design values

How can examining the expectations, values and skills of designers help the design industry reach it's full potential?

Do we know enough about what’s needed for design to meet society's needs both now and in the future? A series of action research events brought together design thinkers and designers to discuss the designer's role and to uncover what they felt the were the critical success factors for the industry. Participants were asked to help uncover what they thought would be the most useful values, expectations and skills for designers to have to ensure the long term viability of design and the creative industries. The results, outlined below, made visible what was not necessarily visible before: the need for greater communication on all sides.

Design is currently being re-appraised as a creative methodology to improve the effectiveness and impact of innovation, and as a valuable tool to deliver increased social, economic and environmental benefits through systems and service design.

At the same time, design, along with other creative industries, is in flux. New technologies are providing new ways of working and are democratising key aspects of design. Yet these same technology-enabled changes also create a risk that the perceived value and potential effectiveness of the skills and expertise that support design implementation is diminished. Are we paying enough attention to these changes?

Over October and November 2013, design thinkers, policy makers, designers, clients and design agencies were invited to engage in an action research project looking at the relationship between design and values. Participants took part in a series of facilitated conversations and design led workshops looking to identify what the healthy values, expectations and skills for designers and their clients should be. This article shares some of the key findings from this project.

Key research findings
Design is evolving, becoming more pervasive, moving into new areas of business and society through the use of systems, service and strategic design. With segments of design moving into a more strategic role it is also becoming harder to quantify and measure. There is a lack of shared understanding and terminology around what design does and how it adds value. It is often mistaken for mere process, and the delivery of a predefined, aesthetically pleasing outcome.

By being focused on process, a pre defined solution or seeing design’s role solely in terms of “look and feel” we are losing something important – the ability of the designer to drive work past a predefined, aesthetically pleasing outcome and into something truly original and innovative.
Design can add value by embedding values. It can play a significant role in the creation and integration of new products ideas and processes. This is increasingly important as business moves towards being more transparent, sustainable and value led. The perception that being ethical, innovative, and creative is not economically viable is being challenged. “Design is a lens we can use to shape, give intent and define outcomes, especially in society. It is up to us to use it wisely.

Design does drive the desire for consumption. There is an opportunity to do so responsibly. It can also play a key role in addressing pressing global problems though service design and product innovation, but has to be given the resources it needs to do so.
Design needs licence to experiment, to iterate, and to push forward, and this requires experience and trust. Communication, enquiry and dialog all help this happen. Honesty in motivation, values and expectations from both supplier and buyer is also important, as it provides the environment in which collaboration thrives.

Are we at a point of ‘peak design’? The apparent robustness and diversity of some areas of design is misleading. Much contemporary digital design has become a metrics- driven risk-averse bubble based on new technology, legacy skills and the current oversupply of graduates. This trend may not sustainable long term. In many disciplines, an obsession with hard skills and short-term gains is resulting in a loss of diversity of approach and ideas, a narrow focus of education, and an increasing talent turnover rate. Many leave the profession early due to lack of recognition, reward or opportunities for career progression. This blog, British Design Talent: Underpaid, Undervalued and Undermined? further explores this issue..

There is a need for a new and more inclusive language around what design is, what design “does” in order to ensure that educators, clients and government alike understand its true value –and how to create the best environment for design to deliver high value. There needs to be a clearer narrative to aid understanding of why on-going and consistent investment in design education (at all levels), support programmes and industry initiatives is so important.

So, what were the conclusions from the research?
Values can be the expression of principles, beliefs or what we chose to give worth, or put a price on. The research found that though examining the values of the designer was valuable in itself, in the process –we also exposed and explored how we value design itself.

Whilst some leaders in their fields are demonstrably recognising and profiting from the value of strategic and service design, on the other hand the majority of UKplc is poorly educated in how design actually works. By failing to invest the necessary time, resources and, most importantly, trust, we risk missing out on the benefits of design, and in the process actually diminishing and demeaning the role of the designer.

Designers themselves are also contributing to this by, as one participant said, sleepwalking into stupidity; devaluing design by failing in, and possibly losing all together, the ability to articulate what design actually does. Design and the value of design is often underrated and misunderstood.

As another participant put it, this could be a temporary trend, and actually if there was a drive for value and a need for intuition, design would step in and gain great strength from that”leading to a new renaissance for the industry as a whole.

Whichever view we subscribe to, the research has revealed that communication and other“intangibles”, often seen as ‘nice to have’ or secondary to the more currently valued “hard” skills, are in fact central to successful design. These soft”skills are essential for both supplier and buyer.

It is just not practical to attempt to make the whole industry accountable through regulation or codes of conduct, however it is necessary to empower the people within. By prompting people to revisit their expectations and their values it is hoped that we can eneable designers, agencies and clients to question whether they are permitting the industry to take talent, ideas and potential for granted, and if so, to do something about it.

We need to build a new and more inclusive narrative of what design does and what it needs, in order to ensure the ongoing the ability of design educators, clients and government alike to grasp the true value of design. It is only then that we can say we have done enough to support the designer and support the UK in benefiting from the full impact of design.

This article was first published by the Design SIG, Creative KTN and is an extract from a report on the Design Values project that will be published by them in late 2015.