What We Mean When We Say ‘Design’

“How public services are ‘designed’ is central to their purpose, their function, their character. Design is about the application of hard disciplines not soft furnishings.” - Restarting Britain 2: Design in Public Services

The word design is being used more widely and more liberally than ever before. But when it comes down to it, how well is the term really understood? In popular culture ‘design’ is often aligned to luxury products with terms such as ‘designer’ furniture, ‘designer’ kitchens or ‘designer’ clothing and in the worst cases it can be perceived as style over substance; expensive products that look good but don’t necessarily work that well in practise. But for those of us using the collaborative discipline of design as a problem-solving tool and a way of helping to both understand the problem that we are trying to solve and also achieve well informed solutions which are based around the needs of real people, this all too common perception of what ‘design’ is couldn’t be further from the truth. So we’re on a bit of a mission at Bromford to bust a few myths about design:

  • Design doesn’t extend only to physical objects, you can design policy and experiences too; 

  • Design doesn't mean that you don’t have to follow a formalised, rigorous methodology;

  • Design isn't about luxury.

Images like the one below are common on social media and are often held up as highlighting the shortcomings of design, but in reality all they do is provide an illustration of how design is misunderstood. What images like these actually highlight is bad design or lack of design in the first place; not everything is designed and not everything that is designed is always designed well.

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Our public and social services, for example, weren't established using the process we think of as design today. For the most part, they were delivered by a top-down paternalistic autocracy to a post-war population, in response to an acute and desperate need to improve the health and wellbeing of citizens. Services were one-size-fits-all and there was little consultation; people simply got what they were given, and in the circumstances that worked well, for a while at least. However, over the years they have evolved or mutated into unstable structures which are today often struggling to meet the needs of a very different population. 


Over the past 75 years, the Design Council in the UK has itself evolved from its own post-war roots, moving away from an early focus on elevating the UK’s industrial design standards in post-war Britain to their current work tackling complex socio-economic challenges. This evolution has given rise to a new generation of ‘design thinkers’ who are using the discipline of design as a problem-solving tool and a way of helping to re-imagine our public and social landscape.


Design is a problem-solving tool

At Bromford Lab, when we talk about design we are using it as shorthand for 4 key elements of problem-solving activity - discovery, definition, development and delivery. That means that at least half of what we do is based on truly understanding and defining the problem we are trying to solve and the other half is based on developing, testing and iterating ideas into a scalable solution. In short, we think about design as a whole end-to-end process.


The role we take to deploy that process is as a facilitator and coach. We bring together diverse project teams which include combinations of colleagues, customers, partners and other stakeholders to collaborate, conceive, and champion new approaches that have either not been tried by Bromford before or mean that we can look at existing problems in novel ways. Central to this collaborative process is understanding what the problem is we are trying to solve. Whilst people may often come to us looking for support to implement a near fully-formed solution, one of the key values that the design process affords us is the ability to take several steps back to focus on root causes. This often results in the re-framing of the question we’re asking ourselves and ultimately leads us to a totally different solution than the one originally suggested.

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Design is a rigorous process

We have a lot of creative colleagues across our organisation, which means we have never suffered from a shortage of ideas. But whilst having a cool flexible environment to host workshops and collaborative events in is great, we know that this inspiration and creativity rarely happens when you’re sat on a beanbag in a glass room, it happens all over the place. Having a such a culture of creativity is great, but it can lead to problems if a framework isn’t there to capture ideas and investigate them in a structured way. We created our Exploration Pipeline to help us highlight how the ideas which come through Innovation & Design at Bromford feed in to the wider organisational strategy. Discovery, definition, development and delivery are key elements of the pipeline.

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It’s been 15 years since the Design Council created the Double Diamond which set out those 4 tenets of design. Over that time the framework has flexed. People have developed their own version of the diamonds, often adding feedback loops to highlight that the process is not as linear as the diagram might suggest. But despite it all, at its core, the principle of using divergent and convergent thinking to gather and turn a mass of qualitative and quantitative data into something meaningful is now woven into the DNA of design agencies and designers across the globe.

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We form a contract with the colleagues who commission us by agreeing the scope of a project in a design brief at the beginning of each piece of work. Each gateway provides us with the opportunity to evaluate our progress and revisit the design brief. This ensures that whilst we are accountable for the work we do, we don’t have to agree on a solution before we have learned more about the problem we need to solve. 


Design is a mindset, not a toolkit. Adopting the right type of thinking is more important than sticking to a single set of tools. Each project is different, so we borrow from a range of toolkits including agile methodology, lean, marketing, social science and others to help us work through the design process. 


“Design Thinking is a human-centred approach to innovation that draws from the designer's toolkit to integrate the needs of people, the possibilities of technology, and the requirements for business success.” -Tim Brown, CEO of IDEO.


Design thinking principles:

  • Be human-centred

  • Don’t start with a solution

  • Draw from the social sciences

  • Be collaborative

  • Be empathetic

  • Work across organisational boundaries

  • Promote the use of small iterative tests before large expensive pilots


Design is person centred

Design requires a true and deep understanding of the people who will deliver, use and engage with the service, product or environment being designed. By understanding people as individuals it’s possible to derive powerful insights which help us design, implement, and measure impact. This empathetic approach goes beyond the traditional ‘consultation’ method of asking people what they think about a fully formed proposition. It’s also a far cry from asking people what they want. It’s about being able to elicit latent needs, not designing for what people think they want. Henry Ford’s ‘faster horses' quote may be fast becoming a cliche, but the same has been true across the ages. In the 1970’s the United States Air Force went to congress to try and stop the Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency research into stealth technology. In the context of the USAF worldview, jet fighters had to be faster and more manoeuvrable to gain advantage. Their view was so strong that they failed to recognise the strategic relevance of having a slightly slower plane that was totally invisible.


Social science tools such as ethnography help us understand people’s lives in a wider sense that our policies or services helping us to spot opportunities that would otherwise remain hidden. I previously blogged about how we used these techniques during our Starting Well Engineer pilot. One of the things we are currently thinking about is how we might utilise our network of Neighbourhood coaches at Bromford to help us gather qualitative data which we can turn into rich insights that help shape the products and services we offer as a matter of course.


“Insights are groupings of observations that bubble up into a clear theme that is IRA: Interesting, Relevant and Actionable.” -Martha Cotton, Fjord


One product of discovery work is a detailed set of observations and insights which we derive through a process of Design Synthesis. These reports include various forms of qualitative and quantitative evidence and artefacts such as user personas. Through around 15 - 20 customer interviews it is possible to boil down a set of high level themes which help us to: 

  • Spot customer needs we may never have previously considered

  • Identify customer priorities

  • Identify customer behaviour patterns

  • Validate or disprove a design decision

  • Decide which direction to take

  • Provide agile learning not statistical viability

  • Provide inspiration during idea generation

  • Give voice to the customer and foster empathy

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Design is an essential part of business

Design is often seen as a luxury or nice to have, a garnish to more traditional business change processes. But design is so much more than the application of a glossy veneer.  Design is about the application of hard disciplines not soft furnishings. Design brings together business, people and technology and takes us from a position of thinking, to a position of knowing. It should be central to the purpose, function and character of an organisations policies, services and products, because design is an essential business tool.

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This post is part one of a three part series exploring the way we use design at Bromford and was inspired by one of three presentations we gave when we hosted the Disruptive Innovators Network at Bromford in July. Keep an eye on the blog for parts 2 and 3 of the series, when we will be covering tests, pilots and evaluation.