By WiT, Feb 27 2014 03:50PM

First posted October 2012 - John Mitchell

Is it just me, or is the current hype around ‘design’ and public services (see for example the Design Council’s recent tweets about their Design Leadership Programme ) just a load of – in Malcolm Tucker’s memorable words – ‘honk about shite’?

It’s as if the last thirty years or more never happened. Suddenly there is a design bandwagon, rapidly developing into a new orthodoxy, with commercial firms, academics, publishers, and other agencies all climbing on board, wanting a piece of the action. It is fast becoming an industry, presenting itself as something novel, to create its own marketing niche. But is there anything new in this ‘design’ approach? We, alongside community and political activists, innovators in the public and third sectors, creative practitioners, artists, facilitators and trades unionists have been experimenting and grappling for years with many of the approaches now forming this new orthodoxy – user-centred design, whole system thinking, making visible, prototyping (action research?), interdisciplinary collaboration, capacity building. Perhaps what is new, is the frequent de-politicising and individualising of this rich tradition – stripping it of discussions around power, collective action, inequalities or class – as people with little or no real interest in or commitment to public service, and no critique of the inherent narrow professional elitism of design culture, see possibilities of lucrative and high profile work at public expense.

To be fair, there has been some great and highly influential work done by some of the early exponents of the design approach. The former school-works for example, did some fantastic pioneering projects, which were an inspiration to us for our work alongside schools in the Building Schools for the Future programme. There are undoubtedly skilled and committed people out there making a real difference: and there is much to be welcomed in the approach and practice of ‘transformation design’ – but is it being overplayed and over hyped? It is often being sold as the magic silver bullet that will solve the almost intractable problems faced by the public sector in the current political and economic climate. It is often suggesting that there are quick and easy solutions to these messy and difficult problems, while those of us who have been in there, getting our hands dirty over the years know that far deeper, and more radical whole system interventions are needed, both in how people are collectively and individually engaged, and in the reframing and searching for possible solutions.

I wonder how long it will be before the bandwagon moves on to the next new fad or fashion?

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