Fulfilling Design’s Potential as an Agent of Change.

Alice Rawsthorn on design’s role in a new age of uncertainty.

This is an incredible time for design: where design is poised to fulfill its true potential as an agent of change. If you look back throughout design history, the most exciting times in terms of innovation, and also society being willing to accept design in new roles and new guises, have always been the periods of greatest change. So you think the tumult of technological change in the 1920s and the amazing transformation of design culture into the modern movement, I believe that this is a seminal time because it's a time of great turbulence, of volatility, when we face schismatic changes on every front. Critically, because of innovations in science and technology, designers have new tools at their disposal, new collaborators to work with, in order to effect really meaningful changes.

So you’ve got the absolute need for radical solutions to long-running and also brand new sets of problems, and you have an increasing willingness of society for new collaborators emerging for design. So people are ready to take design seriously. If I talk to the most radical and effective social designers who are helping to redesign critical areas of social services, or make problematic areas of society or social care fit for purpose, they always say that one of the reasons why politicians, economists, statisticians, social scientists, and development economists are willing to listen to them now and to accept that design is a potential solution is because they have lost confidence in the old solutions.

Design has fulfilled many different roles at different times and in different contexts but I believe it’s always had one elemental role: as an agent of change, and that is as a process that can interpret change of any type. Social, economic, political, environmental, cultural, scientific, technological, whatever, in ways that will help to make our lives better and stop from making them worse. Obviously, this is partly determined by the talent, the determination, the ingenuity, and resourcefulness of designers at any particular time. It’s also determined by the degree to which society, and specifically the decision-makers and power brokers in society, allow design to fulfill its true potential.

Of course, most people wouldn’t describe design as an agent of change. They see it as a styling medium, a rather superficial tool that’s only involved with how things look, not as a deeper, more complex, more meaningful aspect of them. If governments, banks, NGOs, trusts and foundations, and investors only see design as suitable for making blingy cellphone cases and silly shoes or expensive, uncomfortable chairs, they will assume that it’s only useful for executing those roles.

If you believe, as I do, that design is one of the most important tools we have to help us to effect social change, economic change, to arrest the environmental crisis, to come up with resourceful and effective solutions for the refugee crisis, and a plethora of other big issues that are confronting us now, then the design community has to work much harder to convince the decision-makers and power brokers in society that design is a much more complex, eclectic, and expansive medium than they’d ever imagined before. Only then will design get the backing to give us the support that we really need.


As Told To LinYee Yuan