Review: (Social) Service Design at the RCA

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Image taken from ‘Urban Recipes: a citizen engagement project in Bath’ by Iban Benzal

Although the main intention of this Mapping Social Design project has been to assess the state of research in social design, we have also met an unavoidable, recurring question about the state of teaching in social design. So I was interested to see what the students of the UK’s first service design MA (at the Royal College of Art) have been up to, as evidenced by their final degree show, on this week at the Royal College.

And already we come to a definitional hurdle. The course is labelled service design (and service design and social design are not necessarily one and the same), but then again pretty much every student here has delivered a final project with an overtly social or sustainability agenda, so it’s hard to see what the difference would be. It may as well be an exhibition of social design projects.

Actually this emphasis on deploying design for good is – and I asked – very much the choice of the students, rather than the direction of the course tutors. Which reinforces something I have suspected for a while: that we are in the midst of a flood of graduates who, raised in the shadow of climate change and economic recession, have a very different idea about what they want to do with their design skills. This in itself has huge (and hopefully positive) implications.

So to the content of the show… The quality of the projects was high, as one would expect from the RCA. The solutions were carefully argued and, of course, beautifully presented. However as the purpose of our work here is to think about futures for social design, and as I’m sure the students and the course directors won’t mind a little constructive feedback, I have a few observations.

First: there is an emerging – perhaps already dominant – ‘service design’ aesthetic. I’m talking about the very clean, ‘finished’ look that I suspect comes from product design, and those animations with dinky little tunes explaining how much happier Eric the nurse is now that he’s a part of (insert social design initiative here). You might ask, ‘why does it matter if they all have the same look and feel?’ But the problem is not the consistency, rather the style itself. It implies a level of finishedness that certainly exists in relation to products, but rarely does in relation to services, systems, organisations, or the lives of people. These things are, to use design terminology, in perpetual beta. It feels as though in the race to present completed projects – that can hold their own aesthetically alongside the high grade design work of other RCA departments – the natural ambiguity of this kind of design has been glossed over, all loose ends tied up.

Second, and relatedly, there is sometimes a hint here of too much idealism and too little reality, or too little awareness of the precarious ethics of making social interventions. Is there something slightly unnerving about a room full of neat and tidy utopian scenarios? Where is the abovementioned messiness of real life? And is it risky to unleash people with an obsession for designing on an unsuspecting public, without first making them jump through the hoops that a sociology/ psychology/ anthropology degree would? Although it may not be meant in a sinister way, such sentiments as ‘I like designing relationships between people’ can (just as ‘social design’ itself has some uncomfortable connotations) sound quite alarming in the hands of intelligent graduates from an elite institution with all the social capital that entails. Is this a misplaced sense of confidence and authority? And where is the critical awareness of the failed social experiments of design (certainly architectural) history?

Much more comfortable (less ethically fraught) were projects where the designer was taking on the functioning of a system rather than fiddling with the lives of people. ‘Disclosed’ was one such. Bordering on design activism, it’s a service that tells shoppers to what extent the products on supermarket shelves match their own values: is it British grown, does it have locally recyclable packaging, etc. It reminded me of another project by a previous RCA (although from a different course) graduate project: Jessi Baker’s ‘Provenance’, which seeks to create transparency about the origin and supply chains of the things we buy. This to me feels like a good target for critical design thinking – in effect trying to undo some of the mess that design has done elsewhere in the world, in the service of the Great God Capitalism.

This also raises a point we’ve been discussing in the team and with our advisory board about the nature of ‘the social designer’, should such a person exist. In Jessi’s case, one has the impression that it’s the cause that motivates her, and her identity as a designer is a means to an end. Truly good work is unlikely to be project-based, but the result of long engagement with a context. I don’t know what this means for university teaching, which is necessarily project-based. But one can see how the service design MA might be a really valuable catalyst for people with some life and career experience already under their belt.

Finally, in general, I felt the most convincing projects, the most likely to be in some way sustainable, were those that worked to enhance an existing system/ organisation, or help bring out a latent social innovation. (Here I find myself coming down very much on the side of Ezio Manzini et al of the DESIS network.) Those projects that were largely the invention of the student, or relied on entirely new configurations of people, organisations and resources – even when they were great ideas – seemed least likely to make it to real implementation. Perhaps that’s not a criteria that should be applied to student design projects? But then again, what was exciting about the show as a whole was the possibility that some of these ideas might really be put to work.

Certainly I can’t fault the enthusiasm and commitment of the students to their ideas, and it will be very interesting to track where the alumni of this course go in the next few years.

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2 Responses to Review: (Social) Service Design at the RCA

  1. Pingback: Open these: links for open policy makers (week 5) | Open Policy Making

  2. Pingback: Consume with care | Joss.Bailey

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