Solutions from a double diamond
Ruth Flood soon learnt that research at the design council starts small then grows to provoke questions
Who needs design? Well, if the Design Council is to be believed we all do - we just might not know it yet. So its role is to alert us to its relevance to business and public services alike. In recent years it has restructured to do exactly that, and is campaigning for the good use of design.
The organisation currently has four campaign areas: manufacturing, technology, learning environments and design skills. The Red team, meanwhile, its pioneering research and development unit, focuses on applying design thinking to challenging territories such as citizenship, obesity and chronic disease management.
As part of the restructure, the Design Council has invested in a newly augmented Research and Information Team, headed by Ruth Flood. The team carries out research that supports each campaign's discreet and specific work, but also manages a suite of corporate research projects.
Corporate projects highlight the benefits of good design in business and in the public sector, though the latter is an area under development where Ruth hopes to conduct some innovative qualitative research. It may be that this involves some kind of collaborative consultation forum with senior civil servants.
Ruth moved to the Design Council almost ten months ago and now heads a three-strong research team - the other two being a research officer and an information officer. Her annual research budget on the corporate side alone is between £150,000 and £200,000, with money for individual 'campaigning' projects negotiated on top with each internal team/client.
She has an agency background, joining from Opinion Leader Research. Previously she worked at PriceWaterhouseCoopers and before that at UMS in her native Belfast. So why the move? "I wanted to go client side," she says. "I was getting frustrated with research, of losing control once the work was carried out and handed back to the client. I wanted to know that what I was doing was making an impact."
Ruth seems to have been granted her wish as her team's work intertwines with all that happens at the Design Council. In the last ten months alone they've commissioned: a ground breaking design industry study reviewing its profile, size, skill base and key challenges, a study of public perceptions of design, and business research measuring the contribution that design makes to business - all of which are still to launch, so the team have a busy summer and autumn ahead.
Campaign support has included a poll of teachers' opinions on their learning environments, a review of business support through mentoring by experienced designers and desk research on design and obesity.
Ruth says that design is very research friendly, with user research traditionally a component of the prototyping and development of products and services. At the Design Council research is used in the development of the campaign offers. Each campaign uses a 'double diamond' methodology that looks at an existing issue, system or service and then considers in what ways design might help improve the situation. Consideration is then given to potential solutions that can be prototyped.
The Red team is certainly one of the most interesting dimensions to the Design Council. Its pioneering work around the co-creation concept, particularly applied to health services, has led to two very interesting projects with Primary Care Trusts in Kent and Bolton. In Kent, the team is using a design approach to help people stay active in later life, and in Bolton it is using the same design-centred technique to help people live well with diabetes.
In each of these cases the Red team designers work as on the ground researchers and ethnographers, seeking to understand the issues with the services being delivered and the experience that patients have. Ruth offers the Design Council's Skills Campaign as another good example of how the research team works. "Internally we did some qualitative work, interviewing Deans and senior academics at both design and business schools," she says. "We tried to understand how design schools teach business skills and also how business schools tend to teach design skills - if at all."
The Skills Campaign's argument is that design is a strategic business tool and should be taught as such so that managers of the future will use design strategically in their organisations. Ruth's team conducted depths which they developed into a questionnaire that is now in the field with an external agency. The results should make interesting reading.
All research ensures that the Skills campaign has access to good baseline data for how design skills are taught in both arenas, on which they can then base recommendations for change and development. This style of research - starting out small and contemplative, then expanding to provoke questions and solutions - is one that works very well at the Design Council, and helps to prove its case that design is a crucial component to the economic success of the UK.
Managing Director, RF Associates
This article was first published in InBrief magazine, July 2005
Copyright © Association for Qualitative Research, 2005