Defining Design in 2013

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Over the last year, I’ve learnt a few things about (to borrow Nat Hunter’s phrase) the bleeding edge of design. I’ve been working on a research project looking at the application of design skills to help reform Britain’s public services, and at the same time I’ve been co-organising a talks series critiquing the emerging field of Social Design: what is it?, who is doing it?, what questions does it throw up?

Compared to its origins in optimising the products of Victorian industry, it’s clear that design functions very differently in the context of the public sector, and in the face of social challenges: the material is often intangible, the ends are not profit-seeking, and the ethical considerations are more apparent. The people doing it have often migrated across from other design fields – product or industrial design for example – and their numbers are growing. But precisely because it is a field not wholly preoccupied with producing beautiful objects, it isn’t always proportionately represented in the world of design awards. This is a shame, as increasingly we ought to be encouraging our designers to think about the social and environmental implications of responding to a brief, as well as the economic or commercial ones. Just think of the wonderful solutions that might result if all the designers currently showing chairs in Milan decided instead to apply their creative brainpower to addressing the chronic disease pandemics that result from our sedentary lifestyles.

For this reason – the fact that social and service design rarely gets pedestal space – when asked to put forward some suggestions for the Design Museum’s Designs of the Year Award, I deliberately sought out work that had overt social intentions. There are indeed plenty such projects represented in the 99 shortlisted entries – I particularly like Kit Yamoyo by ColaLife – and I really hope it’s a sign of the times that this and the two projects I chose won their categories.

The Folding Wheel by the young and sharp-minded team at Vitamins Design is just a good old-fashioned brilliant solution to a problem – but one that you’d be unlikely to be aware of if you hadn’t ever had to use a wheelchair. A great combination of user insight, technical prowess, and market opportunity, that adds up to a better life experience for millions of people. I’m so glad they’ve won, and I’m only sorry the UK couldn’t furnish a manufacturer bright enough to make it for them (it’s now being manufactured in the US).

And the winner, gov.uk, hopefully needs little introduction. Everyone in my office is tired of hearing me sing its praises I’m sure, but as someone who spends their life looking out for even the faintest signs of design intelligence in government, the progressiveness and design leadership demonstrated by the GDS has totally bowled me over. The website design itself is of course a vast improvement, and a great lesson in how not to overdesign. Its pared down aesthetic is not only accessible to the full range of users, it’s a wholly appropriate look for government in times of austerity. The process of simplification inherent in moving all department sites on to one platform has saved Whitehall an awful lot of money. The real achievement, though, is one that you can’t see: the summoning of political willpower and can-do-ness required to bulldoze this change through 24 reluctant departments. And the result is, remarkably, a government IT project that hasn’t catastrophically failed. Who knew that was possible?!

But to end on a less cynical note: by awarding gov.uk the Grand Prix of Design of the Year, the Design Museum has sent a very helpful signal to the design community about exactly what kind of design we should, in 2013, be celebrating.

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3 Comments

Filed under Design, Politics

3 responses to “Defining Design in 2013

  1. catherine bailey

    You see and understand possibilities and the relevance of design to urgent societal issues. Its not always easy for others to see. It takes a lot to shift mindsets . Keep seeing and keep shining the light .

  2. Pauline

    Quite. Imperfect beings that we are, will we ever be able to transcend the overwhelming urge mostly for profit in favour of the more philanthropic notion of design for moral and societal betterment! Or at the very least, an approach more weighted towards the latter. I wonder?

    I always enjoy your insightful perspective on issues. So often it makes me think outside my own comfort zone! Stay provocative.

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