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The role of Design in the Responsible Journey

Continuing to explore how Responsibility is surpassing customer experience as the success factor for the companies of the future, this time we will look into the role of Design. Designers, empowered by their organisations, can make this transition possible, if they need to be ready to redefine themselves and their skills.

Since I wrote ‘Responsibility is the new Customer Service’, the world has continued to change. The pandemic has ended up being, for many people and societies, an opportunity to stop and re-evaluate their priorities.

Health considerations obviously jumped on top of people’s priorities, but with it, a lot of other connected concerns like the environment (Figure 1), or social inequality.

More companies are hiring Diversity & Inclusion officers, Digital Ethics managers, Manager Human Rights, Circular Hub worker, Responsible Innovation teams and so on, in the attempt to navigate this cultural shift and to remain relevant for customers and employees alike.

I believe that Designers can play a special role in this transition in business, but before I dig into the reasons, let me first take a step back in defining what I mean with ‘Design’.

What do we talk about when we talk about Design?

Design is too often mistaken for aesthetics, how products and interfaces look like. Depending on the designer, the time and place, people have defined it as a philosophy, a process, an object.

In Europe, we often associate Design with the Industrial Revolution, when machines made mass production possible. While arts and crafts focused on the production, Design had to imagine, anticipate and define all the variables of that production.

Design became a hybrid discipline that lives in the constant negotiation between form and function, art and science, creativity and business, heart and brain (Figure 2).

In 1955 ‘Designing for people’, Henry Dreyfuss was writing about the Designer’s role:

[The designer] does more than merely design things. He is a businessman as well as a person who makes drawings and models. He is a keen observer of public taste and he has painstakingly cultivated its own taste. He has an understanding of merchandising, how things are made, packed, distributed and displayed. He accepts the responsibility of his position as liaison linking management, engineering, and the consumer and co-operates with all three.

Fortunately, today there are plenty of designers of other genders, although still not enough in leadership positions, but let’s not get carried away.

Looking at this definition, we can observe that the core of the job was already the balancing act between the ‘public taste’, the business and the technical possibilities — or the consumer, management and the engineering. Much later in Design Thinking, they were referred to as Desirability, Viability and Feasibility.

Designers as liaisons became jacks-of-all-trades. In order to see their idea, that abstract concept in their head becoming real, they learnt production, distribution, sales and marketing too. And they applied the same principles to interior design, product design, food design, communications design, digital design, brand design, etc.

With so many different applications, it is no surprise that there is no shared definition in the design community on what Design is and what it does. This also contributes to the common misunderstanding of design from non-designers, as mentioned earlier.

I am not interested in solving that, on the contrary, I invite you to speak with people from different cultures and backgrounds and discover even more definitions and applications for Design.

In fact, Design is deeply intertwined with the current culture, sense of possibility and shared values of a society, as the three dimensions above are inevitably the reflection of the circumstances and what is important in that specific moment and place.

For the sake of this article I will use ‘Design’ as the expression of a certain mindset and methodologies that aim to understand a problem in its complex context, find out what will have the most positive impact, imagine the solution that embodies that value, its inter-dependancies and ramifications, and bring the full solution to life.

Why should Design tackle Responsibility?

You can read more about the definition of Responsibility in my former article, but let me re iterate that we are witnessing a fundamental cultural shift in societal values, economic paradigms and people’s behaviour towards sustainable and equitable choices.

This shift requires a re consideration of the core of many businesses and not only better-crafted, and separate Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) strategies. For the businesses of the future, Responsibility is now an integral part of an organisation’s purpose, its value proposition, operations and yes, even its customer experience.

This transformation, as much as digitisation in the last 10 years, is permeating across all areas and functions of a company, and as such cannot simply be switched on or off. It is a journey, a process of discovery and exploration and inevitable failure.

There are no good or bad companies, there are no fully responsible companies. There is no “right way” of being responsible. As any fundamental emergent change, this one is fractal: the small parts (the small daily decisions) and the big ones (the strategic direction of the company) are all contributing to the change.

Design methodologies are very useful, in my opinion, when it comes to the fractal kind of change. Designers usually start from understanding a problem in its complexity (larger parts of the fractal), then identifying a small-but-exemplary-enough portion to be solved (smaller part of the fractal) and quickly build prototypes of solutions to be tested with real people. Only then Designers build and launch the actual solution which is meant to be iterated and grow organically over time to cover more and more of the original problem.

But there are more reasons why Design can help the Responsible transition too:

  • It is about Humans: Design starts from people, in learning from them, in researching and digging into their needs and wants. Design is preoccupied with the ultimate impact of decisions on humans.

  • It has a holistic perspective: Design tackles complexity, thinks in systems, visualises them and approaches them in a holistic manner.

  • It fosters radical curiosity: Designers are in a constant quest for ideas, which brings them to discover a wide diversity of perspectives and ideas — that openness is the first step for any Responsible journey.

  • It is Purpose-driven: Design is rooted in purpose and principles, in an abstract idea of what is ‘better’. Design’s main objective is to improve people’s lives.

  • It works multi-disciplinary: Design needs the support and input of different expertises and experiences. Over the years, Designers have crafted a variety of models and frameworks for collaboration.

  • It is solution-oriented: The challenges of the world today require very concrete sets of solutions, possibly tested and validated in real life. Experimentation, prototyping and testing are fundamental to the practice of Design.

  • It is adaptable and flexible: Design methodologies are about learning by doing, about adapting to changing circumstances. An organisation cannot rely on 5-year roadmaps to tackle a constantly changing social and environmental context — a true agile and flexible mindset is required.

Design alone is not enough, we need Responsible Design

While Designers are very well equipped to tackle the challenges of Responsibility, they need to be ready to evolve and outgrow themselves. They need to question, unlearn and re-think the methodologies and beliefs they used so far.

This is the work that we are doing in Responsible Design: using the strong foundation and principles of Design and evolve them to consider a bigger perspective than the relationship between the users / customers and brands. Each of us is in fact much more than just a “user” or “customer”: we are citizens, siblings, partners, team mates, community members, inhabitants of this planet.

Deciding to look at people only in relation to their ability to buy or use something is like looking at a company only in relation to the value it can deliver to its shareholders. And, as such, contributing to the unequal and exploitative practices that brought us the climate and societal issues we are experiencing today.

When the world is shifting from shareholders to stakeholders, what does it mean for Design?

The physical, social and environmental context in which people exist, the different roles they play in society are active stakeholders of our business. Design processes needs to keep in scope this complexity, which can be done using system thinking. By designing for impact and not for satisfaction.

Designers still carry on many of the principles that Dreyfuss was already talking about. But, if I can re-write and evolve that definition, this is how I would formulate it:

The Responsible designer does more than merely design things. They are a businessperson, a public servant, an activist as well as a person who makes drawings and models. They are a keen observer of public taste, and of social and environmental issues and they have painstakingly cultivated their own taste and relationships. They have an understanding of merchandising, how things are made, packed, distributed and displayed. As well as of society and environmental science, how things impact people, communities and the world. They accept the responsibility of their position as facilitators linking communities, public bodies, scientists, management, engineering, and people and co-operates with all three.

Responsible Designers prioritise people’s privacy and safety, they focus on their wellbeing and respect identities, they facilitate radical inclusion and support purpose beyond profit. Responsible Designer consider the planet as an inspiration and a stakeholder.

When we bring together the skills of Design with the consciousness of Responsibility, I believe we can achieve magnificent progress. Progress that is researched, imagined and built in respectful, inclusive and sustainable ways. That is mindful of its impact. That is improving people’s lives and society and the environment, for the long-term.



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