Design won’t save the world single-handedly

Below is a letter that was published in May 7th’s Design Week in reaction to an Audi Foundation award article.

I was filled with both hope and despair after reading about the Audi Foundation’s latest venture into the trendy waters of social innovation and service design (Design Week, 16.4.09).

I was hopeful that this project might mean more designers channelling their fresh thinking into challenges that matter, rather than just looking to fill their portfolio with work for sexy brands. Any initiative that encourages responsible design can only be a good thing, can’t it?

However, the article frustrated me intensely as it delivered yet another message about how designers alone can change the world, further inflating old school egos and potentially misleading naive and malleable young minds too.

I share the belief that design can help make a difference, but when you take on challenges like new financial models, healthcare and crime, you have to respect the fact that a large number of talented individuals are already working on these challenges every day. Not only do they work in these industries, they specialise in fields other than design and already make change in these areas happen. They are scientists, civil servants, sociologists, doctors, engineers and politicians to name but a few. Positioning design as the solution to social problems is very dangerous and potentially extends our remit a little too far.

Maybe I’m wrong, and maybe designers will have the initiative to get out into the world and observe these people, engage with the experts, understand the barriers, see what’s been tried before, see why alternatives failed and listen intently. Collaboration has to be key. Then they can visualise the problem, and translate ideas into illustrations, potential products or services. That’s where design really helps – after all a problem well understood is one almost solved. Let’s hope that this is what happens.


2 Responses to “Design won’t save the world single-handedly”

  1. May 11, 2009 at 9:33 am

    Bang on. There is certainly a group of designers shouting about how design will change the world without actually saying how. In the face of resistance or apathy, the complaint becomes louder, over-simplified, self-serving and blinkered. Nice to see you pouring a bucket of common sense over this.

  2. November 13, 2010 at 2:56 am

    I’m a student right now, trying to learn what I can from where I can. The information I’ve come across so far points to exactly what you’re saying. That design alone, and knowledge alone aren’t going to make the changes we want to see. Collaboration IS going to be the most important factor in determining what works and what doesn’t. I think that the most important thing is for people to learn to immerse themselves into the different ways of thinking, to embrace the various fields, and create a better understanding. If the person designing the interface between the people behind products, etc. and the consumers, doesn’t fully understand the nature of what they’re trying to breed an understanding of, then how are they going to create the changes we want to see in the world?

    *also, as far as collaboration goes, that’s going to help cross a lot of bridges culturally too, and will be instrumental in ending wars and animosity between the peoples of the world.

    I’m trying to find out more about what fields are out there in this area. I’m currently going to school for Industrial Engineering, and am still unsure what the future holds. Do you have any suggestions for me as a student as to how to get farther into this area of study from where I am now?

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