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

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, even still talking about the same discipline?

How should design be defined?

To begin to answer this, perhaps we need first to risk the naive question: what are the core elements of design? The 2005 Cox Review of Creativity in Business puts it like this: “Design is what links creativity and innovation. It shapes ideas to become practical and attractive propositions for users or customers. Design may be described as creativity deployed to a specific end.” This is an excellent general definition, but we still need to dig a little deeper.  

At Design Council, we itemise design’s basic roles as ‘framing’, ‘problem solving’, ‘form and function’ and ‘style’. These have different weightings depending on where you are on the spectrum of design disciplines, but problem solving and form and function are arguably the core. There is, of course, something of a popular stereotype associating design largely or even solely with style. However, given the long pedigree of, say, instructional design, it is not particularly radical to observe that, while aesthetic appeal is vitally important in many design contexts, it is not, in fact, an essential or defining element. What we might venture, at least to give us a working definition, is that design arranges largely physical elements to fulfil some specific function (which may include or even primarily be style).

Design issues

Despite overwhelming evidence of design’s benefits for growth, it remains a struggle to get policymakers to foster creativity at all levels of education. And while the need to ‘sell’ advanced design may have almost dried up in business, there is a shortfall within higher education when it comes to introducing advanced design principles. One corporation to whom we have been talking, which is building a significant internal design team globally, calls this “the missing semester” and is often forced to help its new employees acquire this know-how. What hope then, for more altruistic design contexts in which there is no budget for learning on the job? These issues are of first-order importance.

What are we doing about this?

There has been a 13% fall overall in the amount of arts-related GCSEs that have been taken since 2010. The Warwick Commission’s February report into the future of the cultural industries points out worrying statistics in terms of a decrease in creative subjects being taken by pupils.

We wholeheartedly believe that education should not be just about STEM subjects – meaning science, technology, engineering and maths – but should be about STEAM subjects, with the ‘A’ representing the arts.

So, for Design Council, one approach has been to create a Design Academy programme to give students a solid grounding in design for innovation. Simultaneously, we are leading Design for Europe, an online resource and on-the-ground presence, offering tools, research and social connections to anyone interested in using design in business, the public sector and policymaking.

This is just the beginning of what will be a long journey, but we are confident that design remains key to the infrastructure of successful, sustainable and vibrant communities – both economically and culturally.

This is an abridged version of an article which originally appeared in RSA Journal, Issue 1 2015.

The journal is available to download here:

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