Are designers guilty by association?

Lauren Currie has used social design to help homeless people, dementia sufferers and drug addicts; here's how you can too.

Every so often, someone – usually a taxi driver – asks me what I do for a living. My answer tends to elicit reactions ranging from suspicious snorts and expletives to utter confusion. I'm a designer. Therefore I am guilty by association.

Designers are known for our stylistic gestures and our whimsical and indulgent ideas, often created whilst wearing black polo necks. People I meet think I design shoes for a living. Many designers do. Some build apps to help us find pizza faster and some make sexy products that help us wake up on time. We can all do better.

I'm one of many designers trying to reformulate the role design can play in the world. I'm part of a new genre of social designers who are applying the design process outside its conventional context. From using design as a medium of intellectual inquiry, to devising ingenious solutions to acute social problems like homelessness, unemployment and obesity.

My belief that design can bring value to our world has always manifested itself in a resolute commitment to Scotland. Six years ago, Sarah Drummond and I founded Snook, a Glasgow-based social design agency. We've worked with problem drinkers, people caring for relatives with dementia, unemployed young people and drug addicts, entrepreneurs, chief executives and beyond.

We've taken these stories and turned them into opportunities, improving current services and developing new ones to help our clients change Scotland for the better. Whether that's redesigning the Care Information landscape in Scotland or improving the journey young people go on when they leave school.

Meaningful creativity

Yet I still feel guilty by association. Things aren't good enough. The consequences of bad design are complex, lasting and often harmful. Today I calculated my iCloud password request has been interrupting me for 3,264 hours. I jest (although if someone could please re-design that system I'd be eternally grateful).

More importantly, who is designing end-of-life care? Is it giving the UK's 10 million older people the experience they deserve? Who is designing education? Is it equipping our 600 million youngsters who will compete for 200 million jobs in next decade, with the skills and talents they need? No.

More than 100 homeless people are living in the terminals of Heathrow airport – a new and shameful record. Experts have warned that homelessness in London is rising significantly faster than the national average. And yet we don't see as many people sleeping rough as we used to. Have our cities become better at hiding poverty, or have we become more adept at not seeing it?

I'd argue designers, architects, town planners et al are guilty. A design team created 'anti-homeless' spikes and installed them around the perimeter of Selfridges in Manchester. These were specifically designed to prevent homeless people sleeping on the streets. This is not OK. When you are designed against, you know it.

I'm part of a new genre of social designers who are applying the design process outside its conventional context

It's our personal responsibility to use our creativity in a meaningful way. The role of a designer is changing. We could argue we are headed towards the most radical period of change in design history. Design has become a 'game changer' in Silicon Valley, according to a report by former Rhode Island School of Design president John Maeda, who says that designers are becoming essential to the success of tech companies. There is also a surge in designers as entrepreneurs, researchers and coders.

Designers who are thriving in these roles and creating new identities for designers give me hope. Vincenzo Di Maria, trained in industrial design, is now working to implement social innovation through entrepreneurship. Dr Valerie Carr has a PhD in healthcare service design and is exploring how design approaches can help create better health systems.

Cassie Robinson, trained in fashion design and psychology, is taking the work of social designers to the general public through initiatives such as The Civic Shop. They inspire others and encourage young designers who want to address political and humanitarian concerns in their work.

Designing designers

With many young designers avidly signing up for newly created courses on experience design, social and humanitarian design, it looks like more design activists will emerge in the future. This is good news. Or is it? A big part of the problem, many design practitioners claim, is education. There is a huge gap between what schools teach and what designers need to know to be able to design in a way that adds value to the world.

I've been asking my industry friends what's missing from education, and their answers are unsurprising. "A way for students to crowd source the leaders they want to teach or mentor them," says Tamsin Smith, who works at FCV Interactive. LiveWork's Alex Nisbett suggests "safe places to practice feedback", and Equator founder James Jefferson simply wants "agility".

So how do we design designers? More often than not, design is being taught as part of an archaic, 14th century system that was designed to produce academics, not craftspeople. It was this question that drove me to step back from Scotland and my business to move to Hyper Island in Manchester. Hyper Island is a world-leading creative business school.

I'm designing and launching a new MA in digital experience design, working with leading practitioners from agencies such as IDEO, ustwo and Method to build content that pushes boundaries and reflects the industry. My students will work on live briefs from clients like FutureEverything, the BBC, the NHS and Future Cities Catapult.

Finding your voice

But what about those of you who aren't studying? Where does your learning journey fit into all of this? Well, the time is now. You are guilty by association and only you can change that. Think about what's missing from your education and give thought to what you are learning and what you are teaching.

So what will you do? First off, remember you can't be what you can't see – I cannot aspire to be you, nor be inspired by you, if I can't see you. The most amazing projects and people in the world are fairly useless if they are kept behind closed doors. Somebody somewhere wants to be you. It's your job to make yourself findable.

Secondly, write. No excuses. Creatives don't write? Rubbish. Yes we do. The design section of mainstream newspapers is still full of furniture and iPhones. We need to tell compelling stories about why, what and how we design. The only way to find your voice is to use it. Talk about the things you love. Your voice will follow.

Third, heed the rule: less lattes, more magic. You carry a connection machine in your pocket. I'm bored of people sharing sunsets and lattes. Show your process, your ideas and your mistakes. Show the world how you think.

Design, for all of us, is permission to stand up and say: "I believe this can be better. Now, I'm going to figure out how." Join in the conversation by tweeting the one action you will take to start changing what it means to be a designer #nolongerGBA #changeyourtomorrow.

Words: Lauren Currie

Lauren is the co-founder of Snook, Scotland’s leading service design and social innovation agency, and leads Hyper Island’s Digital Experience Design MA. This article originally appeared in issue 269 of net magazine.

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