Improve people’s lives if you want their attention

Have you noticed how “social responsibility” and “ethical design” have crept back into the industry’s vocabulary? The Design Business Association’s Design Challenge and projects from the Royal College of Art’s Helen Hamlyn Research Centre make the premise that design can make life better for people, but others are talking about it, too.

The cynic in me says the current flurry of socially responsible initiatives means that business is booming again in design – as was the case in the late 1980s when concerns about the environment prompted designers to take a lead. A lot of good work – and self-promotion – came out of that one. But it is slightly different now. The charity sector, for example, has long been a buoyant outlet for design groups wanting to do their bit, often trading a lower fee for greater creative control. But with workloads from full fee-paying clients burgeoning, the interest in doing it has never been more genuine.

But, as ever, public perceptions don’t match up to reality. Last week Red or Dead founder Wayne Hemingway suggested to the industry’s finest that social responsibility didn’t seem to be their bag. Why shouldn’t they design volume housing, he said (assuming there were more architects present than was the case) rather than pricey one-off homes? You can imagine the outrage, with Richard Seymour leading the pack with cries that he created humble kettles and affordable, but functional bras. But why should Hemingway think otherwise when no one has really owned up to their commitment in this area?

In business, design groups often portray themselves as puppets – or is it puppies – to their clients. This lack of confidence in their own contribution to a client’s success has led to unbalanced relationships, hence the crucial need for the Design Business Association to try to establish proper contractual dealings for them. But to the outside world designers are probably stylish tyrants imposing their own taste on the rest of us – and coining it in into the bargain.

Neither image is wholly correct, though we can all name a handful of peers who fit one or other category. Designers do care about making things better, not just for less able folk but for everyone. So why aren’t we talking about it more, outside the bars of London’s Clerkenwell and Soho or Edinburgh’s Leith?

It’s time we told the world that social responsibility is fundamental to what designers do – or should be – and isn’t a worthy bolt-on geared to charging clients or consumers more for the result. Perhaps it’s another job for the DBA. But first we need to convince ourselves that social responsibility really is more than a buzz-word.

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