Does design make good policy?

Originally published in Design Week.

It’s welcome news that a new government-backed design lab, to be launched this month, will aim to influence how government services are run. Yet it’s also cause for concern.

There can be no doubt that designers make a positive impact on many people’s lives — especially when they help people access online government services more easily. The latest report on the success of the newly designed umbrella confirms this.

There’s something else, however. Many designers and policy makers want to do more than improve how we do business with the state. On top of that, many are intent on changing our personal conduct, too.

Politicians have been keen on that goal for some time. In 2010, David Cameron set up a behavioural insights team to help all government departments find new ways to challenge what experts insist are our irrational choices.

Recently, the Design Council and Warwick Business School have followed suit. They have set up their own Behavioural Design LabAreas they are working on include how to get people to exercise more, cut their consumption of energy and sugar, halt binge drinking, and – among teenagers – handle themselves more safely online.

Is that right? Some question the doctrine of eating five pieces of fruit or veg a day, the Body Mass Index measure of obesity, and whether watching that thermostat is really the way to beat climate change.

Yet in design such controversies rarely surface. Instead, there’s an unseemly rush to recruit the profession to the cause of telling people how to change their behavior, whether they like it or not.

That’s a problem. First, designers risk losing their objectivity, and the ability to question everything from all angles. Second, targeting people’s behaviour diverts attention away from the real problem.

Take the recent success story of PearsonLloyd, whom the Design Council and the Department of Health commissioned to help reduce violence toward staff in hospital A&E departments.

The winning idea, as reported in Design Week, is a mix of information and signage that informs patients how the A&E process works – and why they are having to wait so long. Trials in two A&E departments showed that PearsonLloyd’s work cut aggression towards staff by half.

Good. Still, while outbursts from patients frustrated with sitting about for hours have thankfully been quelled, have the underlying causes of those outbursts – long waiting times – been tackled? Not at all.

If you’re a hospital manager, nudging patients to calm down like this makes sense.

But if you’re a patient, it makes little sense to be made more aware of substandard levels of service. Though the designers hope it’ll get patients on side, such an approach, if anything, does little more than reconcile you to the status quo, by having your ‘awareness’ raised and knowing your place.

Of course, it’s not PearsonLloyd’s fault that the NHS is in some trouble. However, so long as designers refuse to challenge briefs that target our behaviour as the issue to resolve, they will be in the sticking plaster business, and won’t do what they hopefully came into design to do – effect radical and surprising changes.

In another sense, designers can risk missing out on far bigger opportunities, no matter how much policy-wonking they choose to engage in. Take the new HELIX Centre for Design in Healthcare.

It’s a collaboration between the Royal College of Art and the Institute of Global Health Innovation (IGHI) at Imperial College London, and aims to pinpoint solutions in a far quicker way, more able to deal with the complexities of how an institution like the NHS works through ‘frugal innovation or high impact, low-cost design’. In other words, how can we get more healthcare ’bang for our buck’?

While being frugal might be as good as it will get with an institution like the NHS, at least those involved with this initiative are being imaginative and willing to find ways to help.

Whether it’s on energy use, consumption, obesity or failing standards in A&E, as designers we should be willing to ask even harder questions. Only then will we get to the root of the problem and to find far better answers, not merely deal with superficial reactions to these issues.

Indeed, designers are often well-placed to take a step back and raise these more fundamental questions. To simply employ design to address the symptom, not the cause, is not good policy.