A reflection on design in policy making

taken by me

I went to a discussion held at the V&A research department this week. The topic of this mini event was design in policy-making, reflecting the current practices and the trend for design to become a new language in policy-making practices, i.e. Policy Lab UK. The discussion with those experts in design and research was interesting, and it gave me a deeper insight into what design is and might be. I want to share some of my thoughts here and as always please feel free to leave your comment and critical feedback.

The mascot, “D”esign and its future

Perhaps design has become an iconic symbol that encodes acts and values, such as diversity, experimentation, positivity, pragmatism, optimism, etc. It may sound ridiculous – as if many other disciplines or professions do not embody these similar values in different ways. This might be because our traditional perpection of design is a sort of iconic and tangible cultural symbol just like the concept of the Olymic mascot. I guess design has become utilized in many other contexts, such as policy making and organisational management. People with ideas of design being just product design may question the very presence of design in those contexts. “is it just a cliche coming from design vocabulary?” they might ask.

Here is my question. Is or should design be a stabilised or fixed concept? The perception and practices of design have always been changing in different contexts, i.e. cultures and professions. They have always been changing in history, whether early 19th century craftsmanship or inventions from the industrial revolution. The history of design education in the UK reflects such changing patterns of design and its practices. So the answer regarding the design in policy making or other contexts is this: once we recognise how designers or other professionals use design in those new contexts, whether it is its vocabulary or tools, we might identify a new set of meaning and practices that design can deliver. We might understand better how design can contribute to policy making.

My argument is perhaps that instead of questioning the displacement of ‘design’ to those emerging areas (i.e. policy making, management), the right question might be what the practices and perception of design are in those cases. From that point, we might actually understand design now and its future and not limit ourselves to what design was and is.

Design as another lens on our world

One of my assumptions about the application of design in policy making or management comes from my reading in a book called The Organized Mind:

As we specialise or gain expert knowledge, we tend to drop down to the subordinate level in our everyday conversation. a sales agent at Just Chairs won’t call the stockroom and ask if they have any accent chairs, he’ll ask for the mahogany Queen Anne replica with the yellow tufted back. 

It is interesting that perhaps by just deploying the word ‘design’ in a new context, it might help those traditional professional to ‘revisit’ common sense, reframe problems and create new perspectives. In that sense, design may be another new ‘toy’ but a new ‘toy’ with the heritage of being effective and creative. This might be the new value of design and we need to start to explore and identify it.

‘Engineering Thinking’ and ‘D’esign

Perhaps we are lucky in a sense that design has become a discourse in current society. It makes me recall the exhibition in the Science Museum on the age of industrialisation. The buzz words of the day were engineers and engineering. They were inextricably linked to those steam engines and had the impact on everybody’s lives and the environment. We were doing ‘engineering thinking’ at that time, reflecting from the Taylorism/Fordism of working to the life and family pictured by the animation of the Jetsons.

The discourse of ‘engineering’ was more to do with engineer and machine. It gave rise to so many debates on what was not functioning in this ‘engineering thinking’ (i.e. dehumanisation, etc). Perhaps ‘D’esign is the equivalent of that age, where design theorists and practitioners should broaden their existing views on design and engage ‘D’esign in much wider contexts. If that analogy is making sense, we are lucky that we can do so much more with this ‘buzz’ trend of design.

(Special thanks to Harriet for editing my blog)