The defining characteristic of designers, it has been said, is that they are eternally optimistic but continually dissatisfied. As such there is something of the designer in all of us. In fact the act of “designing” is something inherently human. Whatever you call it, to conceive, plan, draw out, or devise a course of action aimed at changing an existing situation to a preferred one is universal.
In the UK we are good at design. Many global firms see Britain as a multicultural hotbed of creative talent. Indeed, our creativity and inventiveness, nurtured through our world-class institutions, have generated some of the world’s best and most loved designers. Jonathan Ive, the UK’s best known industrial designer who transformed Apple computers and gave the world the universally used and widely adored iPod, is just one; Tim Brown, pioneer of design innovation and CEO of the design consultancy IDEO, another.
We are surrounded by design. It is ubiquitous in the products and services, graphics and communications, buildings and environments we experience every day. Typically design becomes more visible when it fails – we are acutely aware of what happens when design goes wrong or hasn’t been given sufficient prominence in the process: badly laid out forms, unsafe or breakable products, depressing environments and inflexible services that don’t deliver. While it would be an overstatement to suggest that design or designers possess the panacea for the world’s ills, the practical capacity for designers to create more desirable futures should not be underestimated.
What is the emerging role of design in the public sector?
The heavy investment in public services in the past decade in the UK has led to widespread improvements. But without fundamental service transformation in many areas this could mask a more urgent need for change. We have also seen a general rise in disillusionment as societies and countries are collectively worrying about increasing levels of terrorism, pollution, social conflict and the co-dependency of international financial markets. Individuals are concerned with issues such as health, ageing, unemployment, crime rates and family breakdown. Against this backdrop there is a growing pressure on the public sector to deliver “more for less”. As increased demand meets tighter and more efficient public spending, current models will be tested to the limit. This makes innovation an imperative, where new ideas will need to be effectively developed, prototyped, tested and implemented. This, coupled with the demand for personalised and more flexible user-centred services,will place greater pressures on many public sector organisations that up until now have been systemically configured around the provider rather than the enduser or customer.
The good news is that there are many examples of successful design and innovation in the public sector. The Oyster card, developed in part to combat fraud which was estimated to be £43 million per year, has brought great convenience to over 6 million customers as well as providing savings and service efficiency for transport for London.
Similarly, the Passport Agency transformed a failing service through a total service re-design. In 1999 the agency was reported to have spent £16,000 to provide umbrellas for queues of rainsoaked applicants while an estimated 3.5 million calls went unanswered. Productivity was low due to the implementation of new computer systems. All at a time when they were also under immense pressure from increased demand following the introduction of children’s passports. Today, a service re-design has resulted in 90% of customer calls being answered within 20 seconds and application waiting times down from a 51-day high in 1991 to an average of six days throughout 2003–2006 (DCM4, summer 2008).
There is a growing body of evidence to show intelligent design thinking early in the process can have a significant impact on the unforeseen consequences of an existing or future service. Eighty percent of the impact of any product or service is determined during the concept and design phase. Design can help tackle social problems, such as the 50% reduction in car crime as a result of central door locking, or the 30% decrease in household burglaries through intelligent consideration of criminal intent in the creation of the architectural brief.
New design thinking for new problems
The design industry has evolved to meet the new and emerging needs of clients and society. In the past 10 years we have seen design practice change in a number of significant ways. First, the introduction of multi-disciplinary teams has brought new professional voices to design problems including economists, engineers, scientists and sociologists to name a few. Today design is inherently inter-disciplinary and collaborative, where innovations are being found at the intersections between the boundaries of individual professional expertise. In addition to this there has been a growing participation by a range of different contributors to the process. In the old industrial model the world was divided into producers and consumers, but we are now seeing many examples of co-design in the private and public sector. This involves designers encouraging, facilitating and directing the development of ideas through the involvement of end-users, front-line workers, stakeholders and clients. At the Head and Neck Cancer Service at Luton and Dunstable Hospital NHS Trust service designers worked with patients and staff to identify and co-develop almost 40 service improvements that have brought tangible benefits to all concerned. Some seemingly minor changes, such as moving patient weighing scales out of public view in the outpatient clinic, made a huge difference to patients’ sense of wellbeing.
Second, innovation has moved beyond the hard-and-fast boundaries of corporations, professions and institutions to involve the creativity, knowledge networks, resources and imagination of society as a whole. Wikipedia and other web 2.0 models are often cited as examples of successful co-creation. In design this kind of approach has been used to develop and deliver everything from new rural transport solutions to innovative sexual health services.
Third, new markets are opening up for design. In response to a growing prominence of services in the UK economy and the growing demand for design thinking from the public sector, new types of design consultancies have been set up that specialise in service development. Companies, such as Livework, Engine and Thinkpublic, have developed many of the service design examples in this article. These consultancies are working with large corporate and public sector clients to bring new innovations into reality by creating a total approach to developing new services, products, communications, systems and environments. When Virgin Atlantic recently redeveloped Heathrow’s terminal three, in addition to the architects Foster + Partners, they used service designers Engine to develop the optimum user journey from check-in to departure. For first class passengers this has typically meant an eight- minute transit time from leaving their limo to arriving at the Clubhouse.
Finally, there is a new understanding about the transferability of design knowledge, techniques and tools as a process for delivering innovation. Working increasingly in partnership, designers are devising new ways to pass on their know-how, enabling their clients to become more creative by themselves. The Social Innovation Lab (SILK) at Kent County Council is one example where a creative approach is being brought to tackling a range of strategic problems. The expressed intent here is to “build the capacity and skills of staff across the council – and indeed its partners – to focus on citizens and experiences, rather than services and organisations, when developing strategy and implementation plans”.
And so we find ourselves seeking a deeper transformation in the way we organise and build our society. We face a choice about the future we want to create and live within and who should be entrusted with envisioning, contributing and ultimately delivering that future. From the invention of the modern concept of the designer as an agent for change in the industrial era, to the demands of an ever-changing, interconnected global community, our needs for design and creativity have evolved. Designers are increasingly directing their talents to new problems, bringing professional creativity to the biggest and most important challenges of our times. As we acknowledge that the unprecedented demands facing public services cannot be met by increased funding alone, it seems right to look to those dissatisfied optimists for new approaches that will help deliver the innovative solutions we need.