The Political Relevance of Design

Perhaps predictably, there was little to no mention of design in any of the three main party manifestos published ahead of the May election. It is hard to imagine two groups of people less alike, and with less understanding of each other, than designers and politicians. One group is (relatively) unconstrained, innovative, non-conformist, granular in structure, commercially-focussed and aesthetically-motivated. The other is establishment, accountable, hierarchical, power-seeking, often adversarial and (hopefully) publicly-motivated. Politicians deal with the big issues. Designers are, with a few exceptions, relegated to tinker at the edges.

Although both pursuits are arguably as old as civilisation, there has rarely been interchange or reciprocity, or even a desire to communicate, between the two worlds. They both tick along blissfully unencumbered by knowledge or true understanding of the other. But increasingly, in Britain as in other economies, design is becoming more politically relevant, and the chasm that exists between the two communities is to our collective detriment.

Here are a few of the reasons why:

1. In a complex world where interdisciplinarity and collaboration rule, design has long been pioneering the practice of Not Being A Silo. The term ‘design’ is nebulous and ill-defined, its practitioners encroach on other sectors, assimilate ideas and practices from other disciplines. Which means it can insert itself, chameleon-like, into many different arenas; whether that means making products more sellable, public services more flexible, or political ideas more palatable (!)

2. The versatility and quality of the UK design industry is respected globally. This is an asset to be maximised.

3. Designers primarily spend their time thinking about how to make things work better, and hence are experts in this process. ‘Design thinking’ has been suggested as the new frontier in business development. But they could also be of immeasurable (currently grossly underutilised) value for public services. Public services don’t need to be big and clunky. They could be specialised and responsive, better than anything the private sector has to offer. It is ironic that for a nation whose design capabilities are so envied, we so often have less-than-well-designed public services.

4. There is a proven link between a healthy design industry, successful innovation and economic competitiveness.

5. Design is an integral part of the creative industries portfolio, which has been clearly identified as a growth sector for the UK, a fundamental part of the (perhaps prematurely announced?) ‘knowledge economy’. Good design training, especially in primary and secondary school, teaches independent and original thinking.

6. In the drive to regain standing as an industrial nation, we need design skills to bring products and services to market. Design and manufacturing are intrinsically linked.

7. Good design is implicit in the sustainability agenda. Good design IS sustainable.

8. For politicians, design could help strategically, perhaps in rethinking how to communicate with constituents, how to meet local needs and provide services, how to boost local business. This period of public uncertainty about all things political is an opportunity for designers to step in and make politics user-friendly.

9. As consumers, if we understand what good design means and what the possibilities are, we can learn to ask and expect more of our environment. Standards will continue to be low only if consumers continue to put up with it.

And, finally:

10. Good design is democratic, not elitist, and not expensive. It is something that every citizen should expect of their daily life in a civilised, equal society.

Ten compelling reasons why politicians, with all the seemingly intractable challenges they face, should think a little more laterally about the value of design; and why designers should notice that the political and public arena is the next frontier.

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