Isn’t change exciting!

Change is good. Design is all about change; bringing something into the world that didn’t exist before; changing from an undesirable to a desirable state of affairs; improvement; progress! And now we are even Changing the Change!

I can hardly contain myself with excitement, but I’ll try.

In a day from now a conference starts in Torino, Italy called Changing the Change. It’s an international meeting of people involved in design research. I would have loved to be there but alas my proposal for a paper was not accepted. Hardly surprising for two good reasons: my proposal was cobbled together just after I came out of hospital having had half my liver removed, so I was not at my most lucid; also I suspect that I am regarded as coming from the dark side, especially with the title I gave my proposed paper:

Changing from panacea to prosthesis:
methods and thinking for designing IN the world

Doesn’t sound very exciting, does it? The implication is clear. Far from being the new frontier of bold new visions, leading to a better world, my vision of designing is much humbler, a sort of Mr Fix It, a handyman, a travelling tinker.

As I see it, the job of a designer is at worst to paper over the crack in the system, and at best to provide a temporary prosthesis for a broken bit of the world. A long way from the vision splendid and the excitement of Changing the Change.

There is no doubt that there is much in our world that many of us would like to change. Design comes at the end of a long line of attempts to do so: philosophy, religion, politics, war, science, management and a few others have all been championed at one time or another as the agents of change, ushering in a new era and a better world. Will design work better?

Walter Benjamin once observed:

There is no document of civilisation which is not at the same time a document of barbarism. (Walter Benjamin, Illuminations, p 248)

Design could easily be the new barbarism. But with a little care it might not be, and might make a genuine, if modest, contribution to a better world. To achieve it, designers need to do something that they don’t do now: benchmarking.


Benchmarking is that part of the design process where you ask how an existing system is performing against agreed performance requirements set at the scoping stage of the design process. Putting the matter simply, if you change something and then claim that the change is an improvement, you need to have some before and after measurements.
As I wrote in one of our case histories:

Much design work…… is redesign rather than design from scratch. An important part of redesign is to ask: where are we right now? what is the current performance of this design? what is happening in the world now which we don’t want to happen, or we’d like to change? where do we want to go? what do we want to achieve here? It doesn’t matter if we change our mind at some point, but if we don’t know where we currently are and where we want to go, we won’t know when we’ve arrived.
Often in design projects the urge to get ahead and redevelop doesn’t leave space for actually asking those questions. But benchmarking is an essential stage…. [I]t’s only after one has done the scoping and benchmarking that one is in a position to write the design brief at all. Also, there is a sense in which all design activity is generative; that is, it leads to outcomes that none of us foresee-it opens things up and provides new possibilities. This is why benchmarks are so important-they guide us through the processes and possibilities: we know we’ve got there if we know where we were going to begin with, and we’ll know if we change direction because we knew where we started from.
As well, benchmarks make great before-and-after politically potent stories: ‘When we started it was like this, but look at it now-it’s great’. You can only do this if you benchmark.

So I’m all in favour of change, even Changing the Change. But we need to know what we are changing from. Moreover, we should not assume that everything done up till now has been wrong and that only radical transformation or revolution can solve our current ‘problems’. Unless we look carefully at what we are doing now before making change, we might throw out some good bits.

I suspect that many designers, like the practioners in other disciplines that have gone before, are excited by change for the sake of change, believing, without any evidence, that the changes they make will make all the difference. I prefer to proceed more carefully even if it means being a tinker rather than a master of the universe. But it would have been nice to be in Torino to say so. I hope someone does.