Design needs a minister to handle social initiatives

It’s good to see that design-friendly research institute Demos is still out there campaigning to bring radical thoughts into public policy and political thinking, and that design remains very much part of its repertoire of ideas.

Chapter nine of its open letter aimed at incoming Cabinet Secretary Sir Andrew Turnbull, urging him to take on board issues of great social concern, highlights ‘Public services and good design’. For a start it’s great to see the chapter in there, for a second we applaud the use of the word ‘good’ with design.

Demos holds up the example set by the private sector of using branding to help people buy into the ideas and aspirations that their products and services represent. It claims the Government has a few ‘slightly worn’ brands, citing the NHS, the Inland Revenue and the BBC, but that very few are aspirational and it’s time to change all that.

Sensibly, the letter cautions against applying a marketing veneer, with or without design, to get that message across. Instead, it urges Turnbull to look at the physical design of public spaces and amenities such as schools and hospitals to create a public sense of value in Government achievements. It also counsels him to give users ‘a creative voice’ in the process.

Demos suggests that by focusing on quality in public environments, the public sector has a fantastic chance of differentiating itself from private sector operators, which increasingly opt for ‘samey’ spaces that can be transported almost anywhere and rely on function rather than unlocking people’s imagination.

For Demos you could almost read The Sorrell Foundation, John and Frances Sorrell’s socially conscious charity with its inclusive approach to using design commissioned by ‘inmates’ to boost the ‘user’ experience of schools, healthcare and prisons. The foundation has already shown through its Joined Up Design for Schools initiative what can be achieved through design.

But the Sorrells aren’t the only ones taking a proactive stance. In public/ volume housing, for example, Hemingway Design and London Eye architect Marks Barfield are looking at new physical formats, while Wally Olins’ new semi-virtual global venture, Madrid-based Saffron, is seeking to change the negative public perceptions that surround social housing.

Turnbull – and Prime Minister Tony Blair – needs to be aware of all these initiatives, as well as others generated outsider the UK and have someone on the inside with the vision, knowledge and clout to get things done. While it’s good that Demos is seeking to inform Turnbull and his Cabinet Office colleagues, maybe it’s time to bring back the post of design minister as well.

Latest articles