Design isn’t what you think it is

Aviv Katz explores the role of design at Year Here

Design is one of the foundational components of the Year Here curriculum; a bit like literacy or numeracy in primary school. And as Head of Design, it’s my role to make sure it’s done well.

The problem with design is that it’s a slippery term, easily argued over and misunderstood. To my parents’ generation, design had no place in any social entrepreneurship programme curriculum. But times have changed; terminology has changed and talk of designing services, systems and organisations are now commonplace. So, I think it’s worth dwelling on what we mean by design at Year Here, why we think it’s important, and how we think we’re doing.

1. What do we mean by design?

Ask most people what good design means to them and they’ll answer with their favourite product, graphic or architectural piece. A small number might mention a well designed service or system, but rarely will anyone talk about design as a verb: good design as a beautiful process for developing solutions to problems.

In our business — that of social innovation, developing solutions to society’s toughest challenges — design is 80% process and 20% output.

This means that our Fellows need to be confident in planning and leading service design projects; they need to grow the skills and capabilities of ‘design thinking’, like understanding users’ needs, thinking-through-making and working creatively; and they need to be fluent in the design methodology, employing tools like prototyping, ideation and journey mapping.

Some of our Fellows are accomplished designers when they join, others are complete novices. As they progress, we make sure everyone has a steep learning curve in the areas of design they feel most passionate about, be it user research, workshop facilitation or crafting service touchpoints.

2. Why we think it’s important?

I’ve spent the past 12 years as a social designer, working with clients in healthcare, social care, criminal justice and education. The types of challenges I’ve worked on, and the ones our Fellows face when they join the programme are often complex, wicked problems with no clear solution and no clear relationship between cause and effect: building community resilience, reducing levels of childhood obesity, helping frail elderly people retain their independence for longer and cutting cycles of reoffending are just a few examples. They are rarely overtly design challenges, rather they are innovation challenges where design can offer a useful way of connecting the conceptual with the practical.

One of my insights having worked in this field for a while is that design is not enough. There is a whole set of skills and understanding of systems, policies, cultures, behaviours and economics that need to be part of any team trying to affect change in these highly complex areas. And consultants are limited by virtue of their short-term engagement. The best social innovators and entrepreneurs are rarely consultants — they are steeped in the areas they’re trying to change and committed to them for the long haul.

That’s why at Year Here we use design as the glue for weaving multidisciplinary expertise in team-based working. And why we’re doing this to help our Fellows become social entrepreneurs, rather than design consultants. Because that’s where they’ll make the biggest impact.

3. How we think we’re doing

Arrive at the studio on most weekdays and you’ll sense it. There’s an amazing energy about the place; it’s dynamic, noisy and chaotic at certain times, and quiet and pensive at others, but it’s balanced.

A few weeks deep into Venture Lab

During some months of the year days, teams sit huddled around tables or on the sofa working on their consulting projects. Some teams are brainstorming, mapping messy social challenges, others are typing away; some are on the phone conducting interviews, others are editing films or designing a flyer for their next workshop.

As these teams come and go, there is the constant hum of our alumni working on their ventures. This more quiet group is beavering away tenaciously to craft their services, touchpoints, building social media presence and start to generate income for their enterprises.

This feels like a studio — a place that’s conducive to learning, failing, growing and collaborating. It’s not a design studio, because that’s not what we’re about. We’re nurturing a design-based innovation culture where design is not what we do, but how we do things.

Aviv Katz is Head of Design at Year Here

Interested in applying? We have two intakes per year, in the Spring and Autumn. Find out if we’re currently open for applications.