A Design for Life*

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via Flickr user Wilderness on my doorstepAs our flight comes in to land, it’s a typical, magical, Glasgow winter day: drizzle over fog over velvet green hills that are just begging to be walked in.

But I’ll have to save that walking for today I’m up in Scotland for the first open event for Better by Design – a programme The Young Foundation is delivering with Haig Strategic Design for the Big Lottery Fund in Scotland.

BIG is one of a number of funders increasingly prepared to try doing things differently. On this programme we are working over two years with 15 voluntary sector organisations across Scotland – from Glasgow to Edinburgh, Aberdeen to Fife – using design approaches to enable them to provide better and more sustainable services.

Design …it’s a word that means lots of different things to lots of different people, and probably means little to everyone else except the lovely things that Apple continues to produce for us all.

In this particular context, design for us is a way of working that involves multi-disciplinary teams coming together testing, trying out, reflecting back and trying again, being creative and casting the net wide for ideas, challenge and inspiration.

For me personally it also means putting people and communities right at the heart of everything that organisations do.

In that sense it’s a welcome departure from the highly paternalistic attitudes, design and delivery that continue to hold in many services across both the public and voluntary sectors, despite efforts to the contrary. It also goes further than the now very fashionable “co-production”, an approach that is undoubtedly a step forward but seems to be bandied about with increasing regularity without, it often seems to me, really that much thought.

The approaches we are using rightly include consultation, involvement, engagement and empowerment. But again they go beyond, as all of those terms still have inherent in them a power dynamic of “us” doing or giving something to “them”. It’s a power dynamic we can all all too easily, and unconsciously, fall into in the language we use – reducing people with terms such as “service user” and “beneficiary” to one-dimensional recipients of a service.

Rant over, for now, design to me means seeing people, all people, as self-determining and interdependent, and the role of services as enabling this self-determination, choice and mutual aid, rather than replacing it.

There are an increasing number of excellent examples of services that do exactly this. In mental health, for example, the ground-breaking recovery colleges use a delivery model where peer education, support and networks are core. They are at the forefront of what is hopefully a fundamental change and transformation in mental health care and support, using money that has traditionally been spent on services delivered on a ward.

It is only one of many examples of services that holistically respect people – their lives, choices, needs, wants, dreams, voices, strengths, vulnerabilities, skills and talents – for all that they are.

Through Better by Design we hope to be helping to build more. I like to see it as working together to lift the fog, enabling what lies beneath to flourish.

* With thanks to the Manic Street Preachers for the inspiration. I have been humming it all day.


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