How design achieves impact – new publication

Building a sense of community in an organisation is the most important factor for success in design-led projects in the public and third sectors. Community building accompanied by training in design thinking methods and supportive leadership are the key elements that enable organisations to develop and change. These are the central findings from a six-month study of design-led projects conducted by Open Change’s Hazel White and Joyce Yee from Northumbria University, published in the latest issue of the International Journal of Design.

This is the first major study of design-led projects in the public and third sectors that focuses on quantifying impact, and the conditions that foster it. Six projects were examined in England, Scotland and Australia, involving interviews with twenty-six individuals including designers, commissioners and service users. The projects spanned youth support, mental health, child protection and social care. While research has been conducted on conditions to maximise design impact in industry and commerce – highlighting issues such as design briefing and cross-department collaboration – research had yet to focus attention on the public and third sectors. Our study fills this gap and provides practitioners and commissioners with some vital insights to help strengthen the value of design interventions.

Community building – fostering strong and successful relationships based on trust – was by far the most important condition for impact. Trust builds a shared understanding between those involved, and continual communication between the team is necessary to alleviate the anxiety many clients have in engaging with a new approach. This is part of the relationship building process and it is important that the organisation be willing and committed to the project from start to end. A key part of this is storytelling – bringing users’ experiences into the heart of the design process and helping teams to focus on a shared understanding and vision. Community building based around common objectives enables champions of change to emerge at all levels in the organisation and a shared language to be used. The study also revealed the value of early prototyping in building a community – demonstrating the value of design-led change early on – and importantly engaging the community in doing design.

Building capacity and skills is essential to help develop the mindset to embrace change, and to best use the tools of change. Infusing project teams – and the wider community – with design literacy and the ability to use and adapt design tools flexibly, enables the culture and capacity of change to extend beyond the duration of specific projects. Most significantly, this creates an atmosphere of openness to encourage a culture of ideas rather than a culture of risk management.

Leadership structure and style has an impact on creativity and innovation, as many studies have established. Vision, strategy, commitment and clear direction of resources are a consequence of effective leadership. But perhaps the most significant finding from our study on the distinctive nature of design-led change in the public and third sectors are the values that are conducive to enabling community building, capacity and leadership. A culture of openness is a vital indicator of an organisation’s receptivity to change and in the initial stages of building trust and a sense of community. Commitment to being a learning organisation, one that is constantly reflecting and sharing to help it learn from its actions, is fundamental to maintaining business relevance and making progress. And finally, ownership and commitment need to be in place throughout the organisation.

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Above all, what this research suggests is that beyond leadership and capacity, ‘community building’ is valued as the most important condition for innovation and change projects in the public and third sectors. Putting people, the commissioners, service providers, and users at the heart of the process has led to the greatest impact. In contrast to design-led approaches in business, where strong leadership can propel a design-led vision forward, in the public and third sector, a bottom up approach, through the creation of communities, is what enables a design-led approach to have the greatest impact.