Tyler’s Insight

This year, the Design Thinkers Vancouver Conference 2019 curated an impressive and diverse lineup of talented speakers across a range of industries, each bringing a unique perspective from their field.
We have curated our key takeaways from the conference to share with you because we believe sharing is caring.

How much does design matter?

Cheryl Heller is a communications strategist, writer and designer. She is the founding chair of the first MFA program in Social-Design at SVA. She is also president of the Measured Lab and founder of the agency Commonwise. She is also the recipient of the AIGA Medal for her contribution to the field of design and a Rockefeller Bellagio Fellow. Heller is the author of The Intergalactic Design Guide: Harnessing the Creative Potential of Social Design. Her clients have included major corporations such as the Ford Motor Company, American Express, and Reebok among many others. She has also had many clients in the nonprofit world, including The World Wildlife Fund, Ford Foundation and Lumina Foundation. In addition she is the former Board Chair of PopTech, and a Senior Fellow at the Babson Social Innovation Lab. In 1999 she created the Ideas that Matter program for Sappi. This program has since given over $13 million to designers working to improve the public good. She is currently working on her Ph.D at RMIT University in Melbourne.

Social Design – what is it?

Cheryl Heller has been a vocal advocate of Social Design, she has written that:

“Those of us who practice, fund, commission, and teach the nascent discipline of social design agree without hesitation on a couple of things: People who experience this type of design in action believe it can transform the way we approach and solve social problems, and are investing a great deal of money and energy — by any measure — in developing the field based on results so far. We also agree that we don’t agree on whether it should be called social design, human centered design, social innovation design, or impact design; nor can we agree on precisely where the boundaries lie between it and more traditional design approaches.”

There are many ways that social design has been defined and it has been given several different labels as noted by Heller. The common defining element is that the design must attempt to alleviate a social problem through design. This may be achieved through a variety of means, whether it be the actual design itself, the methods used to manufacture the product or through the message and meaning that object or communication carries with it. For Heller it is especially important that the object have an actual effect on the lives of those whom the design is meant to help. This leads to the question, How do we measure success in Social Design?

How to measure success in Social Design

“As homo sapiens’ entry in any intergalactic design competition, industrial civilization would be tossed out at the qualifying round.”

— David Orr, Earth in Mind

Heller noted that when she first encountered this quote she thought that it was extreme and essentially laid the blame of all humanity’s problems at the feet of designers. Then she wondered if design could fix this problem.

Heller then went on to explain how her focus has been on developing methods to measure the success of Social Design. She also notes that success within design has often been a parameter that is difficult to define as the core values of a design are usually thought of as qualitative measures. How does one turn qualitative data such as “Buying this product made me feel good about myself” or “By purchasing this product I am helping the environment” into quantitative data that can be compared from project to project despite their dissimilarity. For example, how does one measure the success of a building project, against that of a product or an ad campaign?

Heller notes that there is no simple formula for evaluating design such as you would have in a lab environment. Instead when attempting to evaluate the success of social design projects we must develop a language and information architecture that can be used to measure success in disparate design fields. Here it is necessary that we assess the design by how it functions in the real world not just on whether people liked it or not. Here she provides examples from a variety of sources. One example being from the architect and MASS Design Group co-founder Michael Murphy that asks how does the design of a hospital contribute to the well being of its patients. For example, are people’s lives better after visiting the hospital? Or if we are talking about “socially responsible” products are the people who make those products lives actually any better because of your purchase?

My takeaway from Heller’s talk is that we can create all sorts of products, experiences and communications that make us feel good about what we are doing to support our fellow human beings and the planet,however without a system for measuring the success of these ventures we are simply doing nothing more than making ourselves feel good about our decisions. If we don’t follow up on the impacts of our social designs in a rigorous manner then how can we really know that they are making a difference.