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Interview: Pete Kercher on social design and social innovations

Pete Kercher is a founding member of European Institute for Design and Disability (EIDD) – Design for All Europe (President, 2003-2007, now Ambassador) and its Italian national organisation DfA Italia. He has done seminal work in expanding the relevance of Design for All into new fields of strategic and system design, introducing it to major international organisations, holding workshops, lecturing and publishing in a dozen countries every year.

In Poland, he is a member of the Advisory Committee of the Design Silesia project and of the Policy Board at Zamek Cieszyn, as well as President of the Think Tank at the Michal Ozmin Design for All Archive and Research Centre. He is currently running a one-year workshop in Gdynia with the Gdynia Design Centre at the Pomeranian Science and Technology Park.

What does it mean that something is “well designed”? Does it mean that it is “nice” or practical? 

If something is well designed, the result should certainly be that it is both nice and practical. Those are the layman’s terms for what the design community means when it talks about “form and function”: the product should look good (although, let’s face it, that part of the equation is often subjective, as we don’t all like the same things), but it also has to do its job well. Otherwise there’s really not much point, is there?

But the “result” is only a relatively small part of that equation, because design is not the result, it’s the process: it’s not the “what”, it’s the “how”. So if we say that something is “well designed”, what we mean is that the people who designed it followed a coherent process. They analysed all the variables in question. Here are just some of them: who will make it? What are they capable of making? What can they afford to make? How many will they make? What will it be made of? Who will use it? What do they want, need, desire? How will it be used, sold and/or distributed? Then those designers consulted with all sorts of people who had useful things to say about the product: primarily the ones who would be using in future, of course, but not only. Finally, they created something – a product, a service, a system – to cater for those wants, needs and desires.

In the end, we can only say that something is “well designed” if it hits the spot: the last link in that chain comes when the people who wanted, needed and desired it found that it functions well, so they benefit from the experience. Something is well designed if it makes an improvement to the quality of our lives.

What social benefits can good design bring?

Let me follow on my previous answer. There are many cases when things are not “well designed”, which means that some or all of those criteria for good design were not respected during the process. Maybe there was no or insufficient user consultation, or co-ordination between the different people involved in the process. We are surrounded by examples of what happens when things are not designed well: packaging that’s hard to open, inconsistencies in public space planning, signage and wayfinding systems that leave you at a busy intersection with no signs (or too many signs…) and a snap decision to make in traffic, devices with such complicated user interfaces that they need 100-page user manuals… and user manuals written by sadists who enjoy being inscrutable. I could go on… and on!

Because good design is a matter of process and not just of the end result, it can overcome all of these difficulties. Because good design is not just a link in a chain, but the chain itself. To get a wayfinding system right, for example, you need more than just the right size for the signs, the right font and the right colour contrast: you also have to consider where those signs are installed and ensure that there is continuity. To stay with city planning, good design also ensures that there is constant practical dialogue and co-ordination between the various offices responsible for executing the different parts of a plan.

The benefits are on a sliding scale. The first – and least obvious – is that good design is something that we often don’t notice, because it all functions well. That’s how it should be: just think what benefits we would get, as individuals and society, if all systems were to function smoothly! Then there are more obvious benefits: when things function well, they waste less resources, such as the time and money we spend adapting to bad designs or making up for accidents, for example.

Finally, again to stay in city planning: more people can be more independent in a well-designed city. That also saves on social and economic resources.

What is social design? Can you define it?

Social design is very similar to Design for All, which we defined in the EIDD Stockholm Declaration in 2004 as “design for human diversity, social inclusion and equality.” These days, we expect our products to be versatile and customised: the days are long past when Henry Ford could say “You can have any colour car you want, as long as it is black”. Our industrial system is more advanced: it can cope with a realistic baseline of human diversity, rather than simplistic statistical blocks of user types. In fact, it has to, as no two human beings are the same and diversity is what the market demands. So we call on industry and all other users of design services to demand that baseline of human diversity, so as to achieve inclusion for everyone in society, since our culture is one of equality of opportunity. So Design for All acknowledges the real world of human diversity, to achieve equality by means of social inclusion.
We do this by consulting with people at every stage in the design process, even to help us draw up the design brief itself. People who have been involved in identifying the right product, service or system to cater for their needs and then in giving advice during the design process are far more likely to find it suits them once it becomes available.

Good design should be a social process, guided by the designer (or the design manager) who acts the part of the skilled orchestra director, ensuring that each specialisation comes into play at just the right moment. If you get it right, you will enjoy a beautiful symphony, but if you neglect the need for the designer (the conductor), you will get a cacophony.

Can you give examples of obstacles caused by badly designed public space? (the most obvious and the easiest to fix or correct)

The most obvious examples that spring to mind are the thousands of obstacles that make life a continuous challenge – and often a real hazard – for disabled and elderly people: poorly designed pedestrian crossings, which often have no kerb cuts, narrow and broken footpaths, often invaded by cars and motorbikes that are parked there “just for a minute”, poor public lighting, those single steps that make so many buildings inaccessible, as well as unsafe staircases and ramps that are ludicrously steep… I could go on. Of course, they make life difficult for everyone: just try handling a baby buggy, a trolley bag or a shopping bag under those circumstances!
All of these things are physically easy enough to fix: that’s not usually the point. The point is that there are so many of them: to fix them all is a huge job and also a major expense… and nobody has that much cash all at once. So what we have to do is find ways to tackle this challenge, to start things moving. This is where strategic design comes into the equation. A moment ago, I was talking about analysing all the contributory factors before you start designing anything. That is what we have to do in these cases, too, and that is the task of strategic design as applied to city planning.

Every city has to undertake regular ordinary maintenance to its public spaces once every so many years. The right approach is to build the improvement of the quality of our public spaces into the ordinary maintenance plan. If you have to do special major projects, such as rerouting a roadway, a tramline or a cycle path, then that is also a great opportunity to make the necessary improvements.

Of course, all of this work should be planned and designed in partnership with local residents and businesses, so as to get it right first time and also avid any unnecessary disturbance during the work: user consultation!

At the Pomeranian Science and Technology Park in Gdynia you are running workshops in Design for All for students. What is the planned result of those workshops?

I feel privileged to have been asked to do this series of workshops with students. I asked to be given an area in need of some analysis and design input. The response to that kind of request is usually the most degraded area in a city, but in this case I was asked to take a look at the neighbourhood of Dabrowa. It’s an interesting challenge, because it has grown organically ever since private housing developments first started there over 30 years ago and it now has some 20,000 inhabitants. But the fact is that its organic private growth has precluded any real public focus: apart from a small pond and a row of prefabricated shops of the kind I find in practically all Polish towns, all we have is spaces between private buildings, spaces that seem to be an afterthought: there has to be some form of paving, but as it’s not a high priority for any private owner, anything goes.

We first identified a series of key areas in the centre of Dabrowa, then the students studied the area, mapped the challenges and started talking with the locals. The first stage of their work was to fly high, proposing whatever seemed most suitable for the situation.

The next stage is a reality check, when they met and discuss with the competent city authorities: the aim is to adjust their proposals in the light of real-world constraints. These may be a matter of property (to whom does the land belong?), of existing plans, of national and local legislation and building standards or of course of money.

The last stage is to refine the proposals and present them to the city authorities. We hope that some of the ones that are simple and inexpensive can be implemented without much difficulty, while more adventurous and/or expensive proposals will of course need to be taken on board by the competent offices in the city administration.

My aim with this workshop series is to achieve several things in parallel:

  • to give Dabrowa one or more public areas that people will grow attached to, developing a feeling of belonging, of social ownership, so improve the quality of life there and nip in the bud any tendency towards social decay, such as teenage vandalism, that could come from a lack of this kind of focus;
  • to train the students to dialogue with the people who will be influenced by their design work once they have graduated, to involve them in the design process; but also to dialogue with the decision-makers in the real world: this means learning to communicate about design in different ways, not just using the usual vocabulary of design (which sounds like jargon to outsiders);
  • to create an event to showcase the process and the results of the workshop series, if possible with a book describing what I wanted to call the “Gdynia model”… until I read the interview with Michal Guc in your 3 November 2011 issue, where I found that the name has already been used for the city’s co-operation with NGOs!
Do you think that those kinds of workshops can actually contribute to change in/of public space?

Yes, unquestionably, in two ways.

The first is direct: by dialoguing with local people, the workshop generates a sense of expectation that “something is going to happen”. In itself, this already makes people more aware of their surroundings: they observe more carefully, because natural curiosity means that they want to watch when change comes! They also want to monitor that change: “I’m curious: will they remember what I told them?”. So the first thing that starts to change is the local inhabitants’ relationship with their surroundings: this amounts to a change “of” the public space, i.e. a change in the way it is perceived by the public.

Of course, we also hope that it will be possible to make some tangible changes on the basis of the recommendations from the workshop. At the very least, the process of investigation, consultation and analysis means that the critical features have been identified and put into context: when the time comes for the city authorities to take steps, they will have a list of priorities and projects ready to work on. That is one way of bringing about change in public space.

The second way is by influencing the way that the professionals of the future will be working with public spaces in general. The students who have taken part in this experience have been changed by it: instead of acting as experts providing their own ideas, they will be expert co-ordinators of ideas that spring from the experiences and the wishes of the local people. This is a totally new way of renovating existing public spaces and creating new ones.

How, in your opinion, can design contribute to the development of social innovations? Can we make the design an integral element of social innovations? Or maybe even the driving force of social innovations? 

All innovation is 5% inspiration and 95% perspiration. It doesn’t fall out of the sky: you have to work at it. And the best way to work at it is to create a solid foundation. That means the thorough analysis of all the variables that is a necessary prelude to every correct design process.

Design is then the process of harnessing creativity and putting it to work in a given direction, to generate a desired result. There’s nothing new about this: in 1895, the Oxford English Dictionary already defined design as “a plan or scheme conceived in the mind and intended for subsequent execution”, so not a table, a lamp or a car, but the essence of human ingenuity channelled for a distinct purpose.

One of the most important attributes of designers is their ability (a trained ability) to look at situations from all possible angles, including stepping back to get a grasp of the bigger picture and see the individual challenge in its context. That is what enables us to make major savings, propose knowledge transfers from other experiences and suggest synergies: social designers are social innovators who treat society as a brain, in which they are constantly creating new synapses.

What this means is that design is already an essential element of social innovation. Without design, without that channelled human ingenuity, it is hard to understand how there can be any innovation at all: as a matter of fact, I believe very firmly that, when properly understood, design is indeed the major driving force of social innovation.