By Alan Bell, managing director at leading integrated design and brand communication agency, Bell.
Over the last few months the need for design in its broadest sense has rarely been off the front pages. From the political system to the banking system, IT schemes to MPs’ expenses, the consensus seems to be that the fault lines in the status quo run so deep that a radical rethink is required.
And the conclusion appears to be that for such a radical approach, we must look towards designers: those capable of researching, contemplating and then creating a new vision, a new model, unencumbered by the constraints of what’s already there.
This is of course part of what design delivers. It is a creative profession, a creative industry, and one in which the UK excels.
But somewhere in here, there’s a strange logic gap. If we as a society – as business leaders, media opinion-formers, politicians and the public – truly believe that design is capable of such transformation, then why would we only apply it when the existing system or structure has failed?
Surely it would make more sense to put the principles and benefits of design at the heart of all organisations, alongside the accountants, lawyers and management experts? Constant design evolution is a philosophy we all live by.
That way, the combination of creativity and rigour that is the stock in trade of the design industry can be employed to solve problems of all kinds, look at everyday issues anew and stimulate fresh thinking.
Look at it from a different perspective. At Bell, our creative thinkers and designers are employed to take a lead role in almost every aspect of organisational life – from stimulating sales to developing new products and services, supporting internal communications to managing change. These aren’t peripheral issues; they are a key part of what makes organisations function. They are intrinsic and if we value and prioritise design as a skill, it needs to be placed at the core of decision-making.
I have some theories as to why this is often not the case and design is viewed as a makeover. Firstly, design involves something inherently unquantifiable: the element of creativity. We can’t put that on a balance sheet or declare it at the end of the year and we can’t count it.
However, there are all manner of ways to measure the impact of creativity. In fact, designers have become increasingly conscious of the need to do so: at Bell, KPIs are now a standard element of almost every project. And crucially, these indicators are developed to meet the project and the clients’ needs: sometimes that’s a cultural change or specific response rather than a purely financial target.
Secondly, design takes time. It demands space for thinking, looking at the bigger picture, considering potential impacts. On the surface, it often seems simpler just to make do and mend – especially when you’re faced with an annual budget and short-term targets, where the further you plan ahead, the more likely it is that you won’t be there to oversee the success.
But as recent events have shown, focusing solely on the short term is a risk in itself. The backlash has begun against the City culture of instant results and huge bonuses: instead there is recognition that getting the foundations right is important. It’s an interesting thought that often a call for a makeover is actually a reflection of the fact that there was no real strategic planning or ‘design’ in the first place.
What’s more, when you look a little deeper, it’s apparent that a piecemeal makeover that addresses peripheral symptoms can ultimately be as expensive as starting afresh. You end up with a system that offers immediate improvements, but is soon overtaken by time.
A perfect example is the UK transport system, which has long suffered from a lack of overarching vision: instead improvements are made in a piecemeal fashion, only for that new bypass or stretch of motorway to quickly become saturated with traffic and the benefit eliminated.
What I am arguing for, of course, isn’t the chance to redesign the road network; instead it’s a case where short-term thinking is inhibiting long-term improvements.
Granted, there are a whole host of further constraints that need to be taken into account – but this is the case with any design task. Designers work within constraints, and yet are still able to imagine and create something that is better than what was there before – whether that is a home, product, communication campaign or an organisational structure.
It’s this ability to bring creativity into the equation that makes design the ultimate problem-solver and provides the reason why in times of trouble, from restructuring and repackaging failing businesses to renewing trust in the financial system, when you really examine the bottom line – design is everything.
That’s why my belief is that it’s time design moved from being an afterthought to becoming the first thought. Design doesn’t just impact on the bottom line: it can be a vital part of defining what the bottom line is.
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