Clive Grinyer: Getting on the right track

Most design is about changing behaviour, argues Clive Grinyer, whether it’s persuading people to make a purchase, or improvement of our personal space

Last week the BBC evening news featured a vision of the school of the future. Airy spaces with personal learning areas, designed to create an atmosphere of respect in school, children and teachers alike. PCs and electronic whiteboards allowed shared and individual learning and a computer fly-through gave a compelling vision of what design could do to aid the learning environment.

But what interested the BBC more was a video sent in by children from a Bedford school who, having seen the item earlier in the day, responded with a video of the reality of their school. Old classrooms, computers too close together, even cupboards full of unused PCs, with no desk space available.

The message from the report seemed to be: don’t have highfalutin ideas about the future of the classroom when the present situation in many schools is far from acceptable.

The same message was heard at the weekend. As the Strategic Rail Authority announced its plans to salvage the railways, The Sunday Times scorned that it was going to start with the toilets and the waiting rooms. Who knows, might they be so reckless as to make an easily understandable timetable?

The media is proud of its healthy cynicism of Government and any attempt to hide present decay under promises of a rosy future. The main issue with trains is getting them to run on time, and there are many vital problems to be addressed in schools and hospitals. But at the moment there seems to be only two clubs in the bag: money and privatisation.

Anyone involved in design can see the dilemmas in these types of reports; the belief that design can make a huge contribution to finding solutions that work and provide real quality of life, and that people think that what we say is perhaps important but not crucial, not at the first level. So the world continues blindly to pour in money, privatise, or trust science and technology to sort it out.

We should try to understand design/design-thinking in shaping not just the message, surface or packaging of the world around us, but as a core tool to help work out real needs and possibilities. The school of the future, concept cars at motor shows and visionary design scenarios of the future all show that there is much interest in creating crystal balls to see how the world may look in the near future.

In governments in the UK and across Europe, ventures such as Foresight take the long view, over many years, to spot big trends – comets hitting earth, such as: our increasing age, emotional trends such as anti-globalisation, sustainability, and how new technologies may enable us to work and play. Although we don’t expect these visions to be accurate, they do have the power to alter our viewpoint.

But as we look for innovation and new technology, mistakes can be costly. No one saw user interface as the key to getting people to use mobile phones, or coloured covers, ring-tones and text messaging. Scientists and technologists won’t ever see that stuff, but any type of design-thinking has the power to root around in observing human behaviour and use that knowledge to find the real value in all these bright ideas, help us find the real ideas and make them usable and workable for us all.

But why is this of interest? The issues of future visions and media perceptions of design directly affect us. Almost any piece of design is about changing behaviour, whether it’s persuasion to buy, communication of information, or improvement of our personal space. Changing behaviour is difficult, often requiring diplomacy, reasoning and learning, and communication.

When the Department of Work and Pensions started ruling out innovative new offices that removed the thickened security glass and tried to foster less confrontation, there was fear, fed in part by the media, that led to a strike and severe setback in the programme, despite staff involved in trials celebrating the new design as a success. So public perception of change, and design’s role in that, can make or break great design outputs.

If design uses individual creativity on behalf of many people to understand normal people and how they use the world, then designers, graduates, students and teachers can take the future seriously and let people know that aspiring to a better quality of life is not a luxury, that design leads to a more effective use of money, and realise that challenging the world and offering alternative visions unites all types of designer in all types of design-thinking.

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