Can Design Help?

Kicking off this new feature, Scott Burnett, founder and partner of wove, asks if designers are in a position to help in times of crisis.

Have your say in the comments.

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Is this a funny time to write about design? Maybe it's a funny time to write about anything other than threats to humanity and strategies for regaining 'normality' after 'the virus' (as my kids call it, kids have an amazing knack for simplifying things to their essence) has hopefully faded. And yet, the conditional nature of that last sentence suggests this is the perfect time to write about design.

If nothing else this may be the perfect time to reflect on what we do as designers and to take a critical look at our actual value to society. What I've found most interesting, exciting and maybe a bit disorientating over the past weeks is that the professional world of design's standard response has been to send out email shots about how important they are (or were and will be), or lament their relevance or noodle with pretty unimportant stuff that does little but serves as an indicator of their irrelevance. Yet, while all this is going on I find myself reading stories daily about the quick and impactful inventiveness of businesses, families, hospital workers or tv producers. Which is to say that everything that excites me about design is currently being done by anyone but designers.

It would be easy to view this as an anomaly unique to the unprecedented situation, and argue that as soon as it's over we'll go back to being relevant and important. I'd view it slightly differently though. It's true to say that the world has been flipped on its head, but did the world flip on its head at the start of January or did it start slowly flipping 20 years ago? And will it unflip by the end of summer, or are we just witnessing the speeding up of our journey towards an upside-down world?

So again, when we can so easily summon huge and fundamental questions about our lives and society, is this the time to be talking about design? But is design not a tool for helping answer those questions and make things better? For helping people navigate such change and to do so in a way that raises us up rather than pushes us down? I believe that to be true. However, how many of us, me included, can say that this is truly what we do? I know as an industry we're particularly adept at using our skills to frame our work in such ways, but even before this crisis, more and more of the shiny case studies, full of elegantly crafted and self-important statements were ringing hollow.

So what can I discern from this personal and critical reflection? Is it all rambling self-flagellation or is there some small point of hope? For me, the core challenge isn't about the value or relevance of design, but the value and relevance of how we practice it. The very design-like response from non-designers proves, once and for all, that it's not some secret language only available to us. It's something that's fundamentally human, that we as professionals have cultivated as a precision tool.

Exploring some of these questions of relevance, I find myself asking has our ring-fencing of design only served to marginalise us? Maybe design is too often ‘the bit done at the end’ because we've geared our industry to work that way — to finish things up and bask in the glory of the finished thing. It stems from the way we're taught and trained, to the way we shape our businesses, sell our services and celebrate our achievements. We prioritise the output, actually, we prioritise the method of the output, over the problem. We're taught on day one that design is a great problem solver, and then for the rest of our education, we're taught to make posters, or objects, or websites. So it should be no real surprise that when an actual problem occurs our response is to make a poster, some objects or a website.

This crisis, and the huge array of long-term challenges that it presents, can't be tackled by designers alone. Even before COVID-19 the challenges that face societies or businesses are growing more complex and interconnected. We can't solve these challenges by trying to filter them through our individual skillsets or being siloed from other disciplines. We can only help to tackle them by bringing our skills to the problems, and working through them with others.

Design can facilitate, guide and support through change. It can help clarify the challenges and imagine ways around them, — or support others to imagine ways around them when they are the ones best positioned to do so. It can make, remake, and keep making until something works. It can help glue things together and make sense of things.

Design is actually useful pretty much anywhere when it's applied to the messy shape of a problem, but when it's shackled to an obsession with the formality of the finish, or when we are overly protective about our little part of it, then it becomes restrictively one dimensional. So maybe when we all come out blinking from our houses post-isolation, some of us will come out blinking from our design caves too, determined to leave behind the safety and sanctity of our specialist sectors, to go help with something a bit more messy.

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Scott is founder and partner of wove, a strategic design business helping people to navigate complexity, tackle challenges and design better ways forward. Previously he founded and co-ran design studio aad and the clothing brand Angry. He is co-founder of 100 Archive and co-creator of makeshapechange.com

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