Battle in Print: Putting design and technology

Tuesday, October 3, 2006

The role that designers and technologists play in relation to social development is always changing.

The role that designers and technologists play in relation to social development is always changing. Today, design seems to be on the ascendant. At the time of writing, London is in the midst of its fourth annual London Design Festival, [1] which promotes talent and new ideas and tries to stimulate new thinking about design and its role in society. No one could argue that design and technology does not help society transform itself. However, today the content of the transformation is arguably not as bold, innovative and challenging as is sometimes supposed. This is not due to a lack of available tools, techniques and materials, but rather a lack of imagination.

Both the ‘100% Design’ [2] and ‘[re]design 06 – Good&Gorgeous’ [3] events held during the London Design Festival this year seemed to reflect a lack of imagination within our culture. In the sprawling exhibition space inside the Truman Brewery in East London, the ‘100% Design’ event includes many ‘DIY’ ideas that exhume familiar ‘low-fi’ materials like cardboard for seating and wall partitions, lamps made out of ping-pong balls or seating made out of polystyrene. In other spaces, products on show have a distinct 1960s aesthetic about them.

Across the street in the ‘[re]design 06’ space, the talk is all about sustainable living, in an approach summed up by one speaker in a presentation as ‘co-design’. [4] Here the designer collaborates with the recipient (even customer) in tandem so they are equally responsible for the shaping of the end product, service or artefact. This is to ensure that what is produced will ultimately be of value to those who use it most and that their needs have not been ignored.

For anyone interested in how design and technology can transform society, co-design actually means something qualitatively different. It is now considered old-fashioned to think that a designer might be commissioned to make something, even test it with people, and pass the end result (if successful) onto the consumer through the marketplace or through their client’s business. Instead, the ethos behind co-design creates a new kind of relationship between creator and end-user. Importantly, designers are asked to fill a void that their clients are reluctant or unable to fill.

The idea of co-design shares the ethos, cost, consequences and responsibilities of the design process with those who will ultimately end up using its products. Whilst this can produce successes, it can also lead to failures. Some designers no longer thirst after creating exceptional material products. Instead, they strive to design services as a means of encouraging us to think about ourselves, our responsibilities, our attitudes to one another and ultimately to get us to question our consumption of those services. The left-liberal leaning think tank Demos recently published a report, The Journey to the Interface, that makes this clear. The authors see what they call ‘service design’ as an approach that can ‘offer policy makers and practitioners a vision for the transformation of public services, as well as a route to get there’  (HeapyandParker2006).

Equally, attitudes toward innovation are changing. Innovation as a transformative process that creates new structures, materials and economic growth is no longer as important or in vogue. Instead, design is more likely to be concerned with intangible social and ethical values attached to what we create and how it is being used.

Does all this mean that as a society we will get better designed and produced products, services and experiences that serve our needs better than before? The answer isn’t conclusive. Many designers who traditionally relished the responsibility for taking decisions on their own now seek to collaborate with end-users. Whilst this sounds inclusive, in fact this could be construed as a sign that they are running out of ideas or lack confidence in creating something new.

Most significantly, designers and technologists are feted for their problem solving skills. In particular, it is believed that they can forge a connection with their client’s customers, constituencies or communities. This is at the same time that many companies, brands and institutions struggle to maintain their appeal and legitimacy. As a source of trust and infallibility, many brands have had to rethink what they do and who they are talking to. Design is seen to play a crucial role in this.

Creating a different competitive edge is no longer just about developing a better designed product or brand. What also counts is how the company does business. Many will now agree that a brand’s value should be calculated according to its intangible, hidden value: its ethics, its responsibility, the level of service it provides to its customers, and if it has a sustainable business model for investors to believe in. As is often noted in politics, the cult of personality is just as important (if not more important) than a long-term political or economic agenda.

The net effect of this is a malaise and a lack of confidence within businesses about how they conduct themselves, and, in turn, about how to produce new things that can inspire us. In reality, innovation typically takes place beneath the bonnet, most likely hidden from the consumer. Innovation isn’t always driven by consumer demand, but often from manufacturers themselves who use better technology or processes all the time. Although we like our PCs to be fast, as consumers do we ever use their full potential? Or even when we buy a car, we feel that many features are nice, but they are not always used in everyday driving – no matter what the advertising tells us. What is often missing is the kind of approach to innovation that maximises our collective imagination about future possibilities, not just a need to include users.

Unfortunately, the same scenario is being played out in politics. Like many businesses, politicians invariably feel out of touch and are acutely concerned that they lack any real sense of legitimacy. Politicians are keen to explore the potential of IT to connect to and engage with voters, and also encourage widespread Big Brother style participation. For a number of years many MPs have been using the internet for either talking to voters through their personal weblogs or using websites to conduct public consultation exercises and help formulate policy. However, this can backfire and does not always drive up participation levels.

The leading design commentator John Thackara proposes in his latest book, In The Bubble: Designing in a Complex World, [5] that in order to tackle social problems (often caused by misplaced design or technology) we need more of what he calls ‘social innovation’; that is, providing the means to bring people together to help themselves and solve their problems on their own terms. What Thackara does is to design the right collaborative environments to make all this happen. His latest project, Dott (Designs of the time), ‘aims to improve national life through design by raising public awareness of design’s value and getting the public involved in designing better services and products for their region’. [6] He therefore uses technology to bring communities together and encourages them to interact collectively to solve problems.

Elsewhere, designers and technologists are making inroads where institutions and organisations no longer feel confident in shaping how they operate and provide services. Hillary Cottam directs the Design Council’s RED project.[7]In 2005 she won (to much consternation) the UK Design Museum ‘Designer of the Year’ award. What many baulked at was that she isn’t a designer – instead she’s more of a manager. In fact she won because of her work changing school, prison and health environments, systems and services.

This was done by encouraging her clients to tackle business problems using ‘design’ tools, such as encouraging them to think of ‘putting the customer at the centre of the solution’. In the same sense, she extended the notion of the projects’ stakeholders to include the actual patients, the school children or the prisoners. In effect, placing the project in the hands of the end-users.

Her RED project continues apace. It has tackled projects from citizenship (including making sure people understand what is involved with jury service) to improving health care (helping diabetics express and communicate their feelings to professionals by using ‘agenda cards’). The draft of their ‘Transformation Design’ manifesto says the approach could ‘be key to solving many of society’s most complex problems’.[8]Critics have criticised her approach because they don’t think it’s design. But they miss the point. Out of touch institutions will do anything to generate much-needed ideas to get them out of a hole. And designers like Cottam are able to involve constituencies that were previously left out of the equation. But of course Cottam was quick to express that part of this process is about getting people to ‘change their behaviour’.[9]

Another example is Geodesign, which, as Alice Rawthorn, the ex-head of the Design Museum explains, is where ‘design thinking is used to address social and political problems’, in this case helping Guatemala rejuvenate itself (Rawsthorn 10.9.2006). Here design as a tool is being used because some have noted there is a ‘distrust of institutions’ that stalls progress. Hence designers are purportedly able to reach parts others cannot.

These examples illustrate the point that designers are changing their roles – not just in relation to their clients, but also to us as consumers of their work. Here it’s no longer about inspiration, it also entails facilitating the ‘process of design’. As they say, ‘we are all experts now’ – not only in what the problems are, but also in the solution, if we accept responsibility and change our behaviour in the process.

This is no longer about arguing for better access to the finance, tools, resources and infrastructure that will materially change people’s lives. It can often mean the opposite: making do with what you already own or have and learning to live with it. Of course, if you fail to take part then you must also be part of the problem, or a hindrance to a better solution.

What is new about today is that designers and technologists are not engaged solely with creating inspirational ideas that can build upon past innovations. Instead, they are being asked to fulfil the roles that were traditionally held by business and even politics.

No one can censor these attempts at using designers and technologists to resolve problems. But ideas being put forward are often naive and cannot be a substitute for the real innovative changes that are required in business and politics. They are also a distraction from the real potential design has to improve society.