Fixing the System : Ten Ways to Rethink Design

It’s just one toothbrush, said 8 billion people. Photo of a toothbrush. Quote first seen @bambuubrush, Photograph by Alex @worthyofelegance, on Unsplash

Since the beginning of this year, I’ve been thinking, reading, listening, and writing about Social Experience Design. My interpretation of this type of design is that it recognises and prioritises the impact that an organisation has on society as a whole, and aims to make our approach to design in this context social-centric, as a core force in building more equal and fair relationships between communities and businesses.

When I first started thinking about this, I had no idea the scope of just how much thought and research was already dedicated to this practice. Many have put forwards the same ideas I was having for years, decades even, including but not limited to; Sekai Farai, Hannah Fry, Penny Hagan, Caroline Criado Perez, Mike Monteiro, Victor Papanek, Eduardo Escobar, Enso Mansini, Justin Garrett Moore, Society Centered Design, and Paper Giant.

This at first surprised me. Then, it concerned me. I haven’t been living under a design rock for the past seventeen years, yet this notion of Social-Centered Design rarely entered my world. I have spent my career working for digital agencies whose clients are well-known brands from the luxury fashion, beauty, travel, banking, and automotive sectors. For us, and for them, this notion of centering societal groups — as opposed to the Customer — had not made its way into our world.

But, it definitely should be a part of our world.

Therefore; I wanted to work out what steps we could take to make it a part of the way all designers thought, worked, and interacted with our clients and our audiences.

I went to speak to other designers, to find out how they felt Social Experience Design could be applied to our working lives. I had conversations with people from various design disciplines, and professional backgrounds; all different in their nationalities, upbringing, and lived experiences. The thread linking them together was spending a large part of their careers in the private sector, working with commercial giants. A lot of them — like me — are still there.

This article is the outcome of these conversations, and my personal learning — ten suggested changes we can make that go beyond our user-centered / service / co-design methodologies so that design — even in the commercial world — can become more social-centric.

“We need to set a new standard for good design — we talk a lot about style guides, best practice, design systems, but there is a human factor that lives behind this, and maybe that’s what Social Experience Design will address — the rebalance of power between groups of people — rather than the functional aspects of design.”

All quotes in the article are from my interviews with other designers.

1. It’s just one toothbrush, said 8 billion people ¹ : Owning the impact our design has on the world.

“I live in a bubble, of the values that I’m so deeply interested in, and I sense so much progression and change, but then we have things like elections and policies that come out that remind me that nothing’s changing.”

Every digital product and service on the market causes societal consequences, good and bad. Often it’s the product that makes the impact, but it can easily be the workplace culture, the supply chain, or another facet of the system. This has become a critical issue due to the sheer enormity of today’s reach of products and services — the world’s largest now touch almost the entire global population; just one percent of their customer base can total 26,000,000 people. Societal consequences have real impact, for many people.

The people at the heads of these organisations make decisions often with the express intention of creating political and social change. Working for them are hundreds of thousands of designers — engineers, UI designers, UX designers, technical architects — who are profoundly impacting society, but who often focus solely on commercially optimising their product. This limited perspective means that designers — including people who see themselves as ‘good people’ — are releasing products that cause harm.

The intersection between politics, society, economics, and the environment — and the impact products have on these fields — needs to be considered throughout the design process, by designers. We must take responsibility for the power that we have to alter the lives of people.

Some design institutions already cover these subjects. In New York, the MFA Design for Social Innovation course teaches “the design of systems; and the relationships between people and things, instead of only the things themselves.” Their program includes Environmental Ethics, and Understanding Natural and Social Systems, alongside more traditional subjects of Metrics and Data Visualisation, and Communication Design. This understanding of the relationship of things should be an intrinsic component of all design education.

“A lot of people don’t realise social problems. It’s difficult to realise it’s not the same situation for everybody. We can’t say we’re not aware of what is going on, it’s not a lack of information. Maybe understanding the importance of our actions, right through the value chain, will show the impact we have, and make us more thoughtful.”

2. We are never going to talk the designer into doing this thing ² : Having the power to say ‘No’.

“They are powerful tools that we’re working with — they can change people’s minds and perceptions, thinking, behaviours, and votes — it’s scary that we have that tool in our hands. With that comes a responsibility. It’s up to us and our ethical thinking as a creative to steer that in the right direction.”

There is no Hippocratic Oath for the design world, although its value has been raised. Such a code would give designers a powerful mechanism for saying no to shady requests from colleagues, including those in more powerful positions. It would also give designers a framework for holding each other accountable.

For example; take the brand REI, which was founded on the inarguably noble idea of creating a co-operative to help outdoor enthusiasts acquire good quality climbing gear at reasonable prices. It has emerged that the company has been accused of not only failing to address hate speech on their Mountain Project platform between 2015 and 2020, but also twice turning down a flagging tool solution by web developer and climber of colour Melissa Mutumo, and finally stealing her intellectual property.

Had the design team held each other accountable for their actions, it’s very reasonable to imagine that the hate speech would have been stopped, and Melissa Mutumo been acknowledged and paid for her work.

“[A hippocratic oath] is good for people like me, where I treat working with colleagues probably very differently to a white man; I have to tread carefully…to me, having that oath would give me something tangible that enables me to say no without fear of repercussion — it enables me to say “I can’t do this, because this is the oath I took, and it goes against those principles’.”

Pushing back on someone in a position of power is intimidating, and even profoundly damaging to a career. A common set of values would enable us to redress such imbalances, and enable designers to stand by their ethical beliefs without fear of recrimination.

We also need a communication framework to successfully navigate these frank conversations. Kim Scott’s Radical Candor offers such a structure, facilitating “guidance and feedback that’s both kind and clear, specific and sincere.” While written primarily for managers, its principles of ‘caring personally’ while ‘challenging directly’ hold true for anybody wanting to communicate effectively. Together, a code of ethics and such a communication framework would give real agency to all designers.

3. Equity begins at home : Designing from within a democracy.

“There’s a lot you can do within your own remit — running projects, hiring, managing comms in a certain way. I try to always be fair and make sure everybody has an equal voice, even if it pi**es off a stakeholder…people should have a proportionally and equally fair input into what they’ve been asked to do or create; for me this is the basis of customer-centricity.”

Inclusive thinking cannot begin and end with a methodology; values must be lived and applied ubiquitously to be understood, upheld, and evolved. Democratic design must begin at home, at the team level.

All members of a team should have input into decision-making; from which clients the team chooses to work with, to the method in which they choose to work together. This is similar to Agile’s methodology and mentality, whose manifesto pledges to value ‘individuals and interactions over processes and tools’.

“We don’t leave [new client] decisions to just us [the director group] anymore. The company has become too big. There’s too many people here. Part of our pitch to everyone is that you will help us design this company. It’s not about saying no [to potential clients], it’s very rarely about saying no; it’s about throwing up red flags.”

Taking the concept of ‘team’ wider, design agencies such as Paper Giant include all members of their team when making decisions about which clients to work with. This type of ethos requires commitment from all parties — a promise from management to be genuine in their desire to run an open team, and a promise from the team members to contribute with the ethos of the agency at the heart of their decisions.

While the working environment at Netflix has been unfavourably referred to as a cult, and does indeed harbour some uneasy working practices as described in the podcasts Today Explained and Recode, it does also foster much higher levels of trust in their employees — termed ‘Freedom and Responsibility’ within Netflix — and more radical levels of internal transparency than other Silicon Valley companies. The reason these bold decisions have been made is because Netflix believes that trust and transparency empower employees to make good decisions on behalf of the company.

4. Creativity thrives in diversity : The power of inclusive teams.

“The nature of a lux brand is a group of people sitting in a studio in a particular city and it’s not a diverse set of people — it’s still a very elite environment, they are only diverse in particular ways. These people take a distillation of culture across the world, mix it up, and put it back out.”

A team that is one-dimensional in its perspectives is damaging to ideation and progress. Inspiration is found in the same few places, creative methodologies stagnate, and generation of new ideas is conducted in an echo chamber. Homogeny breeds homogeny — and exclusion.

This has been voiced by Black and other marginalised communities for years within the luxury fashion industry. The need for change has finally begun to be recognised by some of the maisons.

“You always have a life beyond being a designer that is going to influence how you work. My family are refugees and so it colours all of my work. I am into social-centered design because of the way I was brought up, and my parents’ lives and challenges.”

Creativity — and the methods that drive it — only evolves with multiple perspectives and lived experiences driving it into new territories. Limiting designers to demographically similar people creates ideal conditions for products that are not just unimaginative or tone-deaf, but deadly.

From the perspective of gender, design has for hundreds of years been created for men, by men. The world is still considered male as default, and women — 50 percent of the population — the minority. Electrical products, car safety features, drugs — have been designed for men, with the impact on women ranging from discomfort to death.

Gender disparity influences designers in ways we are not even aware of. In her book Invisible Women, Caroline Criado Perez explains that even seemingly gender-neutral design terms are not seen as such by designers. “User, participant, person, designer, and researcher…when study participants were instructed to think about one of these words for ten seconds and then draw an image of it…‘person’ and ‘participant’ are read by 80% male participants as being male”, with women similarly gender-biased.

“[I left my agency role because] I saw this barricade of white, cis, males with beards at the top of the hierarchy and I realised I am never going to be one of the bearded white men.”

Diversity in gender, age, ethnicity, sexuality, social class, and physical ability needs to be addressed at every level of an organisation. Role models are important for talent to flourish, and that means everyone being able to see themselves in any position that they aspire to.

5. ‘They want our rhythm but not our blues’ ³ : Empowerment over exploitation.

“We believed in bettering outcomes for young people. People that don’t get great outcomes, and we believed in equality and sustainability. And that was deeply entrenched in our ethos.”

Empowerment is a term often mentioned in the business of selling things. In reality, often empowerment is commodified, without offering equity. This abuse of empowerment results in exploitation.

The LGBTIQA+ community is for example commoditised by many brands during Pride Month, who profit from the movement but rarely invest back into the community. Many brands have not even addressed their own internal policies that normalise violence against the community. Adidas have in the past sold ‘pride packs’ to honour Pride Month, whilst simultaneously being a major sponsor for the World Cup hosted by Russia.

Then take Britain’s working class which is exploited by the music and fashion industries, politicians, and the social elite alike. Pulp frontman Jarvis Cocker has previously commented on this “patronising social voyeurism”, and immortalised the trend in his 1995 single Common People.

The list of marginalised groups who are routinely exploited by brands and designers goes on, including women by the beauty industry, native and indigenous communities by the fashion industry, and Black and POC communities worldwide by NGOs and charities.

Designers must question short-term brand-led narratives that take inspiration from these communities, without providing any strategy for meaningful engagement with, or empowerment of those being marketed. They must be ready to give their platform to those they are centering, instead of interpreting and controlling their narrative.

British spoken-word poet and social commentator George the Poet laments in his podcast that “[Black communities] now provide the fuel for a multi-billion storytelling industry, and all we have to show for it is new versions of the same story”, later stating “Instead of letting rap music wash over us, resenting or ignoring the experiences these young commentators are sharing with us, let’s try and understand where their stories are coming from.”

When taking inspiration from, or centering these communities, brands must take real steps to engage, amplify, acknowledge, and compensate.

6. Pour myself a cup of ambition : Awarding socially innovative design.

“You know, when I was doing UX [at the beginning of my career], the things that I wanted to make were the things that I saw on FWA and Awwwards. This, there’s no place for any of that sh*t in the world, like it serves no purpose.”

Beyond economic measures of success, designers measure their worth through industry awards. The number of projects sold to the client, and their client’s subsequent increase in active members, sales, and reach, are great, but what we all really want is recognition at Cannes, and a D&AD Pencil.

Many of these awards focus on a narrow set of success measurements — functional markers such as usability and content, or strategic markers such as omnichannel brand story. They recognise a limited viewpoint of digital work set by the industry at large, and do not recognise for example, social worth, genuine digital innovation, or a perspective on digital outside of the traditional western commercial remit.

Scanning the winners of Site of the Year at Awwwards.com, there is a homogeny in the projects winning this highest of distinctions, and also in the judges assigning the prizes. Although perhaps unfair to single out Awwwards, it is indicative of the general echo chamber in which industry accolades are assigned. The digital industry is suffering from its own particular strain of #OscarsSoWhite, or the Council of Fashion Designers of America (CFDA)‘s similarly disappointing moment in the spotlight this year.

“I’ve been following Sweden in Cannes…and many of the awards [for Sweden] are going to socially conscious ideas. They have this Eva initiative that gathered data from female crash dolls and the whole idea was to open source that data. Awards are good if it is social-centric ideas that are winning, because that’s the only measurement that [designers] have.”

The bodies that assign recognition to work must examine their value systems. Whilst Cannes is undoubtedly leading the way, all awards groups have to question what they really recognise as innovation, how they can broaden their perspective of good design beyond the western standard, and who they include (and currently don’t include) on their panel of judges.

7. Innovate, don’t imitate : Designing the future vs making more stuff.

“Agency design is by nature impulsive, and focussed on an idea rather than a goal — Creativity with a capital C. If I am designing without the goal, I find it very disturbing.”

The world is littered with products, campaigns, and services that have started with a ‘cool idea’. Often the objective is to get people’s attention, make money, and win an award. While the brand may be happy, it has probably missed an opportunity to put something out that is genuinely strategically inventive and also good for their bottom line.

This approach to design wastes physical resources all the way down the supply chain, and siphons people’s time and effort away from projects of merit. It also assigns value to waste, making it desirable for a designer to get paid well by a brand that is happy to churn it out.

“[Bad design] is either Technology trying to find a problem to solve and retrofitting their product, or Creative making a statement, and you’re trying to make that creative statement work…in the end, meeting a need and addressing the right problem is what’s going to make something successful…you can make the shi*tiest design, but if you’re meeting a need, people will jump through hoops to get what you’re providing.”

To generate ideas that genuinely meet a need, and are also dynamic and innovative, designers need to invest in unbiased research, to uncover true audience desires and motivations. It also requires designers to challenge a client brief and ask what will truly support the long-term evolution of their brand, beyond their short-term economic goals?

“For many clients, change has to be progressive — not all clients are bold enough to do something different from day one. Sell a big idea, find something in the middle. It’s better to meet halfway than forget an idea completely.”

Change that challenges a brand’s longstanding core values is scary. Many are reticent in taking the leap. Designers need to have the skills to drive these difficult conversations, workshops, and presentations. They need to be able to speak to desirability, but also feasibility and viability-to present convincingly not only on the creative idea and the insights behind it, but also the measurable promise to the business, and what needs happen to get there. Finally, they must be able to empathise and compromise, to help a brand arrive incrementally.

8. Le geek, c’est chic : Innovating from agile, bias-free research methods.

“The nature of creativity is to be adaptive. Sometimes questions and curiosity are more valuable than answers. You need convergent and divergent thinking, and a lot of that is research-based. The more research I have, the more dots I have, and I can create and connect more.”

Rather than prop up a creative idea, research should be used to challenge briefs, and uncover real opportunities. Research, when done right, can happen across the entire creative process, arming the team with a deep understanding of their audience’s needs, desires, and motivations, and helping them to set a course, and change direction when needed.

“We have a strength in a breadth of tools, and a depth of argument. I give full credit to [my research team] because I think a lot of it comes from academia. One of our key points of differentiation is that…we have a methodical way of doing research, which involves constant synthesis…it gives us the opportunity to pivot on the research with the client…we don’t do four weeks of research and have the same questionnaire.”

Research can be creative and dynamic. It can be a light and agile process that energises the design team, bringing them closer to their audience, and enabling them to imagine innovative solutions.

“We need to stop saying ‘normal’ and ‘others’. There needs to be cultural context.”

On the flip side, research methods are often misused. Bias is introduced during many research methods, such as ethnographic observation techniques, persona development, and audience interviews. Data is often misinterpreted, sometimes leading to long-term, dogmatic thinking on a particular subject that colours years of future product and policy design.

Changes can be made that help to reduce this bias, such as meaningful inclusion of audiences across the phases of a design project. This approach to research prevents designers from interpreting the needs of communities, without representatives from those communities providing insight.

In the podcast The Design of Business | The Business of Design, Sara Hendren speaks about how she uses her engineering class to involve audiences and address bias “I have a class called Investigating Normal…in my classroom we have worked with Alice Shepherd, who is a wheelchair dancer. Alice came to us and said ‘will you build a ramp with me…I want a ramp to use that’s physics, to make dance — just acceleration and resistance’. You can imagine what this does for these young engineering students.”

9. KPI Bye Bye : Rethinking the role of traditional economic success.

“[We need to] take the conversation away from the economics, because economics is so entrenched in the ‘now’.”

The current free-market economic model forces us to define growth KPIs for our projects, which require us to make and save money. Whilst growth is not unhealthy, it is finite and often achieved through environmental and human abuses down the supply chain, aggressive tactics against worker remuneration, and a fostering of unhealthy psychological ambitions in consumers.

Netflix, for example, infamously stated that their “only competitor is sleep”, and social networks rely on obsessive levels of platform interaction to collect data and serve ads. Growth KPIs require an imbalance of power , tipping the scales away from those interacting with the brand.

In addition, consumers place value on lowest price and quickest delivery. Even those of us who want workers to be paid fairly, be able to unionise, and be subject to safe and fair working conditions, will often buy a product based on price and efficiency, knowing that our win is certainly someone else’s loss.

“When they [our clients] speak, their conversation is money, brand, customer. What we do is show them that if you put customer first, then brand and money will follow…the recent demonstration [in the US] of consumer power has forced our business to recognise that customers are important, and we need to have a dialogue with them.”

But businesses are beginning to see the value in operating more ethically. Tools and independent commentary are also helping to hold unfair business practices accountable.

In addition, there have been calls for a fairer capitalist system from unlikely sources. Mark Cuban is a reluctant socialist, however in the New Yorker Radio Hour podcast, he explains “We are going from America 1.0 to trying to figure out what America 2.0 is going to look like…we haven’t good representation of workers and the economy as a whole by true capitalists…we need to do what’s right…that’s capitalism at its best, maybe with a little added dose of compassion, which is needed, but is also good business…if you look at millennials and Generation Z, they only want to buy from people whose ideals they match up with…the game has changed.”

Similarly, in TED Talks Daily, Vishaan Chakrabarti tells us “We need a new narrative, a new social contract for the way we think about our cities…we need a new narrative of generosity, not austerity.”

“Facebook, Instagram, Spotify — it seems like this new economy is free, but it’s not. They take people’s most precious commodity, which is time. I want to design things that ask the minimum time of the user, because we are missing a lot of nice stuff in our life. We have a social role as designers, and we should design things that allow people to live their lives.”

We are also seeing the growth of industries established as the antithesis of liberal economics. The Slow Food movement, for example, places value in small local businesses and sustainability. Ecological balance is more precious than mass-market availability. Booming fashion resale and supply chain certification industries are further proof that traditional markets can be successfully disrupted.

This all gives us an opportunity to redefine the traditional KPI, so that growth is not the only marker of success. Brands have to also define and measure their success through social currency markers-measuring market advantage from a strategy that creates genuine equity for levels of society that need it the most.

10. The real keyboard warriors : Making positive change from wherever you work.

“The value of design is that it’s coming from everywhere — the spread of it coming from these different angles is what makes it powerful. As every company could be more sustainable, every designer can be too — you don’t have to work for the UN to do something a bit more ethical, inclusive, socially fair.”

Design has never been so varied and rich. Art, engineering, architecture, information, advertising, systems, and products — we as designers influence every single aspect of life. All of us use design in our daily lives, often without even knowing that we are doing it. All types of designers, in all types of jobs, can do something to make sure we’re doing better work for more people.

In his book What is Critical Environmental Justice?, David Naguib Pellow speaks about the political landscape and how change is affected. He cites political theorist Iris Marion Young, who recognises that there are “‘deliberative democrats’, who seek to work inside the system and ‘activists’ who seek to pressure the system from outside.”

Designers must exist on both sides of this line in order to make change. We must be inside agencies, commercial companies, and political offices, and just as equally in NGOs, and public and intergovernmental organisations.

Within the commercial world, we can positively influence brand strategies, systems design, supply chain decisions, corporate objectives. We can drive team diversity, and public accountability, and we can replace bad product ideas with good ones. Within public organisations, we can help to refocus long-term strategic objectives and practices to be of more benefit to more communities, and improve messaging efficiency and reach, to inspire more people to help drive change for good.

Incremental shifts in design practices in all of these systems, institutions, and organisations will help us to gradually see real change in the way design is used to create genuine equity between communities and businesses.

The future is inclusive creativity.

“In a world that is oriented around consumption, businesses and revenue, it often seems as though our sole purpose in life is to be a good consumer; to fuel businesses because businesses rule the world…be a responsible human — self-education and then empowerment to make your own decisions. When you follow that thought through, any human is going to feel stronger and prouder if they exercise their right to self-education. A point of view is a powerful thing to have.”

When it all comes down to it, design is not just the creation of brands, products, services, and cities — is it the molding of politics, science, and the economy. When done well, it can result in equity, stability, and opportunity. But it can also mean the architecture of societies of gross inequality.

To understand and tackle this head-on, we have to become more knowledgeable, dynamic, inventive, and effective at making the best change possible for our communities. We must build teams that incorporate more perspectives, to include knowledge and creativity from every source possible, including entrepreneurs, anthropologists, scientists, and artists.

More than this though, we have to realise that design shouldn’t be a task for the few. A future that reflects the needs of all of us needs to be imagined by all of us. It is a mistake to believe that we alone — as designers — have the answers. This means working inclusively with societal groups and leaders, at a team level — not at a facilitator-participant level.

We often do not have the perspective of lived experiences that empathetic creativity requires. When we believe that we do, the result are flawed solutions — the high-rise apartment that exacerbates social isolation, the biofuel model that accelerates habitat destruction, the charity model that perpetuates the victim-saviour relationship, the Universal Credit system that leaves people starving, and the commercial product that nobody wants.

It means changing the power dynamics that currently exist in business so that inclusivity is at the core of our philosophy. In the podcast The Design of Business | The Business of Design, the presenters consider that “Unrepresented, marginalised groups have a sense of what it is to be left out, and as it has been a part of our history…have as an instinct to make sure that nobody is left out — a zero-sum capitalist game, where someone wins and someone loses, is not typically how under-represented people tend to work. We want to change the way everything works, and the power dynamics behind that, and to do that means everyone gets to be part of it.”

In order to realise the power of Social-Centered Design, we must become genuinely inclusive — to recognise our own roles in a currently broken system, and to proactively redress the power dynamics, so that more of us can contribute to, and benefit from, a more positive future.

The opportunity to change the course of modern humanity requires the collective effort of us all.

“Creativity is the responsibility of everyone involved in the team, not just the Creative people. Creativity is the domain of the creative director — bullsh*t! Everyone needs to be creative. It’s not a job description, it’s a responsibility. Creativity is the responsibility of everybody involved.”

Written by Alexandra

Quotes used in chapter headers

  1. “It’s just one toothbrush, said 8 billion people” Quote first seen @bambuubrush, Instagram
  2. “We are never going to talk the designer into doing this thing”, How Designers Destroyed the World — talk by Mike Monteiro, at USI
  3. “They want our rhythm but not our blues” Quote first seen @nadaleenatasha, Twitter

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Designing for societal and environmental change. Advisor to thinkseed.studio.

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Alexandra Rouxel

Alexandra Rouxel

Designing for societal and environmental change. Advisor to thinkseed.studio.

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