Take a moment and look up from the device with which you are reading this and look around you. That device and its software, the chair you are sitting in, the pen in your bag, the lamp above you, the clothes you are wearing, the arrangement of the space in which you sit … all of these have been shaped by the work of a professional designer. But one of the remarkable features of early 21st century public conversations in the UK is the invisibility of professional Design.
This may seem a large claim. The UK has an internationally-recognised Design Council, now at arms length from government but set up in 1944 to give explicit voice to the role of design in public life and the economy. UK universities which house design schools are internationally renowned and students from all over the world come to London, in particular, but also Dundee, Newcastle, and Brunel  to learn how to design products, communications, buildings and digital experiences. Conferences and seminars regularly showcase designers and managers promoting what professional designers have done, sharing how they have added value to products and services, and how they have helped firms and public sector organisations innovate.
And yet… If you flick through the daily and Sunday newspapers (and TV schedules) – which provide some kind of index of the UK’s national conversations – there is little discussion of designers skills, knowledge or contributions to public life. Instead there are specific discussions of designed artefacts such as clothes, products for homes and gardens, gadgets, buildings or other outputs of designerly expertise. The outputs of designers’ work, mediated through manufacturing, marketing and retailing processes, are everywhere. Some individual designers are celebrated for their designs in architecture, communications, furniture design or fashion. But in the UK, there is not a national conversation about a field of Design that draws attention to the processes and practices through which they work.
This invisibility and marginality of design professionals outside of their specific fields of activity is the context in which there is a renewed conversation about the value and impact of designers’ work. To bolster their proposals to clients, designers search for statistics and anecdotes that crystallise just what the value of design skills and knowledge is and the impacts they can have. Favourites here are the Henry Ford quote about the invention of the personal motor car (“If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses”) and Design Council research showing a positive correlation between investment in design and share price performance. Policy-makers and managers championing design struggle to find ways to convince colleagues who want evidence about what designers can bring. The implication, it seems, is obvious. We just need more data and a clearer analysis, and then the gates holding back the flood of resources that could flow towards Design teams and consultancies will open.
If only we had more data about the value of Design and its role in improvement and innovation, then things would be different. This is the argument at the heart of a new initiative led by the AHRC and Design Council, currently conducting a piece of research which seeks to understand the impact of design. Just over a week ago, a number of design professionals and researchers gathered at the Design Council as part of the consultation that is part of this research. We were asked to respond to a short presentation that reviewed literature (or ‘evidence’ as it is called in this exercise) describing and explaining the impact and role of design. We were asked to fill any gaps – a daunting task when confronted with a matrix which ranged from engineering design (a field that is institutionally strong with decades of academic research and ways to authorise practitioners as chartered engineers) to service design (which is embryonic rather than a discipline), across which the researchers want to find evidence of social, business and environmental impacts. There will soon be an online version of this consultation for anyone who wants to contribute (available here, open until 18 April).

What does data actually do?

As I sat there I began to ask myself how it is that people are persuaded about the case for something. How do ideas like “Design Thinking” or the value of Design in public life come into view? How might communities of practice such as policy-makers, senior civil servants, or entrepreneurs and managers in different sectors find themselves persuaded that something called Design is going to help them achieve their goals and is worth investing in? Will more data, or better data, persuade them? What will they do with it? How do we separate out analyses about what designers can do in organisations, projects and communities from the ebbs and flows of intellectual fashion, organisational politics or institutional agendas? Does having more or better data work in other fields?
An analogy comes from discussions of climate change. As anyone who follows that conversation will know, lots of data has not produced an answer to the question of whether human activity has led to rising CO2 levels and to climate change that is persuasive to some key decision-makers and organisational actors. On the topic of climate change there is a vast amount of data, produced in many disciplines. But what matters here are not just the data. On the contrary, a scientist with dataset A is positioned against a scientist with dataset B, revealing the thoroughly social backdrop against which their data are funded, created and used. Jerry Ravetz and Silvio Funtowicz call this ‘post-normal science’ – the idea being that when values are in conflict and the stakes are high, the normal ways of doing science such as producing more and more data are not on their own sufficient to be persuasive.
In other domains – not that far from Design – there are ongoing research programmes with a similar theme. But here the data is not doing its job either. Decades of research in strategy, for example, have not definitively shown how particular strategic choices impact on firm performance. Nor has performance-related pay definitively shown that this approach benefits organisations and their employees in achieving corporate goals. Meanwhile elsewhere in the public sector, there are conversations about how to assess the value of children’s services and early intervention. For example NESTA is organising anAlliance for Useful Evidence which situates the desire for more or better data within a wider conversation about what you might do with it, once you have it. And then within universities, academics are contending with the drive to produce metrics about their research through the government’s Research Excellence Framework.
So I am not convinced that a research programme to create new evidence about the role or impact of Design and its professionals in organisations or projects will necessarily achieve what its proponents want. It may result in new data definitively showing the value added (in economists’ terms) of what Design professionals bring into play on projects or in ventures. It may not. The data it produces may find its way into the pitches of designers and the arguments put forward by executives and civil servants. Or perhaps not. Further, such a research programme may do other things which might produce unexpected results.

Reshaping the conversation

I do not want to conclude that producing and analysing data about designers, designing and the effects of professional design work is not valuable or useful. As a practitioner creating a design capability within an organisation and as an educator teaching design to MBAs, that data and analysis might be useful to me. I support putting some resources into creating data and analysis that answer clear research questions. I believe it does make sense to create data that satisfy the requirements of those for whom Design is at present marginal or not understood. The value of such research may be relatively short-term, meeting the needs of those working in contexts such as the Treasury or the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, whose agendas are framed in particular ways that are not likely to change over the next 5-10 years. If we take seriously what we advocate as designers, then, yes, someone should be producing research artefacts that are useful, useable and meaningful for stakeholders such as these and other of Design’s clients in the social worlds in which designers live and work.
But I wonder what other activities researchers and practitioners working in Design fields might get involved with that recognise the contingencies of the contexts and practices in which data are created, analysed, critiqued, shared, disseminated and made use of? Here are three brief suggestions that move the conversation in a slightly different direction. They complement the attention paid in the AHRC-Design Council exercise to scholarly enquiry, but make explicit an attempt to reframe the conversation and attend more closely to how data are used.
  • Creating scenarios of the future value and impact of Design. Just as scenario planning is used to construct plausible and preferable futures for communities grappling with complex issues such as climate change or peak oil, we could use these methods to create future scenarios about Design professions and fields as they engage with contemporary questions. Creating scenarios can involve the participation of universities, consultancies and design teams, as well as their existing and potential clients, collaborators and wider publics in civil society and business. Created well, such scenarios become actors in the conversation itself – they enable stakeholders to begin to construct new ways of thinking about their practices in relation to other actors, which can shape how they allocate resources and go about their business. The impact of these scenarios is perhaps over 5-15 years.
  • Investing in funding PhD studentships outside of Design and the humanities. There is a lack of good scholarship on the question of the value of design in commercial or public organisations. Rather than focus on creating a new research programme for existing researchers or one-off PhD studentships, the AHRC and Design Council should work with the ESRC in particular to jointly fund a series of studentships within fields such as economics, finance, accounting, operations management, public policy, social policy, and services marketing to build up not just data but a long-term research capacity and intellectual community of young researchers interested in these questions who may have never heard of the Design Council. It may take 10-15 years to produce results. The results may not be favourable to what advocates of Design want. But it is only through thinking broadly about research cultures and how these intersect with practice that those of us involved in Design will get a better understanding of our practices’ contributions (and their failures) in the wider world.
  • Creating #topics to start new conversations. This more speculative activity resembles the practice on Twitter of creating a new hashtag which others may pick up on and start using, which in effect constitutes a new kind of temporary dispersed community. Those of us working within Design are often already doing this – creating a new artefact and making it public, organising an event or workshop or contributing to a festival, or writing a blog post. The Design Council’s Designs of the Times (DOTT) programme and collective participatory design challenges such as those organised by Futuregov, the Global Service Jam or the Fox School of Business are good examples. We can think of these as part of a larger collective effort to make the collective practices of Design matter. I propose investing further in this kind of activity to change the nature of the public conversation about Design by creating ways to engage with those not immediately familiar with designerly practices and methods. More or better evidence is undoubtedly part of that, but reshaping the conversation is something we should also be doing.