I was speaking to some architects recently who struggled to understand why we call what we do design.

The tendency in our bit of the design sector is to avoid getting caught up in terminology and rightly to focus on getting things done and the methods used to get there. It’s too complicated and often pointless to start picking apart terms when the application and process can vary hugely. I have been in a lot of frustrating meetings which have slipped into discussing what we are discussing – but sometimes these conversations are fascinating and it is important, if difficult, to scrutinize what to call what we do. 

If we are trying to create a stronger ecology around practitioners and commissioners of design as a process rather than an outcome it would help to give it a common name or set of terms. Ambiguity about what design is for the public sector for example does not help potential commissioners to understand the concepts and their relevance for services, policies and other projects. I think we do need a clearer vision to crystallise around and part of this is about comprehensive and consistent terminology.

This is already happening in some corners of the design world, ‘human centred design’, ‘evidence-based design’. But it is much easier said than done. A name or set of terms could be off-putting or delimit this kind of work when aspects of it are still in their infancy and it has wildly different applications and processes – people in our important client groups, the public sector, small businesses, can also be deterred by designerly terminology.

Whenever I speak to someone unfamiliar with service design/ design thinking/ strategic design/ Design Council I use a narrative. Starting with an example of a well-known product I then talk about some the approaches that might have been used to create it – ways of really understanding who it is for or prototyping etc. As soon as they are explained as approaches it’s easy to see the potential for wider applications. Then I give an example, the work we have done in A&E can be a good starting place because it was in part a signage project, not hard to see where design comes in there, but also involved behaviour change – this is a less obvious aspect of much of the work we have done. If the story is told clearly enough it’s easy to see when people have understood design as a way of approaching problems and creating change. 

It would be a lot simpler if we could use a term or handful of terms to get to that moment of understanding more quickly – this is important because in many cases you only have a few seconds of someone’s attention. It’s also vital that people who are interested in buying these services can readily grasp what they are. Accountancy for example, would be harder than it is to understand, if it were called ‘money’ or ‘economy’ – the noun rather than the verb.

We went some way towards describing how the public sector uses design in Design for Public Good. We are also doing some work this year with others in the design sector to introduce people working in local authorities around the country to design methods in relation to their specific challenges. As part of this programme we are delving deeper into the vision and purpose for design in the public sector.

Many people working in design as a strategic approach are fatigued by circular debates about describing what they do. But I do think we need to become clearer, more confident and consistent about articulating this work. Over time this should help people have a better idea of what they are getting when they procure design – and the differences between the wide range of approaches out

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