Martin Roach

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Are the right questions being asked of design?

Should design be measured by something other than impact on sales

I attended the D&AD White Pencil Laboratory event yesterday at The Royal Institution of Great Britain, it linked the White Pencil awards to current thinking in sustainability. Having been invited along by the Design Business Association I was keen to explore the themes in context to our own work here at epitype. The structure of the event had a good pace to it – opening sessions from Puma and Unilever followed by break out sessions from the likes of Good for Nothing, Julie’s Bicycle and Goodvertising.

The break out sessions were, as expected, inspiring and thought provoking – all packed within 15 minutes of stimulating delivery. For me though, the event really took shape during the final session – and this was the intention. Jo Confino, chairman and editorial director of Guardian Sustainable Business led the summing up of the day. This session led us on a journey of spitualisation and discovery via the essence of sustainability through to a debate that asked simply – ‘do we ask the right questions?’. This is where the proceedings got REALLY interesting. Although the question was framed within the nature of market research, I felt that the room understood the wider implication of ‘do we ask the right questions?’ when placed within the context of sustainability.

I personally don’t think design is used in the right way let alone asking the right questions but that’s another debate for another day [check out our blog for some thoughts on the role of design]. The notion of asking the right questions is surely inherently interesting within design because … aren’t we problem solvers? If that is true, if we are indeed problem solvers, how can we be effective if we aren’t asking the right questions. Now I know advertising is different to design and the focus of the day was predominantly on advertising but let’s not divide here – I think that each industry, the design industry and the advertising industry, spurs the other on and the common ground is of course design itself – especially ‘good’ design.

So I wonder, what are these ‘right questions’ – for example, is a question ‘do we need to make ‘less’ stuff?’, or ‘is consumerism a problem?’ or ‘should we charge more for items but design fewer to pay for this innovation?’ Tough questions I know – but if we can’t tackle them as ‘designers’ or ‘creatives’ then who the hell can? Our clients? Well maybe – and there are some great examples of this, but shouldn’t we be leading the way AND the conversation? At the very least we should be partnering and certainly not following.

I guess the biggest question that is left unanswered is – should design be measured by something other than impact on sales. And to be fair to D&AD this is exactly what the White Pencil award is about, measuring design beyond financial return and looking at social impact. We do, of course, have examples where measurement has gone beyond the ‘norm’. Bhutan is a great example with the measurement of gross domestic happiness instead of gross domestic product but are we, as a whole, within the design industry playing catch up or are we the innovators?

What I think was evident is that for the seasoned sustainability head, the White Pencil Laboratory confirmed that there is much to do and for the newbie it opened their eyes to what could be done. However, the truth is that even the most ardent sustainability partitioner will admit that they do not have all the answers. We’ve been in this space for over ten years and know that some of the best sustainability partitioners out there may even admit that they do not even know what ‘sustainability’ is. So there is no room for complacency.

I would argue that the same humility, exhibited by the sustainability folk, is required from designers when working within this ‘space’ wherever that space may be – so that we can get back to asking the tough questions that our clients need us to ask not just of ourselves, but of them and then ultimately of the consumer.


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