Since the beginning of the 21st century, many consultancies, programmes of work, online communities, conferences, exhibitions and projects have explored how design can be used to address and respond to society’s most complex social challenges.
The UK has been a leader in the use of design for social good. For example, the UK Design Council, who are tasked with promoting the value of design in the UK, have established and run a number of initiatives to explore design for social good. Public sector organisations, such as the UK’s National Health Service, also began employing design to help improve the patient experience in hospitals across the country. And several social design agencies have flourished in the UK, using design to address complex and critical issues in areas such as health and education.
One of the cornerstones of the social design movement in the UK was an initiative called Dott 07 (Designs of the Time 2007). Set up by the Design Council, Dott aimed “to design and develop innovative new approaches to local issues that are also nationally relevant and support sustainable living in the UK”. The initiative hosted a series of design projects organised thematically in the areas of health, education, energy, food and mobility. Each project was led by a number of social and service design agencies such as thinkpublic, live|work and Engine.
In 2007 the area of social design was certainly alive and kicking in the UK. This was the year I began PhD research on the topic. In my research, I studied the different roles of the designer in the social design projects of Dott 07. These roles include the designer as Co-creator, Researcher, Facilitator, Capability Builder, Social Entrepreneur, Provocateur and Strategist. The aim of studying these different roles was to better understand how social design was being practiced, and what value designers bring when they work in multi-stakeholder environments. If designers want to be key players in addressing local, national and global issues, then they must help others understand the design approach and be able to articulate the value they bring.
In my research, I found designers adopt many different roles in social design, and most of these are quite different to the commonly perceived roles of the designer as sole creator, celebrity, decorator, stylist and auteur. Designers today find their roles are changing. They are:
- Designing with people, rather than designing for them;
- Moving further upstream to inform briefs, rather than just respond to them; and
- Moving from creating financial value to social value.
The roles of the designer are changing as their spheres of concerns are changing. As a result, designers having been carving out new niches and many clients and stakeholders are discovering the value of applying design in a myriad of different contexts.
Next month I’ll be presenting my research findings on the different roles of the designer in social design projects at Optimal Usability’s breakfast briefings in Auckland and Wellington. Several of these roles don’t just apply to social design, but to any designer who works in or for the private, public or third sector.
It’s a very exciting and poignant time for the design industry. While the UK has led the use of design in a social context, the movement is currently sweeping across the globe, where design is being explored as a new approach to solving our world’s most complex social challenges.