comment 0

What is a design approach?

There is much talk of ‘design’, a ‘design-led approach’ and ‘service-design’, in public and third sector innovation. But what exactly do we mean by ‘design’?

In this short piece, for Better by Design Hazel White, Senior Designer with Taylor Haig and Director of Design for Services at the University of Dundee, outlines why thinking like a designer is useful when we are planning change.

photo copy

Design is most often talked about in terms of fashion, styling and the production of new ‘must have’ consumer products. However, over the last twenty or so years, significant numbers of people from other fields, beginning with business[1], and growing to include healthcare, education and the voluntary sector have begun to look at howdesigners think and the methods designers use as effective ways of changing systems. ‘Constructive discontent’[2] is a way of describing how designers think:  a realisation that things could be better, coupled with a curiosity to understand situation and work with the people involved to improve things. A design-led approach: 

  • is responsive rather than reactive
  • uses the knowledge  and skills of all those involved (co-design)
  • involves trying things out and accepts that ideas need to be tested and refined in the field

Design is often described as a ‘problem solving’ activity – however, the step before that: ‘problem finding’ is often the most revealing. Traditionally a client approached a designer with a ‘design brief’, perhaps to design a new webpage to promote an existing product or service, or to make an existing product ‘look better’. However, by working with clients and their customers and looking at a whole service or system, we often find that there are underlying issues that a new webpage or a new service will simply gloss over. A design-led approach offers frameworks and tools to look at the overall picture in organisations, how things relate, make connections, see the ‘pain points’ in a non-judgemental way. This enables all those involved to think creatively about solutions and test them out in a fast and efficient way.  There is no secret or magic to this, and you don’t need to be a designer.

Geoff Mulgan, a leading thinker on the reform of services describes[3] the value of a design-led approach to innovation as  “a very useful complement to traditional bureaucratic, top down policy methods”. A key principle of a design led approach to the re-design of services is co-design, a ‘bottom –up’ approach to change which is grounded in the understanding of the experiences, ideas and skills of the people, who use, need and run services[4] and where citizens and service providers work together to understand what the main issues are for the people using services and develop better ways of improving outcomes.

The methods used by a design-led approach are not exclusive to the design world: desk research, ethnography, user-input, prototyping are used elsewhere as ways of understanding how things are at present, where change would be beneficial, discovering what people’s experiences are and trying new ideas out.  However introducing a creative, often visual approach to this is one of the key strengths of design and Mulgan argues, enables different insights than we get from texts and numbers.

Quantitative information like statistics and questionnaires tell us how many people use a service and how many times they attended and what their average income is – but they will only give us the answers to the questions that we ask and the data we can measure in numbers.  Eight out of 10 cats like certain types of cat food, but it doesn’t tell us if they would prefer mice if they were allowed out to hunt.  Reports communicate to the audience for whom they were written, and are often written in the language of a narrow audience.

A design approach uncovers rich information often not captured in statistics and questionnaire results. This qualitative information gives a fuller picture and complements and enriches quantitative research gathered in traditional ways.  By visualising and mapping – using simple representations of people, organisations, relationships and time – we can begin to see where relationships are working, where they need to be connected and where things are happening in the wrong place or at the wrong time.

For example: journey mapping[5] a service with users in terms of how they became aware of it, how they accessed it, used and left it, will help show where things are difficult for a service user (or provider) and enable them to give detail about the things that helped them, for example: being able to bring a friend, knowing which bus to catch or being made to feel part of a community, and the things that were difficult – not being able to find up to date information, not being able to talk to someone at a convenient time, missing a session and being too embarrassed to come back.

The ‘data’ that this kind of mapping produces is often not charts and graphs, but stories of people’s goals and behaviours. These stories and maps can be used to:

  • put ourselves in the service users shoes
  • understand where the ‘pain points’ are that make a service difficult to access or use
  • create ‘personas’[6] to help re-design aspects of a service
  • reveal opportunities for removing or adding new features to a service
  • prototype[7] new ideas


The ‘design process’ is described as having different phases, and is described differently by different organisations: insight, inspiration, innovation and implementation or discover, define, develop, deliver (anything that alliterates), but basically it means:

  • looking at how things are at the moment
  • finding the problems
  • thinking creatively about what would improve things and prototyping it
  • putting it in place

A design approach acknowledges that the ‘final’ solution needs to be something that can be changed, tweaked and built upon by the people that use it, as people’s needs, the resources we have and the world we live in is constantly changing.

To conclude:

A design approach offers simple frameworks, tools and methods to find problems and map them out in ways that are sharable, reveals patterns, connections and opportunities for change. It encourages the trying, testing and improvement of new ideas in the field. Most importantly it puts the people who use and deliver services at the heart of the process of creating new ways of delivering services, because they are the experts.

[1] Tim Brown, “Design Thinking”, Harvard Business Review, June 2008.

[2] Nigel Cross, Professor of Design Studies, Open University  Neeraj Sonalkar, 2008.

[3] The radical’s dilemma: an overview of the practice and prospects of Social and Public Labs – Version 1. Geoff Mulgan, February 2014

[4] Szebeko, D &Tan, L. (2010) Co-designing for Society. AMJ 2010;3(9):580-590.

[5] User-journey maps are a simple way of visually charting out the steps a person takes, over time when accessing, using and leaving a service.

[6] Personas are a design tool, which distill the archetypal goals and behaviours of a range of service users and providers to help understand their needs. They help avoid stereotyping and a ‘one size fits all’ approach.

[7] Creating a version of something that can be tried out to get feedback – this can vary from role playing how someone behaves in a new situation to making a mock-up of a new information pack, to changing the layout of a room

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s