News & thinking

Transforming our world:
A hymn to design

April 29, 2023
April 29, 2023 Simon Green

Amongst the day-to-day bustle and pressures of agency life, the pivotal role of design in our lives can sometimes get forgotten. So, on a personal level, it’s nice to take a step back and reflect. But I’m also writing this piece for the many people out there who still see design as ‘making stuff pretty’.

Contrary to popular opinion, design goes far beyond aesthetics. As a collection of disciplines and methods, it shapes the world we live in, how we perceive and interact with that world, and how we work with others to shape it. It influences our perceptions, behaviours and even our socio-cultural climate.

Design’s power lies in its ability to envision, craft and prototype ideas, delving deep into peoples’ thoughts, feelings and behaviours along the way. At its core, it’s a blend of problem-solving and communication. Whether it’s designing a product, a brand or an experience, the goal is always to address a need and/or convey a message. And these needs and messages may be emotional, functional, commercial and so on.

Products and services
Take, for instance, a smartphone. The aesthetic design of its exterior, apps and user interface are somewhat important. But it’s the (designed) way in which these parts function that creates the intuitive, rewarding user experience we all depend on—and that transforms the phone from bits of metal and plastic into a powerful information portal. Coding and manufacturing are critical too, but a smart phone starts with smart design.

Spaces and places
The built environment is perhaps where design’s impact is most evident. Spaces and places are created by a multitude of design disciplines—from city planning and architecture, to branding, interior design and landscape design. Done well, this design can transform our world for the better. One example from many is how architecture and landscaping have redeveloped many areas of London in the last 30 years, transforming them into new and thriving communities—Kings Cross, Paddington Basin and London Bridge for example. Other shining examples include New York’s Brooklyn Bridge Park and Sydney’s Central Park.

Socio-cultural impact
By shaping the world we live and work in, design is a catalyst for social and cultural change. And this change can be both superficial and temporary or deep and long-lasting. From the Nike swoosh to the Apple Store experience, design creates and reflects values, aspirations and identities, the most successful of which become universally recognised.

Design also has the power to shape cultural narratives, challenge norms and provoke change. Milton Glaser’s now world-famous ‘I ♥ NY’ logo, for example, helped to shift the narrative of New York from ‘city in decline’ to a ‘vibrant, resilient and loved metropolis’. In the digital age, this influence is further magnified. The digital interfaces and experiences that designers create influence everything from our online shopping habits to how we interact with friends and family.

In a similar vein, design also has the power to drive social innovation and change. Consider, for instance, inclusive design, which aims to make products and environments usable for all. This empowers and enhances the lives of millions of people who would otherwise be marginalised. Design has impacted and can impact our societies and planet in multiple ways, from developing eco-friendly products and creating new communities, to improving employee productivity and shifting public opinion on issues like race, health and gender. Check out the Core77 Design awards for some powerful recent examples. The Circular Economy project being run by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation is another inspiring example.

Commercial innovation and growth
Business leaders are increasingly recognizing the power of design in a commercial context. Growing in tandem with this has been the rise of Design Thinking—a collaborative, human-centred approach to problem-solving and a powerful tool for innovation and growth across all sectors. Through this and other design tools, an organisation can significantly improve its brand reputation, innovation capabilities, customer experience and employee performance. And when design is paired with behaviour-led culture change, the results can be game changing—for the business and all the people that interact with it.

The impact of design is profound and far-reaching. Sometimes it’s about making things pretty, but never just for the sake of it. Whether it’s reimagining public spaces, transforming business performance, or fostering cultural understanding, design has the power to catalyze positive change and elevate the human experience. And as we navigate an increasingly uncertain future, its creative and collaborative methods will become even more critical to our success as a species.

“Design is in everything we make, but it’s also between those things. It’s a mix of craft, science, storytelling, propaganda, and philosophy.”

Erik Edigard