Society, Designers, Environment, Us

I’m just back from the Royal Designers for Industry Summer school. Over the course of the event we were asked to think about and express a response to ‘society, designers, the environment, and us.’ A lively discussion ensued… :)

I’ve had a night’s sleep now during which the ideas discussed have settled, and distilled into the following:


Too often we talk about the problems that society faces – to the extent where these cumulative and highly complex problems feel completely overwhelming. This is not very productive, it makes us feel powerless; the way I see it in terms of the four words in question is that:

  1. There is an opportunity.
  2. The way we live is changing very rapidly.
  3. There is a need for us to better understand where these rapid changes may have a negative impact on society and our environment, and where such changes may be positive.
  4. Design itself is an optimistic act.
  5. Designers seek to understand, to improve, to reach forward and create something new or better; something that is fit for purpose both in form and in function.
  6. Design thinking is a powerful tool for change and communication.
  7. There is an opportunity for designers to radically transform the way we live in response to the changes that society faces, and to change the kind of future we will all experience together.

So, what does this mean for me?

There is an opportunity here, but designers cannot make the most of it on their own. We do not yet fully understand how those involved in policy making on societal and environmental issues can best use design thinking, and to collaborate with designers and with the public in order  to better adapt to changes that are taking place, or to make something completely new.

This work has begun in certain areas, notably with organisations like thinkpublic and others who are working in the service design arena. But how do we develop this, and what opportunities exist outside service design as a first point of common ground between designer, citizen and policy maker?

We should explore this further, and those working in different sectors should make steps towards understanding one another’s position more fully, and in turn to better understand the public.

This will require a more lateral-thinking approach to policy problems, and a pushing out of our individual bubbles of ‘profession’ or ‘policy area’ that can prevent understanding across different sectors and personal perspectives.

This is a beginning, and we need to work together in order to make the best choices possible within our society. Design won’t simply ‘solve problems’ on its own, but it can improve things.


Design with people!

The RSA/NESTA design directions winners were announced recently.

The brief I was involved in developing and judging was –

Engage! : Catalysing social change through design-led citizen participation

…. otherwise known as 

designers working with real people to come up with new ideas to solve social problems.

One of the problems we came across when writing up the original brief was grappling with unweildy terminology and the disparity between more traditional design values (a snazzy end product and demonstration of flair or expertise) compared with this type of design (a user-centred process and excellent light-touch facilitation skills).

 Exactly how to get the message about user-centredness and a facilitation approach to design was tough – but we must have done something right as the Engage! brief got some fantastic entries which far exceeded the scope of the brief in various different ways.

The final winner was Alex Ostrowski who worked with  the Frenchay brain injury rehabilitation unit in Bristol to assist the process of re-orientation following post-traumatic amnesia.

Check out the online gallery featuring all of the finalists here.