Measuring the value of design. That old chestnut.

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In February the Glasgow School of Art opened the doors of its new building for a day-long conference on ‘The Value of Design’, as part of the AHRC’s Cultural Value project. This was an expert workshop aiming to aggregate knowledge on how design generates and delivers value, and what kind of value is generated and delivered through design; and to identify methodologies and approaches for capturing the value of design. The ultimate aim was to somehow articulate design’s value, and therefore refine the scope for measuring the impact of design. As participants, we were set two questions for the day’s debate:

  1. What are the portfolio of benefits generated by design?
  2. What are the new measures that evidence the contribution of design?

This topic seems to be rather in vogue: another AHRC project at Northumbria University is also right now looking at ‘Identifying and Mapping Design Impact and Value’. In fact, discussion about how to measure and quantify the impact of design runs through design history. Some conversations at GSA felt timeworn, with questions like, ‘how do we know what is good and bad design?’ echoing back to the Council of Industrial Design’s ‘Good design means good business’ mantra of the post-war era. There was a distinct sense that this was well-trod ground – and perhaps a hint of reluctance or weariness on the part of some participants to be going over it again.

Interestingly, we emphatically stayed away from design-as-object-producing, and talked mainly about the implementation of design in other contexts. In their introductions, the convenors outlined various projects Glasgow School of Art has been working on, most of which were not traditional subjects for design. Examples included Scott and Fyfe (innovation platform at the textiles company which uses a ‘design of the slice’ management structure), CHIASMA (AHRC knowledge exchange hub investigating health and well-being), Fujitsu (social housing project) and research with the Scottish government into changing behaviours around physical activity. As one participant observed, this positions design in an ‘interpreting role’. Quantifying and measuring this role was presented as a challenge.

It wasn’t clear by the end of the day how far this challenge had been addressed. We had certainly come up with a long list of wonderful things that design might be able to do – with one or two dissenting voices arguing that most of the attributes identified were not unique to design. (Having a few other disciplines/ expert groups in the mix might have restrained the tendency to design evangelism.)

However the stumbling block was possibly something more fundamental about the way the question had been posed. The AHRC in this context are trying to quantify the value of ‘design’ alongside other cultural products like ‘art’, ‘theatre’, etc. Unless they meant design as a noun (and this group certainly didn’t interpret it as such), this is a category error. Design doesn’t have an intrinsic measurable ‘value’ in the way that art might – but generates value in the context it’s working in, according to that context. Design can make concentration camps, propaganda, sleeker mobile phones, better prosthetic limbs or more user-friendly public services – in all cases we can measure the value and impact of the end result, and by relation the value of the process (of design). But in the abstract it loses all sense, like asking ‘what is the value of a change process’? Value here is something that’s impossible to measure in the absence of content.

So the answer to question 1, ‘what are the portfolio of benefits generated by design?’ is probably: ‘there are as many benefits as contexts’.

But what about question 2: ‘what are the new measures that evidence the contribution of design?’

One answer might be: measuring the value generated by design (impact) doesn’t necessarily have to be special or different to measuring the impact of anything else. There are plenty of established ways of measuring outcomes, and impact, which don’t need reinventing. Admittedly, it can be difficult to separate out the specific contribution of design in a change process, an interesting challenge which would benefit from some research, grounded in practice. But if designers are seeking to demonstrate the value they achieve through their work, they just need to get a lot more comfortable with the rigour of evaluation. This means, from the outset, having a theory of change: knowing what resources you have, deciding what you will do with them, predicting what that will produce in terms of products and resulting outcomes, and what wider impact you hope will be achieved. Then, at key stages in a change process, or at the end, one can measure progress against that theory of change. If you refuse to articulate this at the outset of a project, measuring the value generated at the end will of course be difficult.

To come back to the question of why we keep having these conversations about value and design – it’s possible that, culturally, design has a problem with committing in this way. Establishing such groundwork for evaluation, articulating a theory of change, might seem to close down the exploratory nature of (at least the initial stages of) a design process, and therefore be either simply unpalatable to designers, or even obstructive to the nature of their work.

Indeed there is quite a lot of literature/ design research/ history that has already sought to establish why design appears to be so resistant to value-based assessments, including our very own Guy Julier’s book ‘Design and Creativity: Policy, Management and Practice’ (written with Liz Moor, 2009), which addressed this question in a number of chapters. And there are lots of studies (in sociology, geography etc) that have looked at the value of design from a specific angle and thrown up some interesting answers. The Cultural Value Project should build on these foundations, digging further into particular contexts, rather than hoping for one abstract formula to cover all eventualities.

A joint post by Leah Armstrong and Jocelyn Bailey

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