As the sensibility for ethically correct consumption steadily grows, especially among younger generations, the role of designers in organization and society is changing. Designers are becoming decision makers.
What's emerging from the interviews is the shared vision of pursuing socially and environmentally sustainable strategies that need to be looked at as investment which will reveal their values – including economic benefits – only on a long term period.
Some organizations, predominantly not-for-profit enterprises that use service design methods, focus on working in the “social innovation” space only (1); design agencies instead tend to carry out some social innovation projects beside their main commercial activities (2) or give social/environmental recommendations to their clients within their work (3).
Creative Director & Design Strategy | Group Design Director
“Designers of my teams often tell me that they want to impact life of the people they are designing for: how do you know you've been impacting their life? You need to be able to measure it: in order to measure it you need to start getting into what I call business design - which is kind of the numbers behind the graphics, the interactions and the experiences.
We do quite a few social innovation projects; but another way of looking at social/environmental impact is using service and system design skills: we try to make sure we make things "delighting" customers doing economically sustainable business. But then we try to integrate social/environmental recommendations - and if we do it right we should be able to make customers happy, do business with a positive impact and also do things on a ethically sustainable level. If you look at this kind of matrix around customer happiness, technical feasibility and business impact - you can easily add in a fourth in your prioritisation and it's just a case of balancing those levers.”
Director at Livework UK,
Founder at Strategic Design Resourcing
“A good designer could put the skills to either challenge: some part of the social design work – the canvas you are working on is longer term and probably more strategic, because more intangible has lot of indirect benefits. “How can we make an impact in this quarter or in this business cycle?” in social design is “how can we reduce this problem in the next three years?” hence it’s quite similar. You often need to have a longer view with commercial work, but the way social policy works, tends to be about convincing the regulator or some philanthropic organizations to invest in a change that takes a lot longer and is more difficult”
Founder at Resonant Design and Innovation Ltd,
former Head of User Experience at Plan
“Social innovation is interesting. I had a few problems with social innovation: when I used to really dislike service design it was because it was full of people saying “oh we’re going to cure world hunger". It was so ethically skewed that it didn’t make any sense. I mean, I care about the people and the world where we all live in, but I'm a designer and my mission is not about making the world a better place. I'm being paid by a client that needs to have some results. You need to make sure the client is happy, understanding the market, the needs of people and designing better systems and solutions. But when it comes to users’ needs versus business values, then I'll focus on business value. I have to prioritize that: that's me as a designer. I'm not doing exactly what they say but what I do is about giving them something more which goes beyond – and that's the consultancy part. I'm not an artist, I'm not self-expressing. There's too much design and activism going on and it goes against the professionalism that clients need from us.
Too many people spend their time in this difficult area. As noble as it is - it's just not easily translatable in the commercial world. But for what I look at, all this commercial work can create social impact. Sometimes the social impact is greater, even if less measurable, within that commercial work, rather than in some "design a community" project. For instance, the companies that are being criticized because of selling cars, well I believe that without their contribution our cities would be different, our shops would be different. I know there are bad parts that today got to a point where it is all almost unmanageable, but overall I believe is mostly being positive, through connecting people together.”
at Livework UK
“I think there are two types of social innovation approaches. The one taken into account by the public sector - which is quite strong at the moment - and the more “pure” social innovation – which is the space where charities and social enterprises work. There's been quite a lot of service design focus in that areas – including a few companies that unfortunately don't exist anymore like Participle or ThinkPublic. I think it is difficult to get funding, specially when there are not many investments around and people are focusing more on delivering standard services rather than trying to innovate. But I think a lot of people do want to work in that area, it's quite popular. Livework would be interested in that area, there are just not too many projects. And there's a lot of public-sector work around it anyway.
One thing somebody told me some years ago about social innovation that I believed changed a bit my view was related to how you could make a valuable contribution even doing commercial. Contributing to the middle class is important and actually creates positive impact. And that was quite a different perspective to me.”
“I’ve recently worked on a project for a large shopping centre in the south of Italy, owned by a multinational corporate, that is actually interested in implementing a recycling scheme and reduce its waste production. Looking at organic waste and compost production a new educational garden was designed outside the shopping mall. The project was in partnership with SlowFood and delivers educational workshops to school kids who would come to the commercial centre to learn about conscious consumption and sustainability. We design the signage and the educational materials together with some design students of the University of Naples. Those are the kind of projects, funded by private corporates, which end up having a real impact on the areas they are located in. I believe those are the solutions we want to look for.”
Innovation Consultant at FutureGov,
freelance Service Designer
“I think there’s a lot of opportunities in the social innovation space: I haven’t been working for any big corporate clients but I could say I’ve never had any “income” problems – there’s a misconception that if you want to work in those “sustainable” projects you’ll end up being poor: I get paid well for doing social innovation work. I think you just need to have the confidence to go for it, spreading the word, going to the client and explaining what you are doing - because they are not looking for you. That’s why I’ve been freelancing for so long. I had to talk a lot to people to explain what I was doing. I believe, whatever is your interest, being it public sector or charities or whatever, it's all about just going out and exposing yourself.”
Design Researcher and Project Manager
at Design Council
“I’ve always been working on social issues, never worked for a client or for a project which is just for commercial purposes. If you think about all of those agencies, for some of them the balance is more towards social aspects but the majority work for commercial reasons and they try to do a bit of both, so working for corporate clients and then do some social related projects on the side.
It appears that more roles are coming up in councils delivering services for people and I think there are roles for social design within those spaces. There are people that I know who are opposed to going to work for “a large car manufacturer” for example, because they are genuinely interested only in those social innovation projects.”
Partner and Lead Service Designer
“We don't call the people we work with “clients”, our relationship is quite different. We work a lot in partnerships. This means that at the moment we're equally partner alongside the three largest disability service providers in Canada - but having said that we think that whatever we do, our work is about system change and that must involve public sector organizations. So, to give an example, at the moment in Vancouver we've been hardworking heavily with the ministry of community living as well. We don't see them as clients. They are an important actor in the system because most of the money on the sector is obviously public money. So in order to create something that has any sort of bigger impact you need to also change something in the system - hence involving public sector organisation. So we don't call them clients and we wouldn't start there.”