Why Vs. What

Designworks researcher Michiel Cox examines the exponential nature of change.

Why ‘why’ is more important than ‘what’?

This era, most people will agree, is the era of change. Whenever we seem to understand something and get ready to master it, a new development comes along - and we have to start all over again. Change often causes uncertainty and then anxiety; in some cases even aversion and inactivity. (Cue video of fainting goats.)

But what will change and what the future will look like, in say ten years time from now, is a question that can't be left unexplored. Especially so in the design industry as design solutions live in the public domain long term. Naturally you want these to be relevant for as long as possible.

So our job is to be curious, to find out what is happening and to form a picture of what the world will look like in a couple of years.

Forecasting change is a funny thing though. Being able to anticipate change is what sets us apart from rest of the animal world. But we’re not very good at it. Our ability to forecast is fairly limited to a short time ahead. It works well for example, when crossing a road. By knowing where the car was 10 seconds ago and where the car is now, you can estimate where the car will be in 10 seconds in the future.

But in terms of looking forward and long-term planning we often find that change is usually underestimated, looking backward is overestimated. This is because change is not linear, instead it is exponential. Each change, disruption and innovation will enable the next change to happen faster than previously expected (and then so on).

Not every change is a disruptor though. I often find that we focus too much on what this new phone can do, how green that car is or what social network is the newest coolest thing (go check out To make sense out of today’s and tomorrow’s world we have to stop asking, “What is changing?”, and instead ask, “Why is it changing?” Doing that allows us to organize all these little happenings under one big movement that is meaningful and lasting.

These movements can be super changes, cultural shifts marked of by key enablers (the internet, printing press, mass production, nano-technology) that completely changed the way we do things and made us shift our ideas about the future.

It could also be changes that don’t seem very big from an outsider’s perspective, but they allude to bigger shifts that (will) define your category. Big or small however, asking ‘why’ will enable you make sense out of myriads of smaller changes. If you know the answer to ‘why’ you can explain the ‘what’ without much thought, and because the ‘what’ makes sense in your understanding of ‘why’ you are already one step ahead of the change.

It helps us to not only identify what the consumer’s needs of today are, but also to discover what the unmet needs of tomorrow will be. Meeting those needs and solving problems that the consumer didn’t even realize existed is what will give any company in any market a truly competitive advantage.

This is the core of human centered, design-led thinking, and why we ‘do what we do’.

Why do you do what you do today?