director of the international design agency Fjord’s Copenhagen office. Fjord is one of the Danish Design Centre’s and Design denmark’s partners for the Danish Design Award and sponsors the Visionary Concepts award – a design award given in recognition of a design solution or an innovative and visionary concept that points to radical new possibilities in a given business, social or cultural context.

A service designer herself, Katrine Rau founded the Danish arm of Service Design Network and is a seasoned design expert. She has headed up strategic design initiatives in Fortune 500 companies, most recently at American GE, where she was in charge of strategic cross-departmental programmes aimed at improving customer experiences. She also worked as a service designer at InReality, working with internationally recognised companies including, among others, LP, Tempur Pedic and The Coca-Cola Company. While living in the United States, Katrine gave lectures at the California College of Arts and held experience mapping workshops with MBA and MFA students. She also worked as an experience designer and researcher at Katrine Rau Ofenstein Design, where she engaged with a variety of international brands, including BlackBerry. Katrine Rau has a degree in engineering and industrial design/service design from Aalborg University.

Fjord Copenhagen, which has offices at Flæsketorvet in Copenhagen’s Meat Packing district, is a relative newcomer to the Fjord family, which has locations throughout most of the world, from Los Angeles to Melbourne, Hong Kong, Dubai and Dublin. Fjord Copenhagen is a small, nimble design studio that makes a virtue of der being a Danish, yet international Fjord office that draws on the best of Denmark’s design legacy and traditions in creating end-to-end design solutions to some of the world’s most design-oriented companies and consumers, from strategic services to tangible products. The studio attracts design talent to Denmark from around the world, including San Francisco, Sao Paulo, Madrid and London.

How do you engage with the visionary in your own work as a designer?

Being visionary is a huge part of what designers do. It’s about imagining what could be – the future ahead of us. Very often, our Fjord projects are focused on understanding the AS IS (current state) and then imagining the TO BE (future state). That can be both on a strategic level, where we need to consider where the future of a specific department or industry is going, and it can be in a more tactical way, where we need to envision the future of a new product or service.

As I understand it, a ‘visionary’ is someone with an idea or a plan for achieving something special. I personally enjoy working beside visionaries, and I enjoy their passion. However, I discourage vigilantism: more specifically, I discourage attitudes that disregard the efforts of other colleagues. An amount of drive and courage can help visionaries, but a lack of cooperation and empathy doesn’t typically create success with me.  

As the application of design – and the very concept of design as such evolves and broadens – what are your observations in terms of the need or demand for visionary concepts or solutions?

A vision is only as good as the insight that drives it. A vision that isn’t informed by some insight about human behaviour, market opportunities and competitive gaps may not end with the success one hoped for. Having ‘insight’ doesn’t always require research. However, not all insights are based in evidence and conclusive findings. A visionary may have a hunch about what might work and not realise that he or she is actually synthesising years of experience into an insight. However, hunches aren’t always right.

Design in practice is often described as being tactile and, very much, about creating concrete solutions for actual people – how do you think this relates to doing visionary things in terms of design?

I once gave a service design lecture at the Design MBA programme at the California College of Arts. The founder of that programme, Nathan Shedroff, has a quote he uses from his MBA days to describe leadership: ‘Leadership is articulating a vision that other people want to follow.’ In terms of design, a vision without form is difficult to follow. A vision can be materialised, visualised or articulated. If it isn’t at least one of these, I don’t know how people could follow it. Following a visionary is very different from following a vision.

One might be tempted to say we’re living in an age of unprecedented challenges, in terms of climate change, of the refugee crisis, of rapid exponential technological development – how might design contribute with something unique in terms of visionary solutions to these challenges?

A visionary solution that addresses these challenges has many dimensions if it is to be a success. Imagine if a person has a visionary idea for a product or a service that could effectively reserve air pollution. If design processes are only applied to the creation of the idea, the impact of the design will be limited. If you were to apply design to the manufacturing process, the economic modelling process, the operational management process, the political management process and the marketing process, the idea might be able to materialise to impact the world. If we stop the design process to earlier, we risk creating a beautiful, unimplemented vision.

Design – for example in disciplines such as so-called speculative design – is sometimes used as a tool for imagining possible futures and making them concrete … How do you think this informs the relationship between design and the visionary?

My former GE colleague Phil Balagtas recently hosted a conference called Primer where the topic of speculative design was explored. I think speculative design is a mode of designing where the designer functions as a visionary. I don’t believe visionary is a label of one’s identity. Rather, it’s a description of how someone performs the work of their life. It’s not necessarily a good or a bad label, even though our culture has romanticised the idea of being a visionary. However, without a vision of how things could be better, without a story that other people want to follow, would society ever improve?


The interview was originally published by

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