How do we know design has impact?
We’ve recently been exploring the concept of measuring the social impact of design - how we ‘get’ it and why it can be such a critical output from the design process. But how do we actually measure impact, social or otherwise? And should all design even create impact? To explore the topic further, we talk with Piotr Swiatek, Project Manager, and Oliver Sutcliffe, Designer, to learn more.
“Taking a philosophical approach, everything we do or don’t do creates impact,” Piotr begins. “It’s then up to us how we measure and assess what we do. The great design thinker Victor Papanek famously said ‘There are professions more harmful than industrial design, but only a few’. Design has often been accused of negative impact - it produces weapons, it can have built-in obsolescence or critical flaws that affect us - the list goes on. So it’s up to us as designers to make sure design has a good impact.”
There are multiple ways in which design can create impact. First of all, we can think of impact in a business language using numbers - so design can massively impact business performance by creating new sales, and bigger margins and profits. That then translates to opening new markets, creating new jobs or increasing exports.
“But looking deeper into business culture, design can also change internal processes, making them simpler and more effective, and speed up the process of prototyping, testing and bringing new products to market. It can improve employee satisfaction and productivity by creating an internal and external brand image, which can increase customer loyalty and more,” Piotr continues. “These are tangible, measurable ways in which design can impact a business.”
“Design as a process aims to maximise the impact that you’re already trying to create,” Ollie adds. “For example, you could design a rubbish wayfinding system for a city - that still has an impact, albeit negative. But designed with User Centred Design thinking applied to it, design becomes an amplifier to the impact.”
So, all design creates impact - but should it? Can design just be design for design’s sake? “Even design with negative impact goes on to inform future decisions for the better - so you could argue all impact has its role to play!” Ollie states.
“And impact may be challenging to measure, but there are many ways to do it,” Piotr explains. “It can be measured as an industry, and how much gross value it adds to the economy as a whole. It can be measured as a workforce; how many people work, and how productive they are. Awards, registered designs and trademarks are another way to measure it - or how it helps bring new innovations to market. There is also a measure based on direct enquiries to businesses. But because design is such a difficult ‘thing’ to base results on, the ultimate methodology to measure it is still a ‘Holy Grail’ of sorts for design researchers! That’s why impact is very often based on perception but for now, that is probably our best way to measure it.”
Measuring a design’s impact can be subjective based on what you’re trying to build.Ollie Sutcliffe | Graphic Designer | PDR
“And measuring a design’s impact can be subjective based on what you’re trying to build,” Ollie continues. “If you’re developing a service, for example, it could be the success rate of users utilising the service. For a piece of software, it could be the number of mis-clicks made whilst progressing through the system. If the finished product then meets the criteria better than it did before, that’s proof of measuring and addressing impact.”
The wider the impact becomes, the harder it is to quantify and measure it - but we’re still able to perceive and record it. “With our Female Brace project, for example, we worked with the client to produce a better system for users than what was available before, and it’s been designed with user centred thinking. The same can be said for Shield. These products have been designed to improve and replace previous offerings to improve the user’s quality of life - their impact is at once immeasurable yet undeniably obvious.”
So whether it’s through obvious results - increased sales, new enquiries, better customer feedback - or through simply implementing the iterative process of building, refining, and improving a design, impact (positive or otherwise) can always be found.