Value-based Design as a path to Action

Feature Story

Text by Steve Jarvis

(Photo by GoodGym)

Modern life is burdened with so many problems that even when a project succeeds, it can leave one with a sense of rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic. However, there is cause for optimism. As the preceding stories make clear, things get better when people get connected. Professor Kees Dorst helps us to understand this process and its importance.


As a bookend for this three-part investigation into Human-centred Design we talk to Professor Kees Dorst on the subject of designers anchoring their work at the value level, and the key role this form of ‘deep design’ can play in transforming societies. A leading figure in Design theory and its practical application, Dorst’s Frame Innovation methodology offers one promising approach to dealing with the many complex and difficult to solve problems found in modern societies. At its core, Frame Innovation is a problem framingmethodology. Dorst elaborates, “It is not about changing people’s opinions about something, but more about bringing people to a level of common understanding of the deep issues, and helping them to imagine different ways of thinking about the problems being faced.” The critical steps in re-imaging social problems are exploring the values of those connected to the problem. “To get a good grasp at what are the core problems and core values involved we first need a rich understanding of the situation. People have to step away from their roles and preconceived ideas to get closer to the root causes of the problem, rather than just dealing with abstractions and the simplifications that hold the problem in place.” For Kees, “the big question is not what action, but what values are we trying to achieve.” At every stage of design in the stories featured we see clear examples of these processes in action. In the first issue, Signed #22, the central role of studio-L, City Repair, and Waag is to provide a framework to bring groups of people together to communicate what is important to them, and to help them build understanding and agreement on what actions should be taken. Further, all three of these stories identify project ownership as central to their work, spurring those directly affected by a problem to dictate the parameters
of what should be done, and how it should be done. These are fundamental steps in identifying and building uponparticipants’ values. People are drawn
together by concerns such as isolation, alienation, or the need to cope with technological and social change. Such serious and complex problems may not be solvable, but participating in the social design process is a pathway to sharing deeply held values, and offers significant potential to make a positive
contribution. We need look no further than the activities highlighted in the subsequent issues, Signed #23 and #24, to see the VALUES power of designing from deep human values come to the fore. Projects such as Bakery Simplicity and Life Café have the explicit objective of almost unconsciously bringing participants to a level of deep discussion of very personal matters and firmly held beliefs. In this sense, the baking process and the café’s discussion artefacts are just tools that allow the act of value expression and deep reflection to take place. For other projects, such as GreenKayak’s fostering appreciation
of the environment, these deeper human values are something to be nurtured and spread from the act of participation. Likewise, with GoodGym,
the act of giving, even if motivated by self-interest, generates enthusiasm for selflessly contributing to building community and overcoming social


(Photo by Street Debater)

The stories featured in these threeissues are proving effective because they identify and creatively address the root causes of the problems they face. Whether it is a solo design effort, such as Eatwell, or community design efforts as with studio-L, listening, accepting, and putting people’s primary concerns at the centre of all action is the common trait uniting the stories. This process of identifying what is important is the central building block for Dorst’s Frame
Innovation process, where the core ACTION values and concerns of a problem’s stakeholders are subsequently distilled into themes. In turn, these themes serve as the guiding points for re-thinking problems in a different context and creating a “new frame” of understanding or question to solve, that can then be applied to the original problem. Dorst notes, “Reframing issues gives people a chance to move forward, by acknowledging the reality of what needs to be done to meet the needs of the situation.” A pithy example of Frame Innovation can be found in the story of Street Debater, Signed #23, which identified
the deep human values of restoring dignity and increasing social inclusion as the guiding principles to tackle homelessness and poverty. With Street Debater the conventional frame of ‘beggars on the street being viewed with suspicion’ is turned on its head, as engaging people in conversation becomes a job, even a public service, after being reframed. This answer was not reached overnight, but required immersion in the situation—literally, Tomo Kihara became a street beggar, and rounds of iterative improvement to align the values and expectations of homeless people and those simply going about their daily business on the
streets. In terms of Frame Innovation, the problem changed from how do we get people to give money to homeless, to how do we effectively engage passersby in meaningful conversations.


(Photo by Empathy Toy)

Frame Innovation is like taking a holiday from understanding how we think a problem works, and it holds the possibility for such creative abstractions to generate fresh approaches to serious problems ailing society. But what can it tell us about driving deeper and more widespread social change? In his own work with the Designing Out Crime Research Centre, based in Sydney, Australia, Dorst has seen
the weight of numbers of projects help to build a broad consensus for implementing positive social change. Commenting on Design’s potential, he says, “What you need are really good projects, ones that reflect the reality of the problem being addressed. You need a lot of these projects, and they need to be based on a set of values that resonate with all the stakeholders.” Dorst is adamant that designing
projects is a means to a destination, and not an end in itself. “To change the practices in an organisation you need to change the strategy in the organisation, and change the structure of the organisation if that is necessary, and you may want to change the way the whole sector functions.” Realising such broad-based change is no easy task. “The problem is, the steps between strategy and practice don’t work well, because strategy tends to be determined top down, and designers, with all their insights and experience, are coming from the bottom up.” Dorst argues that having “projects that show that things can be done differently, reinforced by a new underlying narrative are critical elements that can kick start a top-down rethink and usher in a fresh strategic vision. The power of this argument was made clear with the case of City Repair, Signed #22, which started with asingle neighbourhood coming together to paint their intersection as a way to reinvigorate neighbourly relations. While the ensuing years has seen it grow into a city-wide movement actively engaging citizens to build a
people-friendly lived environment, its growth was as much orchestrated as it was organic. Persuasively putting their case to city government not only allowed City Repair to initially escape punishment for flouting city bylaws, they simultaneously created powerful allies that could smooth the path for the expansion of their activities and influence the direction of city planning and development. It is a profound development that could have only been hoped for in the earliest days of City Repair. In the words of co-founder Mark Lakeman, City Repair is not about, “building stuff, they are building relationships.....The process is the goal.”



(Photo by Empathy Toy)

When asked about the future of social design and how designers can adapt, Dorst responds: “For effective social design, designers need to understand what is the social space, the space where you find and build on things in common. Even when people come from very different perspectives they may still have the
same human values, so going to this value level builds commonality. If you don’t deal with values, then you are basically stuck in negotiating competing
interests, and you end up in a compromise between them. Sometimes this can be good enough, it can have solutions, but it is not changing things
deeply.” Design is commonly understood as something you do as a project with defined and manageable goals. However, as Design is moving into more
complex and social areas, its role will require thinking beyond just being about projects. Kees argues that “Projects don’t change the world. It is about
doing projects to create the evidence from which you can have these broader discussions. But this means you have to be able to function on a strategic level,
and have the capacity to restructure the story that the sector tells itself about MESSAGE how the sector functions, and basically attack the paradigm in the whole sector.” Such profound changes take time, but building alliances between key stakeholders and connecting key projects on a foundation of shared
values is a positive step in this direction. Dorst leaves us with a caution for budding social designers. “Traditionally, design processes and projects are
carried out in close collaboration with a client, who brings in a lot of the expertise and a lot of the knowledge. They also question your assumptions
all the time, they are difficult, but that is their role. But in social design you often work for an indistinct client or “for society,” so there is nobody having the
role of injecting necessary knowledge, questioning assumptions or providing critical reflection. So often the bad social design projects you see have got that way because there were no processes in place to weed out naïve assumptions and weaker ideas. Design needs to be much more respectful and sensitive to allow expertise from other fields to come in.” While aspiring designers are coming of age in an exciting time of boundless possibilities, it is also necessary
to reflect on our responsibilities as designers. Dorst leaves us with a parting exhortation. “There is an opportunity for Design to move into an important new role in societal change. But it is also a huge challenge to Design. We have to get this right. And we have no time to lose.”