Awareness is growing all the time that to be effective, designers can't ignore issues beyond their immediate field of expertise.
With thanks to the UK Design Council
Design doesn't exist in a vacuum. If a designer specifies that a new table must be made from a certain wood, then this influences who their client or employer trades with, how the material is delivered, how the table is manufactured and how much the whole process costs, all of which affect numerous other people along the way.
In recognition of this, designers have begun to think about how they and the businesses and organisations they serve make a difference to the way we live, beyond what happens when users interact with products.
This has led to increased interest in areas of study such as design and sustainability and corporate social responsibility. At the same time, design is widening its own remit to include areas such as the use of emerging technologies and service and experience design, which recognise that design methods aren't just limited to the design of a tangible product.
Design and sustainability is about more than protecting the environment, although that's part of what is in fact a three-way equation - the so-called 'triple bottom line' - which takes in people and profit as well as environmental considerations. Truly sustainable design doesn't exploit the workforce or lead to other unwelcome social consequences, and it has the minimum environmental impact, but it doesn't sacrifice the profitability of the business either.
All three considerations must interact. For instance, a product may be made from 'green' materials which are sourced locally and so don't require a business to burn up resources to get them to the manufacturing plant. But if the business uses poorly paid workers and the product fails, the result will be an exploited workforce with poor employment prospects, and a large consignment of unwanted product heading for the nearest landfill.
Sustainability requires commitment and an appreciation of the wider issues on behalf of both the designer and their client. Products that on the surface promote sustainability may not address deeper problems. For example, a product that recycles plastic cups doesn't tackle the wider issue of plastic cups being wastefully produced in the first place.
Design is just one aspect of sustainability, but designers are powerful in that their specifications inform other stages such as procurement, manufacture and delivery. However the designer can't be the only one aware of sustainability - businesses and organisations need to work as a whole.
Corporate social responsibility
Sustainability and corporate social responsibility overlap somewhat, but the latter also encompasses ideas such as fair trade and human rights and links them to economic success. It is becoming more common for companies to produce reports along with their financial statements indicating their performance in this area and in some countries it is mandatory.
Pressure is mounting for businesses to be more transparent and 'just' in their practices. Boycotts on companies that egregiously exploit workforces or pollute the environment are becoming more common. Companies that ignore this area may find themselves the targets of attacks in the media. Books such as No Logo by Naomi Klein and Fast Food Nation by Eric Schlosser have raised public awareness, while internet exposés can generate unwanted bad publicity.
It's in a company's interest to put its own house in order and be seen to do so. Being seen as a leader in responsible practice can form a powerful element of a business' brand identity and values, and design has a role in communicating this both internally and to current and would-be customers in a way that will increase competitiveness.
New technology presents both an opportunity and a challenge to designers and their clients. Emerging technologies make possible what was once impossible, and those who adopt early can achieve a competitive advantage.
The adoption of new technology does present a danger as well. Those who adopt without doing the necessary customer-focused research, either because they're scared they will lose out to their rivals or because they're enamoured with anything that's new, stand to make expensive mistakes. Technology is there to serve the consumer, not the other way round.
Businesses must also be prepared to look outside their niche markets. Developments in the IT sector can impact all sorts of businesses. For example the internet has made communication between global branches of businesses much easier as well as providing an interface between the business and the customer. Designers have a vital role to play in finding ingenious and unexpected applications for new technologies.
It's only recently been recognised that services as much as products have to be designed. The process is much the same - the designer has to find out what it is the customer wants and needs and then provide it.
A well designed service can provide a great competitive advantage for a business, even if that business isn't a service provider. For example, a customer service department that reacts swiftly and efficiently to complaints has a much better chance of keeping customers.
Experience and sensory design
Both experience and sensory design recognise that design is about more than the end-product. Experience design is an extension of customer-focused design. Instead of asking what the customer wants at the start of the process, the designer asks what kind of experience they should have.
This tends to reinforce a brand - for example a Niketown shop is more about pushing the Nike brand than it is about selling trainers. Similarly, Priestman Goode's designs for the interior of the new Virgin trains were about projecting a particular image of Virgin as well as providing comfort for the passengers.
Corporate Social Responsibility by Rebecca Collings
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Reprinted with permission from www.design-council.org.uk
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