For the common good

As big business bows to consumer expectations of ethical behaviour, Adrian Shaughnessy says the time has finally come for social design to set the pace

It’s never been clear to me what the term ‘social design’ means. It’s a topic that think tanks and publicly funded bodies like to pontificate about, but what does it mean to working designers trying to earn a living in the commercial arena?

The answer might just have been thrown up by the recent shifting of cultural tectonic plates caused by the global financial crises/ social design is design for the common good. And it might even be the next big thing.

The idea of social design has been around at least since the early Modernists pioneered the concept of good design for everyone, not just moneyed elites. But in recent decades this view has been eclipsed – crushed even – by the notion of design as the lubricant of consumer desire. Now, however, the cultural climate has changed again, and the ‘common good’ has suddenly become a concept that nearly everyone gets – even big business.

So, what evidence is there that the common good can become a compelling force to rival the desire for wealth and endless consumption?

Well, it’s clear that the free market orthodoxy that has prevailed since the 1980s has been dealt a near-fatal body blow by the profligacy of the banks, the sight of our MPs with their snouts in the trough, and the toxic impact of rising unemployment. These and other well-publicised instances of greed have led to a palpable disillusionment with a culture where money is the only yardstick of value.

There’s yet more evidence to be seen in the growth of the environmental movement, which has long since passed from the ideological to a real concern among real people.

Even big business can see the benefit in ethical conduct. Cadbury has just launched its new Fairtrade-certified chocolate bar. Why? Because it can see that the notion of the common good has entered the national blood stream.

Yet what are the chances of social design becoming a credible and sustainable activity for designers?

I recently saw one small example of what I mean by social design when I visited Applied Information Group in London. Tim Fendley’s buzzing studio is mainly engaged in designing wayfinding systems for cities – in other words, it does social design. And AIG is booming.

Wayfinding is a pretty unequivocal example of social design. It has a social benefit that designing, say, a shampoo label doesn’t. Now this doesn’t mean we have to stop designing shampoo labels, but it does mean that we have to start designing labels – not to mention the bottles and the shampoo itself – that can boast ethical credentials.

Of course, there will always be work for designers who refuse to bother with the new ethical dimension in business; and I’m also aware there is a lot of holier-than-thou hypocrisy surrounding the question of the ‘common good’. But I’m going to stick my neck out here and say that, as more and more clients move towards an ethical position, there is a real opportunity for design to set the pace and become an exemplar of socially focused activity.

To many, that will sound like smarmy do-goodism, but I think it is a far more realistic proposition than saying, ‘Everything will be back to normal in a couple of years.’ It won’t. The world has changed and it will never be the same again. And I think we can say the same about design too.

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