I was at The Houses of Parliament this week to debate the future of the design and innovation industry in a Design Business Association-hosted roundtable chaired by Barry Sheerman MP. It was one of those rewarding events where the greatest challenge subtly revealed a most exciting opportunity.
The insights from agency CEOs revealed a ‘squeezed’ design industry going through a difficult transition:
• Tighter budgets leave clients demanding more work for less money under incredibly tight timescales. There’s a feeling among practitioners that they are simply churning out design after design without applying the thoughtful creative process that insulates it as a craft.
• The move to project over retainer relationships leaves agencies financially insecure and unable to provide long-term strategic planning and ‘off brief’ innovation consultancy that is central to competitive advantage.
• As Asia establishes itself as an international design hub there is anxiety that brand London will become associated with ‘old design’ (typography and brand collateral) rather than the underlying ideas which are a much more precious commodity.
• On the home front, the democratisation of design is making anyone with a mac a competitor. Agencies simply cannot compete with ‘two man bands’ that can knock out a logo from their bedroom for a couple of hundred pounds.
The consensus was that for the industry to prevail it needs to go below the surface and find its true source of value.
We normally equate design with its aesthetic output: the chair, the dress, the building. But what’s more important is the depth of user insight, the power of the creative expression, and the quality of the eventual execution.
The outcome is impact, and as I write I’m reminded of a Do Lectures talk by architect and policy researcher Indy Johar in which he revealed that his firm’s level of consideration on design for the elderly went as far as choosing specific wood for the hand rail of stairs because the smell of the resin activated lingering sense memories, facilitating greater use. This is design for impact.
There was also a feeling around the table that the industry itself hadn’t fully come to terms with its value. My response was that design’s greatest contribution is its process. Designers are the original stewards of ideas, taking concepts of the mind and making them work in reality.
I advocated during the roundtable that design’s most exciting contribution is in policy development. Abroad we are seeing green shoots with ‘strategic design’ playing a valuable role in policy formation.
Sitra, Finland’s leading state think tank, has a strategic design practice (The Helsinki Design Labs) that is responsible for long-term planning around health, education, and ageing. Similarly, design thinking is being embedded in the DNA of the Singaporean government as it rolls out directives crucial to its strategic agenda.
Policies are ideas. They start in someone’s head based on a set of assumptions about what individuals want and what society needs and are ‘brought to market’ within a window of competing interests and structural constraints. The difference between good and bad policy is the fit with their eventual environment. For so many policies, the regression analysis adds up but it fails to appreciate how people will actually behave within the reality it creates.
As a case in point, when the Government privatised third-level education it set a non-compulsory upper limit of £9,000 believing universities would occupy the spectrum, creating a healthy, accessible market. What it didn’t anticipate was most universities raising their prices to the ceiling to avoid the perception that their degrees were worth less than their competitors.
An arms race seems obvious in hindsight but these crucial insights are so often missed when you are rushing to get a policy out the door. What we need are tools and frameworks that rapidly stimulate as much of the awareness that the live environment eventually affords. We need multiple ways of seeing.
It’s not that current policy formation isn’t rigorous, it’s that its linear, analytical approach often misses vital signs of weaknesses and unanticipated potential.
While easier to handle, if you only describe a policy through words and stress test it through conversation than you fail to appreciate its substance. Devices such as visualisation demonstrate the outcome of policy at different scales, yielding insights that are often buried in a briefing document. The process of prototyping, whether it be through roleplay or storytelling, takes the policy beyond abstraction so that stakeholders can appraise its texture. Policy is presumption, and design delivers clarity by helping you look at the problem and opportunity in a myriad of different ways.
Unfortunately, clients don’t buy process, they buy possibility. The challenge for the design industry is to contextualise the advantage and demonstrate how it can deliver more innovative outcomes across diverse settings.
On an agency level this takes the form of representative case studies which describe how a specific ‘design-led’ insight during the process transformed the view of the problem and led to breakthrough innovation.
How can we get to a high-level expression that the industry as a whole can export? It’s instructive that the Great Britain campaign focused on design as manufacturing, the surface of things that you can see. For me, it’s about the way of seeing itself, the multiple points of view that leave you better placed to tackle the most intractable problems and bring forth hidden opportunities. Design can be the driving force behind a Greater Britain, a business destination where you can achieve more from a better vantage point.