The Need for Design and Designing for Need - RSA

The Need for Design and Designing for Need


  • Design
  • Arts and society
  • Social innovation

“Design isn’t radical enough.”

“Design is less innovative than business.”

“Designers don’t know how to make.”

What?! But jazzy, animated (literally, in some cases), colourful design is everywhere. Now with the London Design Festival in full swing, design, not just the stuff, but the very word itself, abounds. So, who says that design isn’t radical, innovative or curious? The speakers at yesterday’s debate at the RSA on ‘What should we be teaching professional designers today?’ that’s who.

Indeed, from an outsider’s perspective, design definitely does seem to be everywhere. Actually, from an insider’s perspective, too, but therein lies the problem. Designers have ‘won’ status for design, but with a changing and increasingly diffuse definition of design, much of design has lost the ability to identify and meet need. Thus, the debate asked three experts to tackle the questions: what are the skills that a designers needs today and how can we teach them?

Sam Hecht, an industrial designer and former teacher at the Royal College of Art, distilled the issue right down to its essence. By contrasting design for media (the Milan syndrome) and design for use, Hecht senses a disingenuous relationship between design education and the true need for and importance for design. Design students are enrolling in advanced university design courses without ever having taken an object apart to see its parts and see how it fits together. Now, that might not sound too shocking to many of you, but this causes great concern for the professional design industry. Designers should know how to put things together (and you can’t know how things are put together without taking things apart). With a lack of understanding of design as a system of making and a system of use, design becomes utterly marginal. It is artists today, rather than designers are asking why things are the way they are…

Roberto Verganti, Professor of Innovation Management at the Politechnico di Milano, addressed the issue from his own experience of teaching design thinking to businesses. Verganti acknowledged that ‘design thinking’ has become a hot-topic in international MBA programmes and front-page news on business weeklies, but that as designers learn the language of business, design is becoming less and less innovative. Designers must return to their roots: identifying needs, pursuing radical visions and ultimately, delivering ingenious solutions. Hecht and Verganti agreed: designers are losing their language, being usurped by artists. He argued that designers need to be ‘radical’ again (citing Ettore Sottsass and the Memphis Group) and they need to resist the urge to be ‘culturally neutral’ if they are to continue to work with and influence not only business, but also design!

Ellie Runcie, Director of Design Support Programmes at the Design Council, introduced us to the power of design interventions from a policy perspective. Highlighting the Designing Demand and Public Services by Design initiatives, Runcie illustrated how design teaches people to think differently. Designing Demand supports businesses to become more innovative, competitive and profitable by giving managers a sort of ‘designer’s toolkit’ to spot opportunities, respond to a brief and work with clients. Public Services by Design builds capacity for managing innovation in the public sector and asks the crucial question: ‘How can design simplify public services around the needs of citizens?’ Runcie cited Lewisham Council’s successful engagement with the Public Services by Design programme to tackle the problem of homelessness (no small feat). By highlighting the strategic role of designers to think in a systems way (in this case, working with the public sector), Runcie summed up the quartet of essential skills for a designer:

  1. Understanding people’s needs

  2. Working visually and tangibly

  3. Prototyping to manage risk

  4. Working inclusively and collaboratively

So, there you have it: designers need to be radical, designers need to think in a systems way and designers need to rekindle their curiosity and the urge to make. Three different perspectives that provoke many more questions about design, its role and how its taught, but no matter whom you talk to or what you agree with, that old Eames adage still resounds: ‘Recognising the need is the primary condition for design.’ Oh, and it helps to take things apart once in a while.

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