The road ahead for designers promises a most interesting and rewarding future, but it is probably not the one they are expecting. Few could imagine that design will become the most important profession in our society, the only one that can guarantee the US’s success. But that is the role it will play.

Mobilizing the design community to redefine itself so that it can serve in this urgently needed, greatly expanded and far more socially responsible role is challenging indeed. America is failing fast, but its people, even many designers, are largely unaware of the mounting dangers.

America, once the world’s leader, is no longer at the top of most measures of success. Indeed, we are seldom in the top 10, often at or near the bottom of lists of developed nations, and the trouble is worsening every day. We are among the least educated, unhealthiest, violent and crime-ridden nations in the world. We suffer from disastrous community destruction, massive homelessness, debilitating traffic congestion, perilous environmental practices, irresponsible media and a government near paralysis. Our entire physical infrastructure and related social systems must be rethought, redesigned and rebuilt.

Design will save America, not because designers are currently addressing the challenge, but because of the forces at work that will make design powerful enough, designers motivated and wise enough, and the public insistent enough to perform such a rescue.

What are the developments that will make this design rescue possible? Briefly, here are 10 already in motion, albeit mainly behind the scenes:

1. A New Criterion of National Success
Quality of life, more than economic success, is becoming the new criterion of national accomplishment. People everywhere are beginning to demand it—68 percent of 12,000 polled in 12 countries favor quality of life measures, such as happiness, over Gross Domestic Product (GDP). While business will continue to prosper, it will exist alongside, and continue to serve (but not lead), a completely redesigned and newly effective public sector focused on advancing all infrastructure and social-system designs, restoring community, establishing equality and strengthening democracy.

2. The Growing Power of Design
Professionals and the public are discovering the broader, deeper and stronger powers of design based on its ability to create situations, the most influential determinants of human behavior. Because of this, design will become the most powerful profession, greater than education, medicine, law, media…greater than any.

3. Design’s Broader Social Responsibilities
Designers’ newly discovered powers will lead naturally to greater social responsibility. Presently, the profession of design limits its social responsibilities mainly to insuring environmental sustainability. But as it embraces the developments of the last half-century in social design and neuroscience, its powers will increase exponentially, enabling it to address all levels of concern, all social issues, all troubled infrastructures.

4. Greater Financial Resources for Design
This major movement of design leadership into the public sector means access to new financial resources. Like the fields of education and health, design must become a public priority—budgeting in the billions, planning in the trillions. Just imagine if designers had been ready with a coordinated and integrated master plan for the $800 billion stimulus package recently funded to help repair the national infrastructure.

5. Broader Executive Leadership in Design
New design technology has so advanced and complicated its processes that design leaders can no longer be comprehensively expert practitioners. As design’s reach is extended, that complexity will grow. Therefore, like successful corporate CEOs, who seldom remain technically competent even in the fields from which they came, design leaders must also redefine their roles, not only to focus on helpful staff relationships but to bring an inspiring vision based on an understanding of the larger potential context of the work, crucial social issues, newly collaborative professions, political forces in play, overcoming barriers to success and an orientation toward a future beyond what most are seeing.

6. Design’s Increasing Influence at the Top
As a result of addressing issues of increasing importance to society, design leaders will become members of high councils of decision makers, greatly increasing the influence of design. Then all designers will be able to aspire to such positions as were enjoyed by architects a century ago when they associated with America’s presidents.

7. Embracing Paradoxes of Social Change
Designers, accustomed to solving problems with identifiable causes, find that public sector social issues present complicated, often paradoxical, predicaments, with causes we may never be willing to eliminate. Crime is a good example because it arises less from pornography, violence on TV, bad parenting, or even poverty, than it does from aspects of our society we cling to, even cherish: affluence, urbanization, materialism, mobility and especially, freedom. Most troublesome social issues are riddled with such paradoxes, and to cope with that fact, designers are beginning to adopt new strategies for change, based on achieving improvements rather than final solutions.

8. Steady Exercise of Professional Judgment
As designers move into leadership roles in rebuilding our national infrastructure, they will necessarily abandon their current practice of subordination to client’s desires. Instead, they will assume a vitally necessary posture of consistently exercising their best professional judgment. Having the ability to say no – as do physicians, lawyers, accountants and professors – is the only way to guarantee better design.

9. Design for Liberation
For the first time in history, designers have made it possible for millions of disabled people to enjoy full access to society. Designers can apply that capability to liberate all others oppressed by confining roles, including not only races, classes, gays and women, but others who do not even recognize their oppression, such as children—and even six-foot-tall white men. New system designs will remove limitations, foster development, stimulate creativity and make possible the fuller realization of everyone’s potential.

10 Going to the People
The design professions’ long-standing experience involving the people to be affected by their work in the design process will serve them well as they undertake the remaking of our public sector activities. That is not to say that there haven’t been many cases where moneyed interests or backroom politics forced designers’ betrayal of public trust. But when designers are able to exercise their best professional judgment in determining design practices, how the people will experience the results becomes of paramount interest; from the start, the people become active participants in helping to shape the designs. And the designs further the powers of the people. That is what we like to call “The American Way.”

Designers are destined to become the leading professionals in our nation, not only saving us from disaster but advancing us to unimagined achievements. Understandably, designers may feel unprepared for all of this, but they cannot, must not, ignore the fact that design has become the only profession with the power to meet this challenge.