Valuing design or ‘We’re going to need a Sherpa’.

Over recent months at Ellis Jones we’ve put some time (read as: red wine and pig’s head sangas) into considering the way in which we, our clients and culture value design. It is a theme that we will explore further through our 2018 design meet ups and return to over coming months.

For commissioners and practitioners alike, pinning value to the etherial and mercurial commodity of creativity can be a tricky business. Take this musing as a precursor. A base camp from which we will trample the terrain, down well worn paths, and over virgin pastures. Learning from each other, and ultimately (we hope) defining the value of our commissions and collaborations. To each other, to the market and to the broader community.

On design output

Since branching from the ‘applied-arts’, design (across its variety of disciplines) has often expressed value in relation to ‘output’. In this context, ‘output’ refers to the spatial, physical, visual or experiential manifestation of content and form. The concrete and the conceptual, synthesised into place, object, or interaction.

And so the question has recurred throughout the last century. Can creativity commissioned in a commercial context, be assessed by the standards of artistic and intellectual achievement? Insight and acuity, originality, technique, balance, universal resonance, or the capacity to move and inspire, these are the hallmarks of the masterpiece.

Is there such a thing as a ‘design masterpiece’? Design is now accepted into and celebrated within the collections of leading galleries globally. This points to the plausibility of such a thing.

An old truism within graphic design states ‘The test of success for a poster, is whether someone steals it’.

Yet surely the ‘fetishising’ of objects, schemes or visual tropes, only serves to fuel their imitation, diluting their brilliance and scarcity. Any ‘design masterwork’ must also be intimately and inextricably linked to the context and purpose of its creation. To disconnect output from purpose is surely to strip any value that a design once possessed.

At which point I expect I will need to bid farewell to design archivists (sorry).

On design process

If designers (and commissioners of design) can’t hang their hat on the irrefutable value of output, perhaps it is process that should be elevated and revered? Facilitated design process, or design thinking, (or co-design, or service design), has many valuable and demonstrable qualities. For example: inspiration, education and up-skilling/cross-skilling of internal teams. Lateral, innovative and market disruptive strategy, models or platforms. Evolving the tools themselves.

And yet, we always return to activating the thinking with output. An app, a campaign, a branded environment or a service experience. Great design process and thinking comes to life through expression and execution. The most finely tuned processes (including those processes that are productised), still drive toward a desired outcome.

Is a decision-making matrix a design outcome? Will we ever see one in a museum? I’m prepared to bet we’ll see the world’s first driverless car in one, and likely it won’t be because of the styling of the bodywork, but as an expression of divergent thought and complex systems.

On design impact

Let’s get out of the weeds. Surely, the true value of design is in the impact that it delivers. Visibility, likes, shares, click-throughs, and sales. Dollars spent, brand awareness and equity increased.

Beyond the immediate economic returns, how does design work to deliver cohesive communities, sustainable environments, inclusive economies and healthy people?

Yet to focus solely on the impact is to risk obscuring the insight, originality, emotive quality of the design output, or equally the innovation, inspiration and education of the process that rendered that output. And so the merry-go-round keeps spinning.

We’ve only just begun…

It isn’t any one of these things. As I mentioned at the outset, this is our question, with which we intend to wrestle over the coming year. We invite you to suit up and jump in the ring with us. Through events, conversations, projects and more. Clients, colleagues, collaborators, and commentators, all are welcome on this trek.

Oh, and we’re going to need a Sherpa.


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