The only way our economy will grow and prosper is by building a society with an infrastructure that works for people and responds to the patterns of our lives. Edward Gardiner and Ella Britton argue this requires us to foster a culture of creativity and human centred design.
In a recent issue of the RSA Journal the Design Council’s John Mathers quotes Melinda Gates of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Mathers explains that when asked recently what she saw as the single greatest driver of social change, Gates replied, ‘design’. What she actually said was human-centred design and in missing this emphasis out, Mathers forgets that people are at the heart of good design.
A recent WIRED interview with Gates gives us a clearer idea of what she means. Asked what innovation she thought is changing the most lives in the developing world, Gates response was: "Human-centred design. Meeting people where they are and really taking their needs and feedback into account. When you let people participate in the design process, you find that they often have ingenious ideas about what would really help them. And it’s not a onetime thing; it’s an iterative process.”
Mather’s omission is characteristic of the rest of the article. He reduces design to a set of basic roles, processes and disciplines, giving the definition that it “arranges largely physical elements to fulfil some specific function (which may include or primarily be style)”. This definition lacks any reference to the needs or aspirations of people, and falls short in answering the question: So what is good design?
Design is not only the practice of following these processes, nor will following them necessarily make someone a good designer. Likewise, good design is always more than the arrangement of physical elements. Mathers’ definition seems even more simplistic given that people are increasingly using design in increasingly varied, complex and collaborative ways.
Design is constantly evolving, definitions are always shifting, but debate is the foundation of progress. Something that cannot be defined can be more exciting than something that can.
Our vision for design is different from what Mathers describes. Good design arises from a way of thinking about the world that embodies compassion, creativity and ingenuity. It is the drive to explore what other people need and want, the imagination to combine distant knowledge and ideas, and the curiosity to find solutions to problems that appear not to exist. This is an outlook that many designers express, and many people express without calling themselves designers.
What good designers have in common is the desire and intent to improve life for themselves and others, the belief to question the status quo, and the opportunity to turn intent into action. Some of the tools and processes involved, like visualisation and prototyping, are traditionally associated with design, but many, for example creative problem solving, entrepreneurship and experimentation, overlap or are predominantly associated with other fields.
White labelling all of these areas as design would be arrogant but there is a unique value that comes from bringing many different methodologies together around a common focus. Good design practice does this well.
It is because good design is human centred that it is also integral to solving social challenges. People are at the heart of good design. As Gates says, it involves meeting people where they are, recognising that anyone can be a source of ingenuity, and not only imagining, but also creating change. We need to stop defining design as a process or set of disciplines and embrace it as a desire for change that can be realised through a range of different concepts and activities, and can be realised by a range of different people.
Many people have the potential to make a positive change in their lives, in their community, in their work. More needs to be done to bring these people together around shared goals, help people gain the skills that enable action, and develop people’s agency to design the world they want. The digital revolution has already created opportunities for people to connect and collaborate on platforms like Spacehive and Made Open Monmouthshire, learn online through courses like the NHS School for Health and Care Radicals, or inform local priorities through apps like FixMyStreet and Balancing Act.
Now more must be done to ensure the opportunities, abilities and belief required to take positive social action are embedded in every walk of life. Mathers is right to identify a shortfall in higher education but the challenge is much deeper than this; the responsibility to foster creativity at all levels does not lie solely with policymakers or bureaucracies. It is the responsibility of all of us, as teachers, as business owners, as friends, as parents and as citizens, to build a culture of creativity, entrepreneurship and experimentation at school, at work, at home.
Mathers closes by saying that “design has always moved between profitable activities and socially beneficial ones, often with benefit to both sides. It will, most likely, continue in a similar vein.” We fundamentally disagree. Great design is never a choice between making money and doing good.
Take for example M-KOPA Solar, the global leader of pay as you go energy for off-grid customers, which has connected over 200,000 homes in East Africa. Or Ecovative, a company that makes cost-competitive and totally biodegradable packaging out of mushrooms, not plastic. Or Box Chicken designed by Shift, a new healthy fast food business that competes directly with high street fried chicken shops nearby to schools. Or One, a company selling water and other basic domestic products to fund access to water projects across the world, giving customers the choice to make a positive social difference as they do their weekly shop.
Everybody has a part to play in designing the future, from creating homes that people feel safe and comfortable living in, to health services shaped around the way people want to use them, and spaces for every citizen to feel part of something bigger than themselves.
Ed Gardiner is the behavioural design lead at Warwick Business School. Ella Britton is a social designer who leads the Knee High Design Challenge at the Design Council.