Defining Design ‘as agent of change’

Inspiration to write often comes unexpectedly and, as with so many attention seeking ‘pulls’ in my life, tends to happen because a transfer of ideas, that inform my sense-making view on Service Design, has taken place somehow.

Yesterday evening, as part of The festival of Ideas at Spike Island, Bristol, a very eloquent writer and speaker on design called Alice Rawsthorn was addressing an audience of the general public to promote her new book “Hello World : Where Design Meets Life“, which earlier in the day had conveniently arrived by postal delivery.

Alice Rawsthorn came onto my radar through her interesting articles on Design. She is the design critic of the International Herald Tribune, the global edition of the New York Times. In her weekly Design column, published every Monday, Alice explores new directions in every area of design, so she has undoubtedly helped design reach a much wider public audience.

Speaking about her new book, she began by reflecting how design affects people’s lives in a ubiquitous and unseen way, challenging the audience to think about the invisibility of design, design is everywhere; so we now take it for granted, but the definition of design in the late 20th and early 21st century has become significantly ambiguous in the minds of the majority of people, whom design ulimately serves. Design is a term with different meanings in different contexts and therefore remains slippery to pin down definitively, much like the meaning of the word ‘love’. In my own understanding, I agree with her simple definition of ‘design as agent of change’, which can help us make sense of what is happening and turn it to our advantage.

I have not yet read Alice Rawsthorn’s new book, but I’m hoping that, like another I am currently reading, it will help contextualise and enrich my emergent thinking, and help to make sense of some missing pieces in my mind’s unfinished jigsaw. In the human context in which I want to work, it may even help me become more useful as a designer, and through my own Service Design practise and learning, even become a future agent of change.

At the end of the talk, the impact of what Alice was saying to an audience made up of the general public, became more interesting. By challenging people’s perceptions of what design means, the audience began to raise questions in the Q&A, which revealed more about their curiosity in the process of design and less about the artefacts that emerge from the design process.

In her question to Alice, one little girl in the audience even proposed her own alternative to the book’s title of Hello World, a reference to the first words that flash up on a computer during a start-up test program. They were ‘colour, flower, passion’. Perhaps children, who are often unafraid to ask simple questions, should participate in more talks about design in practise, because they could challenge the speaker to reduce the complexity of their language, which so often is an alienating factor in understanding something completely.

I too asked a question, which referred to one of the problems I experience when communicating the value of Service Design as a collaborative design process. The communication challenges are amplified by a general misunderstanding of what design means today, and the roles of several different kinds of designers, who practise it through a multitude of formal specialised disciplines.

As a Service Designer, I have a deep interest in uncovering people’s unmet needs, often gaining insights through a form of ‘off-duty’ design research – simple conversations and observations, information that I later process, through my own design lens and thinking.

*Here’s three recent and diverse personal examples, where there may be potential opportunites for design – as agent of change – to make people’s lives better, if only there was a will to do so by those empowered to make decisions in organisations. In all these examples, I think there is a cause and effect to changing one part of the ecology of a service system, without firstly understanding the social impact of change for people the system was originally designed to serve.

*I met an old couple in Public House, who told me how their social life had been adversely affected because the landlord had stopped a very popular quiz night, but as employees they were afraid to ask him why? The publican I spoke to subsequently, clearly only thought of the pub as a public utility, which served a customer need for alcohol and food (Goods Dominant Logic) without thinking beyond this utility to the real human need for social interaction in a convivial atmosphere.

*I met a young care manager called Joe. I asked him about his care work in a home for severely mentally-challenged children. In answering my questions, he revealed how the children’s complex needs were being met in a dedicated staff to child ratio, which was as high as 3:1 and offered the child a high quality of life, achieved through highly personalised services and therapies, which included stimulus and activities, which created value for both child and carer.

Yet the transition between the child care provided by the service he worked for and the service hand-over to an adult care provider, was not designed effectively to support the individual emotional and psychological needs of the person that the system was designed to serve. So, at the age of 19, the young adult was moved to another facility, sometimes geographically difficult for the parents to reach easily and where the adult would probably stay for the rest of their natural life. The trade off between the finances available for the child’s care through the professional dedication of front-line staff was being severely disrupted by fluctuations in the Charity’s income and public sector budget cuts.

*I met an artist who has been working, over several years, with a community organisation for West Indian elders and people of other ethnic origins and had noticed in some, as she worked with them, signs of the early stages of dementia. She was currently undertaking a self-directed project, which could try to ‘capture the personality’ of the elder before their degenerative condition became worse. This could then be used in the future to tell their story, by capturing aspects of their personality, which would eventually fade and become lost. Having facilitated an innovation workshop on dementia for The Design Council, I knew that one of the problems was that front-line staff often cannot see ‘the person’ behind their condition and this often leads to emotional disconnection between staff and guests in care homes.

My thoughts about how and where design meets life are constantly being influenced by my own experiences. As an empathic, people-centred designer, my work life and personal life often blurs, when I interact with people, objects, interfaces, environments and service systems. My naturally curious nature often uncovers a new context of human need, where design could be used to make other people’s lives better and I agree with Victor Papanek that ‘the only important thing about design is how it relates to people’.

So finally…if, as a Service Designer, your conversation with someone or your experience of some broken service system intuitively reveals an insight into an unmet human need or a clear opportunity where design can become an agent of change, the next step is the how to create a design project from this informal indicator. This is my one of my biggest and most continuously pressing questions, as informally, I constantly uncover opportunities where design could make that difference – but then often wonder who or where to turn next to communicate the how?

Framing a people-centred design challenge as a Service Design project, will always initially require lots of pursuasive communications. This is why my focus is now on the generative research, co-discovery and co-design fuzzy front end of the design process, where you begin by understanding the experiences of people who are the new design experts, but who are too often ignored in design process.

If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough. – Albert Einstein

Storytelling becomes more important in communicating clearly how people experience a broken system; the same people the system was initially ‘designed’ to serve. It will need to have a powerful and emotive narrative and message, which touches the hearts and minds of key stakeholders who, in order to effect change by design, will have to commit time and resources; becoming active and equal partners in the design process.

Perhaps if more policy-level thinkers read Hello World : Where Design Meets Life, there may be renewed hope that I and indeed every other designer, who is motivated by design for social good, will become more recognised and valued by society and organisations as agents or facilitators of change?

© richard louis arnott 2013

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