Designing politics beyond the pasty – part two

The previous post argued that politics has failed the people: its institutional forms are defective and the culture of political discourse is both anachronistic and, to be honest, frankly offensive. As a consequence voter apathy is at record levels, and political debate now centres on meat-filled baked pastry products originating from the Cornish peninsula. D:Ream are simply wrong on this: things can only get much worse. So let us consider how design can begin to map a way out of this political slough of despond.

According to Jennie Winhall: “Design is political. It’s about values, power and preferences, about ideologies and consequences.” And it always has been. As I have argued elsewhere “Designers are value driven. They look at the world, usually just one small part of it, and consider how it could be more efficient, more sustainable, more engaging, more desirable, more competitive, or simply more beautiful. How can that one small part of the world better reflect the values that we consider to be most relevant? Design makes a statement of what we want the world to be like. And in doing so, it is a political activity. Values are political, values express preferences about what problems are worth solving, and in whose interests they are solved. Values determine the degree to which design liberates or empowers the individual and those communities that make up the wider society.”

Unfortunately, the evidence of our own eyes would suggest that the values and politics pursued through most design practice meets the needs of vested corporate and other institutional interests, valuing the world only in terms of the commodities that feed unfettered consumerism. But according to Winhall: “The good news is that there’s a growing breed of designers who are political with a small p. They’re not campaigning, but problem solving; they’re not “master-designers,” but democratic in approach. They’re using their skills as designers to illustrate, create and demonstrate opportunities for social change. But the reason for their emergence is that the politics of design itself has changed.” She cites the redesign of public services as evidence for this, in that conventional policy makers, who are used to top-down decision making, are simply ill-equipped to address the needs of an age in which the user is central, and should be empowered to enable change.

Former Design Council Chairman, Lord Bichard, clearly agrees, and believes there are three key ways in which design can make public services better.

  1. It can redesign the way we deliver our services allowing us to “build or reshape our services around citizens, around clients, around customers.”
  2. It can help the development of better policy “ensuring that ideas are tested before having scarce resources invested in them on a national basis.”
  3. “Design can help us in the public services to be more innovative. We need to be conscious that today’s problems are just not going to be addressed by yesterday’s ideas and yesterday’s solutions…we need a whole new approach to policy over the 10 years.”

There are two areas of design practice that display the qualities and potential of a progressive political design practice: (i) service design in the public sector and (ii) design activism. The qualities in evidence are: user/citizen focussed, participatory and/or co-design in approach, valuing the primacy of local and practical knowledge, entrepreneurial in spirit and ethos, integrating design thinking and design craft, committed to open design principles, progressive in the social values that underlie practice. I will briefly consider each in turn.

Service design in the public sector is well documented in terms of how design is contributing to a democratised public sector through its distinctive methods and approaches. As The Guardian reported: “Design methods fuse time spent in the field and research techniques borrowed from anthropology with an understanding of how people use objects. They are democratic in spirit: designers use workshops that help people contribute their ideas freely. They are just as happy dealing with the currency of experience and emotions as they are analysing trends. And if public service reform is about anything, it has to be about people.”

Companies such as Engine and Scotland’s own excellent Snook are active in this field. Indeed Snook is working with the Scottish Government to see how design, innovation and creativity can be more firmly embedded within the processes of government. Our own Master of Design for Services course works very closely with public healthcare providers, local government and others to explore service design’s potential as a transformative process in public services, such as the current Totally Dundee project led by Taylor Haig which pulls together a team of recent MDes graduates.

The danger of service design for public services is that it becomes incorporated within the institutional paradigm that it has the potential to challenge, and thus becomes just another technocratic tool of the public sector. Simon Blyth and Lucy Kimbell have provided a vital analysis that comes out of service design practice, but which suggests a significant shift of emphasis:

“Rather than claiming to solve social problems, we want to argue for the relevance and value of Design in actively, critically and reflexively contributing to their construction… We want to invite designers to make this more clearly part of their practice. We think there are things about Design that make it particularly good at doing this, although the positioning of design-as- problem-solving tends to have ignored them.” Blyth and Kimbell argue that there are five things that make Design particularly good at helping construct social problems:

  1. The first thing Design does well is rendering issues as something that other people can experience.
  2. The second thing Design expertise does well is creating artefacts around which people can gather to interpret and discuss the characteristics of a social issue.
  3. A third thing that is central to design expertise is staging an open-ended enquiry that actively avoids being closed down quickly in the form of a particular solution.
  4. A fourth aspect of Design is its role in making trouble and being open to the potentially disruptive side of creativity.
  5. A final part of contemporary Design expertise is opening up the conventions about who and what can be included in a design project.

Their paper deserves close reading, especially their three specific suggestions about how Design needs to change in order to responsibly rise to the challenges of working on social problems that are often deep-seated and involve conflicting values:

  1. Firstly, individuals need to be aware what they bring to problem-definition and problem- solving on a project level, and how this amplifies, reproduces or challenges existing ideas about collective problems.
  2. Secondly, designers working on social problems should set up the possibilities for double-loop learning and reflective conversations.
  3. Thirdly, designers need to question whether the consultancy model, which continues to be a dominant way that the industry operates, is the right one for working in domains such as public service.

Service design in the public sector contains a variety of practices, but out of theme we can see emerging a political form of reflexive practice in which values are explicit and explored, and social activism becomes a more central element of practice,

Design activism is a very broad field which I have no intention of mapping here. Thankfully Anne Chick and Paul Micklethwaite have done that job admirably well in their book  Also, Nicholas O’Donnell-Hoare, Karen Yair and I have documented many examples of design activism through our Change Makers project.

However, one specific aspect of design activism demands attention here, and that is the Open Design movement. Open Design Now is an excellent book that is partly available to access free online. Regretably the part that isn’t available includes Bert Mulder’s chapter on Open Design for Government, in which he argues that open design’s most significant contribution to government could be in terms of citizen involvement.

I have written elsewhere about open design and the maker movement’s possible contribution to a new economy and a new politics. Here I want to finish on Marleen Stikker’s introduction to the Open Design Now book. She centres her analysis on two ways of thinking and interacting with the world:

“Possibilitarians think in new possibilities, and get all excited when things get messy and life becomes disorderly. In disruption, possibilitarians see new opportunities, even if they do not know where they might lead. They believe, with Denis Gabor, that ‘the future cannot be predicted, but futures can be invented’. Realitarians are operating within a given framework, according to the rules that are given, following to the powers there are. They accept the conditions and the institutions as given, and are fearful of disruption.”

As she continues to argue:

“Possibilitarians engage in open design as a process, trusting their own abilities to guide that process. And as possibilitarians, they pursue strategies to be inclusive, to involve others, to build bridges between opposite positions: North-South, old-young, traditional-experimental. Possibilitarians represent a sharing culture which is at the core of open design. As such, they trust others to make their own contributions and to build upon what has been shared. Trust, responsibility and reciprocity are important ingredients in an open, sharing culture.”

Not all designers are possibilitarians, but it seems to me that those who are hold the key for defining a new politics. Design is the art of the possible. So was politics, once. Alas, no longer. The change we need to see in our political culture will not come from the realitarians who dominate that culture. Designers therefore have a challenge and an opportunity: to demonstrate their value as transformative change makers.

In a third post I will set out some steps we can take to do this. I will also engage with Tony Fry’s latest book Design as Politics which sets out a highly radical path for the design community.


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