Friday, November 19, 2004


Sadly, design won't change the world

There is much I love about what might be called the "design mentality": its focus on doing, on seeking opportunity, on improving things, on trying things out. The design dimension is overlooked in many contexts, and efforts to expand the scope of issues addressed by design is most welcome.

But just because design can improve things does not mean it will improve things. Sometimes designers take their "master of the universe" role too far. I'm reminded of a story told by Ralph Caplan. A designer told him, "Once you get their confidence, clients ask for advice on anything -- like, can you recommend a good dentist? You find yourself saying, 'Well I'm a pretty good dentist. Why go outside?'"

One design organization that seems to offer advice on anything is the UK Design Council. It's a great organization, one of the most active and organized champions of design going. But I'm constantly perplexed how they want to venture into social issues by claiming design is the solution.

For example, there is the "Design Against Crime" initiative. "How do you beat crime? More policemen and longer prison sentences say some. But good design can actually prevent crime" say the Design Council. In recent weeks the Design Council released its "Touching the State" report which looks at "how design can increase our sense of citizenship" and promises to reverse plummeting election turnouts.

Ouch. Next there will be a report on how good design will solve conflict in the Middle East.

Let's not forget the wise council of architect William Pena: "To put it positively, a social problem calls for a social solution. After there is a social solution then it can be part of a design problem for which there will be a design solution. You cannot solve a social problem with an architectural solution."

Hmm. On the IDFORUM discussion list ( - subscribe idforum) last week was an extensive discussion as to whether design could indeed solve the problems in the middle east, and what was the scope of design's ability to impact the world. Some felt there was no limit.

My question for the group then, and for you now, is what reactions do you have to Bruce Mau's "Massive Change" book/exhibit etc. which definitely pushes hard at the edges of what design is/can do/can be....
Hi Michael

I was one of the authors of Touching the State. I don't think the idea was to solve the world's problems. For most of the 'expert contributors', the issue was much more prosaic: how to improve on the dreadful 'design by default' that is currently out there in so many part of the public sector.

My contribution was about applying design ideas to the voting process. Currently everything is 'designed' by the lawyers who draft our legislation that defines, for example, what exactly should appear on ballot papers (or medicine information leaflets, or whatever). When even civil servants in the relevant ministries state that ballots used in 2004 leave something to be desired (I paraphrase stronger language), there is clearly a problem. And the same applies to the whole elections process: incomprehensible polling cards, impenetrable registration, confusing instructions, inacccessible equipment, ambiguous ballot papers, information leaflets that end up having entire articles written about them in the press (see Catherine Bennett's biting article in The Guardian back in June), website - for e-voting - with random URLs and no branding (is it official???)...

How come collecting council tax is inevitable, but no-one ever gets invited to register to vote (in the UK)? And then governments complain about poor voter turnout. Or how come people who do jusry service never get told they can become magistrates? And we end up with a shortage of magistrates. This is design by default, thousands of separate uninformed groups of people doing their own thing, without any idea of how it all appears to the average punter, and yes, I believe we can do something about all that.
I think that design can affect social behavior only at the margins. One needs to separate two kinds of behavior: short term, and long term. Short term behavior is what design is effective in influencing. One sees a tempting display at the till/check-out, and decide to buy the candy. Or in the negative, one encounters bad design on a web site and decides to give up.

Social behavior differs because it is long term behavior. It has to do with socialization -- upbringing, values, things that don't fluctuate quickly. Good design won't overcome cynicism, and bad design won't deter idealism. Making people stand in line for hours to vote may be bad design, but people interested in voting show they are willing, and people not interested in voting can't be bothered even to fill out a mail-in ballot.

Another dimension of behavioral design whether the design is meant to affect one-off behavior, or sustained behavior. Most design that claims to affect social issues only looks at affecting one-off behavior. The vandal decides not to put grafitti on a bus stop because the design makes it too much trouble. That doesn't mean he is no longer a vandal, only that he went elsewhere to distroy property.
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