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Design you can’t see

Design isn’t just about things you can see. DesignFreo’s Michael Tucak is a lawyer in the creative sector working in Fremantle, and a Cottesloe councillor. He is interested in how the design of services and processes can improve life for everyone, drawing on precedents from around the globe.

Design isn’t only about buildings, interiors or objects – it can also be applied to improve the services we use (service design), systemic processes (strategic design), and even our core institutions of governance (public sector design).

This broad application of design into intangible areas follows from the idea that a design approach can be applied to any area of life. As researchers Rachel Cooper and Sabine Junginger observe:

Because the skills and methods that constitute design are useful in responding to the challenges facing us today, designing is now being recognised as a general human capability

Or, focussing more acutely on public outcomes, Danish Design Center CEO Christian Bason in his book “Leading Public Design: Human Centred Governance” draws on UK research led by sociologist Elizabeth Shove:


Design is … a medium through which social and commercial ambitions are materialised and realised“.

In service delivery, this is quite obvious. A service is something that benefits from good design as much as a building does, and we know it when we use it: a smooth check-in, an easy to navigate online job application, or a government service that is almost pleasurable to use.

Service design is an established discipline which is rapidly growing, including related branches of UX (user experience) and CX (customer experience). In WA, the Service Design Perth Meetup group boasts over 500 members.

Design is increasingly applied to solving complex, inter-connected and interdependent systemic challenges. The preamble to the WA Office of the Government Architect’s “Design Review Guide” applies to built form but illustrates the broader scope that design offers:

 “Good design endeavours to reconcile multiple concurrent and often competing processes”.

Strategic design is still an emerging area. Only relatively recently have we better understood the deep complexity of our planet’s ecosystems, population growth and movements. These, and new problems never faced before, have no easily applicable solutions nor often any reliable data.

Strategic design is increasingly used by businesses, NGOs and in the public sector, including one of the world’s leading design labs, Helsinki Design Lab.

Design offers more than form, useability or new solutions. The UK Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment says:

Good design is not just about the aesthetic improvement of our environments, it is as much about improved quality of life, equality of opportunity and economic growth”.

Design can also be applied to the very workings of our society and how it is governed – policies and decisions that do not simply pit ‘A against B’ or descend to the lowest common denominator, but seek an evolution beyond ideology to deliver better, more inclusive outcomes and greater public value.

Globally, many local, regional or national governments are embracing design through internal design teams, external ‘design labs’ or other models. The UK leads the way with Policy Lab under Dr Andrea Siodmok, and local councils in Kent and Cornwall have their own design labs. The Danes retain a top spot as leaders in design through not only the peak Danish Design Center, but also a city-based Copenhagen Solutions Lab, and local labs in Aarhus and Roskilde.

In Australia, the Federal Government offers internal design training through its BizLab Academy, but regional and local government design labs or teams are still scarce.

What is clear is that design offers great opportunities to improve our lifestyles, our society and even our planet, from the physical to systems and policies.

Perhaps the last word on the broad application of design beyond the physical comes from revered designer Charles Eames. In response to a question posed by pioneering designer Bill Moggridge, who asked ‘what are the boundaries of design?’, Eames replied:

What are the boundaries of problems?

image: Jo Szczepanska on Unsplash