This article is part of The Design Economy series.

Asked recently what she saw as the single greatest driver of social change, Melinda Gates of the Gates Foundation replied: “Design.”

In the four sections that follow, we offer a guide to the design economy in the twenty-first century – a flavour of the critical issues, leading companies, research institutes and designers in: 

1. Health

A growing awareness of the social impact of design has led to an increasing number of designers working in health and well-being.​​

2. Business

Global corporations, following in the tracks of Apple, Philips and IBM, are building design studios and seeking Chief Design Officers to join their boards and orchestrate the transition from marketing-led to design-led businesses.

3. Cities

With a rapidly increasing proportion of the population living in cities, design is being used to tackle the implications of this demographic shift in areas like housing and infrastructure.

4. Government

In the UK, Europe and the US, designers can now be found close to the seat of government, employing design to improve public services and policies.

With design expanding into these important and largely uncharted areas, we urgently need to begin asking informed questions about design and its practical and ethical territory. 

John Mathers, Chief Executive of the Design Council, asks us to pause for a moment to consider, “How has design, which many still associate largely with style and consumerism, come to be something one might look to for solutions to the most complex and challenging problems facing humanity today – problems requiring not just local fixes using clever design objects, but solutions that reimagine systems themselves? Are we, at this point, really even still talking about the same discipline?”

The questions, perhaps, boil down to one: ‘What should design do?’ 

1. Health


growing ageing population and increased urbanisation around the world present many opportunities for design input in this area, from co-designed urban retirement homes to medicine-delivering drones.

Designers are getting involved in health and well-being through collaborating with health providers, working for government or NGOs or through direct action. Human-centred design is growing as an approach within humanitarian and development organisations like the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and Dalberg Global Development Advisors.

Toilets in Badsu village were built under a community-led sanitation project funded by the Gates Foundation.

Dan Hill of the Future Cities Catapult and author of Dark Matter & Trojan Horses: A Strategic Design Vocabulary writes: “We live in an age of wicked problems, whether it’s climate change or the decline of the welfare state. With conventional solutions failing, a new culture of decision-making is called for. Strategic design is about applying the principles of traditional design to ‘big picture’ systemic challenges such as healthcare, education and climate change.”


With a growing number of designers working in health and other big social areas, training needs to be developed for them to deal with projects that have complex ethical and social implications.

How can designers remain focused on people’s needs with privatisation of health and end-of-care services? How can designers work collaboratively with service users to co-design the next generation of services?

In the context of government austerity, the new breed of socially engaged designers may find themselves unwittingly furthering cuts to health and social services provided by the state. How can they maintain their commitment to a progressive social agenda?

Design Council’s Reducing Violence and Aggression in A&E project shows how design can improve patient experience, creating a calmer and safer environment for A&E staff.

Further reading

2. Business


It’s no longer solely design-led firms in the automotive or technology sectors that are giving designers a seat at board level. In recent years, major brands from Johnson & Johnson to PepsiCo have recruited their first Chief Design Officers. At its best, the emergence of CDOs is emblematic of a shift that sees design expertise promising not just to refine the design of its products, but also to introduce an internal culture of innovation within an organisation, adding to its bottom line and future proofing the company.

In successful business, there is a seamless blend between design and business.

Deyan Sudjic, Director of the Design Museum

The next generation of designers in the co-creation enterprises of the future are going to have to be more comfortable sharing their secrets. At an institutional level, businesses must be prepared to redistribute power and recognise a greater multitude of voices. Linear ways of working will continue to shift to more networked varieties, and economies will need digitally literate designers. On a consumer level, users will be ever more technologically savvy, with better access to inexpensive design tools. The democratisation of creativity will continue apace, and the role of designers may shift to enabling creativity to their increasingly autonomous audiences, rather than solely delivering it. 


UK and US design has been dominant in the post-war period, but the future looks uncertain with increased competitiveness from new economic powers. These countries will increasingly look to express and export their cultures and values; at the same time, local designers’ understanding will put them at an advantage when working in and for these markets, which include China and India. The increase in ‘onshoring’ of production in developed economies as offshore manufacture becomes less economically advantageous will continue; this will be a strength for countries like Poland that have retained some manufacturing.

Design will also shift due to rising environmental awareness. It will have to focus more on life after use, design for disassembly and re-manufacture. Growth in the ‘sharing economy’ will prompt design to be able to withstand more intensive use. Designers will need to build up technical knowledge, in order to contribute to the process of developing new eco-friendly materials and technologies.

Businesses will also need a new crop of designers with advanced creativity facilitation skills for next generation co-creation enterprises. Will our design schools be able to keep up with this pace of innovation?

Further reading

3. Cities


In the UK, between 2006 and 2014, London’s population gained 500,000 inhabitants – or the population size of Edinburgh. Pressure on land and resources comes from such rapid, continuous urbanisation. Indeed, the biggest demographic shift since the birth of agriculture is now underway, with 80% of people predicted to be living in cities by 2050.

Providing housing and infrastructure and inventing business models to keep the urban billions sheltered will be a priority. Designers are going to play a big part in keeping us all warm and well.

As technology becomes more sophisticated, cities are incorporating digital technologies to help with issues like service delivery and resource allocation. Joining the smart cities movement allows them to gain in efficiency – but it comes with ethical challenges as well.


The feasibility of smart cities rests on citizens’ willingness to share their data. Comfort zones and means of engagement need to be established between the data-collectors and citizens. How can we create an ethical information economy?

Smart cities have potential both to empower citizens – and to place control with private interests and governments. Who will make decisions about what technology to use and how to use it? Who will designers be working for?

To deal with large, dense cities, the design industry will have to scale up; designers will need to develop new tools and methods of working, including ways to collaborate more with other disciplines. 

Songdo, scheduled for final completion in 2015, is considered by many to be the world’s first ‘smart city’.

Further reading

4. Government


In governments around the world, there have been a surge of initiatives drawing on design to spark innovation, navigate complexity and connect to citizens.

Changing relationships between the state and citizens mean that in the UK local authorities are reimagining themselves and how they will continue delivering statutory services into the future. On a macro-level, design thinking is being applied to the civil service, including the launch in 2014 of the Cabinet Office Policy Lab, which promises to bring an open policy design-research vehicle to government.

Design in government is strongly linked to the digital agenda and the Design Commission’s recent report Designing the digital economy: embedding growth through design, innovation and technology, by Lord Inglewood and Professor Gillian Youngs, recommends that “there should be a Head of Design (whose responsibilities encompass digital platforms) appointed in each government department.”

With governments juggling increased connectivity, higher expectations about service delivery, demographic shifts and austerity measures, designers can play a part in helping them solve the puzzle.


There are a lot of new methods and approaches being trialled to upgrade government for the twenty-first century. How can we ensure that these designer-led approaches are genuinely involving citizens in the creation of policy? How do governments co-create policy with citizens without losing control?

Design is being deployed by governments trying to achieve more for less. If designers are delivering policies and public services, how can this be done in a way that will enhance and not further erode democratic accountability? 

Design in government is still a new approach; across the board, evidence of impact is needed, along with the dissemination of clear examples on how and when design adds value. Lessons on how to articulate this work and the spaces to use are also needed. Additionally, an understanding of the ways to gain endorsement from leadership and to support the uptake of new methods through training are required for it to take hold.

Further reading

Other articles in The Design Economy series:

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