Evolving design practice: 2021

Cat Drew
Design Council
Published in
11 min readJan 27, 2022

Last year, more than ever, I feel that so much has happened. It’s like time expanded. Anything that was postponed or slowed down in 2020 seems to have sped up again. Crises have become more urgent, and hope has become even more important.

In early 2020, I wrote a blog that shares how our design practice was evolving at Design Council. We’ve followed these paths, with some becoming more urgent and new possibilities arising. I’ve set out 5 areas below: Systemic Design, Design-led Missions, Inclusive Infrastructure, Design Council Expert Knowledge and of course Design for Planet. Plus 5 questions we’ll be asking in 2022.

Systemic design

With Nat Hunter, Tayo Adebowale, Cassie Robinson & Jennie Winhall

Animation of the Systemic Design Framework, by Epigraph films

In 2020, it became brutally evident that the challenges we face are systemic in nature, and everything is connected. In April we published our Systemic Design Framework, which sets out a number of principles, characteristics and a process to help designers and non-designers work together on complex challenges. It was based on research, with 16 designers working beyond net zero, and evolving practice in some of our public sector programmes looking at health inequalities and climate change.

It’s been downloaded 50,000 times since we published with great feedback from the likes of the Helen Hamlyn Centre, the Systemic Design Association and featured in Creative Review, Design Museum’s Waste Age publication and Design Week to name a few.

In September, we followed this up with our System Shifting Report, which we created in partnership with the Point People and through conversations with around 40 designers from around the world who are interested in not just designing to improve the current system, but to shift us to a better alternative. It starts with a critique of how some of the things that we’ve valued about design — it being user-centred, agile & iterative, and problem-solving — are no longer adequate if we want to transition to a different world. Instead, we need to act more collectively or planet-centred, be bold and transformative, and see ourselves as stewards of continually changing situations.

This is part of a growing number of influential designers who are calling for the design system to change and to work in new ways. Don Norman, author of Design of Everyday Things (compulsory reading for every design student) said “System-Shifting Design is what the world needs right now. Because the world is falling apart and something has to change”. He recently set up Future of Design Education in order to make this change. In his acceptance speech, the new Royal Designer of Industry, Tom Lloyd said that design needs to shift from novelty to longevity, from extractive to regenerative, from owned to shared. Anab Jain, whose studio Superflux, won one of the Dezeen studios of the year, also sets out a manifesto saying that design needs to shift from fixing to caring, from planning to gardening, from innovation to resurgence and even pushes us to go beyond systems and assemblages to knots and nodes.

· You can see my slides from the Service Design Global Conference which takes you through ideas from both of these reports.

Other key references and inspiration are: Systemic Design Association (and their recent RSD10 festival), Dark Matter Lab & Shift’s Radicle Civics report

Some elements of the Systemic Design Framework

Design-led missions

With Melissa Bowden, Simran Chandha, Theo Harrison, Jessie Johnson

Community Innovation Programme Teams: Ideas to Action

Missions have been (re)introduced to the innovation lexicon as a multi-sector approach to a specific element of a grand challenge. This is in line with our belief that for complex issues, one design alone won’t do, and we need to bring together many different perspectives, ideas, energy and talent. As well as creating individual interventions, design is an excellent glue that can bind and bring things together. Increasingly, we had been shifting the way we run our cohort programmes so that it is as much about learning from each other as from our Experts. We’ve developed this further, so that we’re deliberately creating relationships between the cohort and using their work to shift the wider system — through influencing policy or regulation, creating connections that spark further innovation or amplifying a new way of thinking about an issue, and storytelling to inspire others.

· You can read our blog on developing a design-led missions approach for Designing London’s Recovery (coming soon!)

· You can listen to the podcast series that highlights the value design has brought to community-led organisations reducing inequalities in physical activity here, and Melissa Bowden’s blog which summarises the approach

· You can read here about our programme with Impact on Urban Health to improve the health & wellbeing of London employees with multiple health conditions

Other key references and inspiration are: RSA’s & ALT-Now Impact Entrepreneur report, ALT-Now System Innovation Green Paper, In With Forward’s blog series on the problems of scaling in social innovation, Vinnova’s Guide to Mission Innovation (coming soon too!)

Inclusive infrastructure design

With Catherine Horwill, Ed Hobson, Sabina Mohideen

Images from our Sheffield Explore Station event, facilitated by Sophia de Souza. Photo credit @heatherbelphoto

Conventionally infrastructure has been defined as operational systems such as roads, railways and resource management. Design Council, and many others, expands this to include the building blocks of communities such as affordable housing, health services, technology services and ways to build communities resilience and imagination. This wider definition allows us to take a holistic approach to support inclusive places.

We‘ve continued to work national infrastructure providers, introducing design-led thinking to their core processes resulting in frameworks, codes and strategies that prioritise people and climate action. However just setting out policy is not enough. It needs the intrinsic understanding and buy in of those envisioning, promoting, authorising and delivering projects need to intrinsically understand and buy into it.

So our design work has really focused on turning theory into practice, by working with those organisations to translate policy-led processes into ground-up cultural change. This takes the form of expansive learning and development programmes, ambition-raising workshops as well as co-designing new policies with those responsible for implementing them. Applying a holistic approach to an organisational eco-system, means we are having a wider, longer lasting and ultimately more meaningful impact on the systems that shape our cities and towns.

· You can read here about our new Explore Station programme, which is involving communities in the co-design of rail stations across the nation

Other key references and inspiration are: Joe Biden’s Infrastructure Deal which redefines the meaning of infrastructure in our modern politics, NLA and Design Council event on putting design at heart of transport infrastructure, talks and tools for Imagination Infrastructuring, and two examples of delivering community and nature-driven value: North-west Cambridge Masterplan and Grey-to-Green in Sheffield.

Design Council Experts

With Sabina Mohideen, Bernard Hays and our 400 amazing Design Council Experts

Residents planting up the Edible Garden in South Thamesmead — a co-design project shared by Phil Askew, one of our Design Council Experts

This year we’ve refreshed our Design Council Expert network to include a more diverse range of people from across different demographics and regions. It is still heavily built-environment focused due to the large amount of Design Reviews we do for new housing developments. But in line with the above, we’ve brought in more expertise around sustainability and inclusion. We need to bring in more practice from across the wider design economy: fashion, graphic, materials — as we are uniquely placed to bring together practice from across the design economy.

We’ve started to shift how we work from Experts, from being specialists or advisors on our programmes, to a source of collective intelligence and leadership for the design community. We have been organising bi-monthly communities of learning over the past year or so, covering topics such as design and data ethics, design for supply chain provenance (with Rob Maslin), systemic design (with Dan Letts and Frithjof Wegener) and more recently to explicitly support our Design for Planet mission.

There are a few insights worth highlighting. The first is, of course, what is good for the planet’s health is also good for people’s health, so taking a systemic approach makes sense and achieves multiple benefits. The second is the need to start with a hopeful — and alternative — vision and work back from that, rather than optimising what we are currently doing (Mike Axon gave the great example of ‘Jervon’s paradox’ whereby increasing road capacity only has had the result of putting more cars on the road, and the same can be applied to manufacturing). The third is to start thinking about ecosystem services. If we are serious about designing with nature, it is not just for us to see nature-based solutions as helping us to live with changing climates. There needs to be a value exchange where, for this benefit, we are more explicitly supporting nature that allows us to live on this planet.

· You can read Bernard Hays’ blogs from our two recent DCE community of practice sessions (on inclusive green mobility and designing places with nature)

· You can read the blog on data and design by Laura Melissa Williams, Dr Makayla Lewis, John Flint and Philippa Rose here

Design for Planet

With Minnie Moll, Ed Hobson, Sarah Drummond, Sophie Thomas, Deborah Rey-Burns and a whole host of other amazing designers who spoke at the festival

Design for Planet film — “Putting planet at the heart of the design brief”. Created for us by Epigraph Films.

Design for Planet is our new mission to shift the 1.69m strong UK design community to design for planet. We launched it at Planted, part of the London Design Festival, with three of our Design Council experts talking about how they are designing with nature, and showcased it at the COP26 Blue Zone, with five further experts showing how they are designing the built and natural environment to supporting global communities keep within 1.5 degree temperature rises.

The Design for Planet festival was a brilliant curation of some of the best design inspiration, practice and provocation. There are so many insights and ideas that came out of the 2 days, which we’ve already captured (links below), but this summarises them all:

The scale of what we need to redesign is enormous — both in terms of the shift needed (e.g. we need to reduce our transport use by 86%, we need to get down to buying only 3 new items of clothing per year), and the breadth, as this will impact every aspect of the economy. There are three big areas for design, although these are obviously interlinked.

1. Designing with resilient places, with communities and care. We need to design places that can both adapt and respond to climate change, and do so with communities who are stewards of the nature that helps them live on the planet.

2. Designing for regeneration, with nature. We need to design in a way that doesn’t extract, but regenerates. Circular design, and design for many re-uses. A shift from extractive consumerism, to an economy based on regenerating the gifts of the planet.

3. Designing to make it easy, attractive and inclusive to live sustainably. Design is perhaps the greatest of behaviour change tools, taking new (and ancient) technologies and making them the norm. This needs to be done inclusively and drawing from the imagination of all people.

Three ways in which we’re supporting designers to design for planet

In order for designers to work this way, there are three things we need to support them with:

A. Designers — of all descriptions — need to work more systemically. This means understanding how everything is connected, working at different ‘layers’ of the system (including ‘invisible’ policies, regulations, worldviews, beliefs), changing how you act as an organisation (it starts with yourself!), connecting with others as a wider ecosystem of change, and starting with a hopeful vision. There are many emerging tools, methods and spaces where designers can come together to learn more, and point to other examples of practice.

Last week, we kicked off our Design for Planet fellows programme, bringing together 9 designers from different disciplines to weave together their diverse knowledge on how to design for planet.

B. We need to redefine value, as this will determine what we design. Far from just economic, this needs to cover environmental and social value. Rather than seeing these as separate values, these are often entangled. And we need to think about what value we want in the future, which is often ‘invisible’ and/or undervalued by the current system, such as care, happiness, restfulness. To support designers, we then need to set policies, frameworks and standards around the value that we want to see products, services and places create.

In April, we will start to publish the first findings of our Design Economy research and frameworks, and start a policy enquiry with APDIG.

And soon you can read our pioneering research “The Value of Design to UK Rail Infrastructure” which will outline how rail infrastructure can support the UK’s transition to net-zero.

C. Inclusive imagination. Design for Planet is a justice issue, and designers need to work with marginalised communities to give space for their wisdom and imagination about the future. This is way beyond the co-design workshop, more than creating digital or IRL spaces for people to connect, but also requires a shift in policies that give communities the emotional space to imagine.

Next year, we are starting the next phase of our Design, Differently programme, which is supporting cohorts of community-led design around climate change across the country.

· You can listen to Minnie Moll introducing our Design for Planet mission in the Bold Thinking Podcast and watch our film at the COP26 UK Pavilion Blue Zone here

· You can re-watch all the Design for Planet content here, read the digested festival blog here and Ed Hobson’s reflections here, watch the festival film here.

· You can share the Design for Planet film here

· You can read our update on design, diversity and inclusion here

Questions we’ll be asking throughout:

Finally, some questions that we’ll be asking throughout the next year…

· What is the indigenous wisdom held in our communities and natural landscape, how can we learn from that and support it to grow?

· What do ecosystem services look like and how do we as humans service them?

· How can we create collective and inclusive visions of the future, towards which powerful AI can help transition society?

· What does a new consumerism look like which includes notions of de-growth and experiences that regenerate?

· What does the design system itself need to shift in order to create this change?

If you are interested in any of these questions, please follow us @designcouncil on Twitter or sign up for our newsletter here.



Cat Drew
Design Council

Chief Design Officer at the Design Council, previously FutureGov and Uscreates. Member of The Point People.