Can Design get to the Heart of what Matters for Communities?

To begin to answer this question we first need to take a step back and consider what design actually is? Design is one of those funny words that talks both about process to design and products the design within the same word.

We are surrounded by design but our experience of it is often limited to the way we use, own, buy and even desire products. However it is the way these products are created and the reason why they have come to be that is often the more compelling story. These reasons (or insights) are developed during the design process and can exist even without the product themselves. They impact the way we understand people’s values and needs, allowing us to design for specific groups of people. If we take this insight and use it to develop new systems, experiences or even new relationships to our needs, it can be a powerful tool for social change. When we look at design as a process, an engagement or an interpretation, its potential is also much wider. This is not something new; there are entire sectors of the design industry devoted to this kind of process-based design thinking, design research, or even design making. Fields such as social design, experience design, service design or systems design are all examples of the way that design can be used across a wide range of industries to rethink everything from health care to politics to technology & innovation.

However understanding what design means is only one half of the question. To drill deeper we should next consider how design can be used, by both designers and non-designers, within a specific community to tackle complex issues that need a range of expertise and experience. The key to this is giving everyone an equal playing field and language to communicate. In order to do this a community-based design process must be both intuitive and reproducible. If it is not intuitive, people will spend so much time trying to work out how to apply it that they will not be able to drill deeply into the issues they originally wanted to tackle. If it is not reproducible then – as soon as the original designer leaves – the network could collapse and no further action would be possible. One approach is to use a design toolkit. These can be useful if a community wants to try a design process for the first time. There are many available on the market but, although they can be useful in getting to solutions fast, they also (through their design) fix the level of response you can give and peoples roles within the process. This is charted in great depth by Lucy Kimbell in her blogpost Mapping Social Design Practice: Beyond the Toolkit.

Another approach to working with communities of designers and non-designers is to use Metadesign. Metadesign is a process that aims to flatten hierarchies and develop methods which allow everyone within the group to actively learn from the knowledge and expertise of one another. Within the article Seeding, Evolutionary Growth, and Reseeding: Enriching Participatory Design with Informed Participation Fischer uses the term underdesigning to describe the focus of metadesign. It aims to limit the control of the designer and allow flexibility and evolution of ideas by creating conducive “environments and not the solutions, allowing… [people] to create the solutions themselves” (Fischer, 2003). This allows for the fusion and fission between individual and communal goals and gives the design process space and flexibility to evolve within any given community in a specific and clearly situated way.


From a design perspective, this is what we are aiming to do with Making London. By breaking down some of the boundaries between the University of Greenwich and the local community we can use design to help understand our social role as an institution and the challenges we are all facing in an ever-evolving London. The event aims to weave individual needs and values into a collective understanding and to co-create ideas for how the creative industries can continue to innovate in an increasingly corporate and financial capital. This will be challenged within three distinct workshops and framed through a large-scale mapping exercise. We will draw out these design ideas in order to be further developed within subsequent events. The workshops will give everyone the opportunity to engage deeply with what matters to them about living and working in London, mapping out the intersections and points of crisis within their local area. The workshops will use design processes to explore how metaphor can be used as a tool for rethinking problems, help us to imagine the fabric of the city in order to envision uses of data for the near future and try out some fun methods for making complex things simpler and influencing peoples’ decisions towards the social ‘good.’

The first of our #MakingLondon events is this Saturday the 18th June, join us by registering at:

View our MakingLondon Programme here!

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