In the last two decades design has grown to include many new practices. The traditional understanding of design as simply an aesthetic practice has been challenged.

Today design informs the strategies of major organisations – it is being used to create innovative services, address social issues, even to shape better public services and policymaking.

But this rapid transformation of the design profession is not fully appreciated throughout Europe and all sectors of industry. So design institutions, academics and designers themselves are making a considerable effort to promote this transition by providing evidence, developing pilot projects and organising training and sharing initiatives.

As part of this effort, three new ways of discussing the changing identity of design have arisen:

1. Expanding the scope of design

Modern concerns such as the economic downturn, our ageing population and climate change have proven too complex to be solved by a single answer. This has opened the doors for the multi-disciplinary approach design can offer.

The now famous Design Orders model by Richard Buchanan depicts the evolution of design from graphics and product design to service, experience and system design.

Design Orders diagram by Richard Buchanan

Similarly the Design Ladder model, proposed by the Danish Design Centre and elaborated in the Design for Public Good report, describes a shift from operational to strategic design roles that address both business and social issues.

The Public Sector Design Ladder (Design for Public Good)

In its findings the study defines three main stages of applying design to the public sector, from using a design intervention as a one-off solution to a problem, towards developing in-house design capabilities within organisations, and finally establishing the use of design at a strategic and systemic level.

2. Design’s contribution to innovation

Another way of discussing the growing role of design is through the concept of Design Thinking. Rooted in studies of the way design practitioners think and work, this concept has been taken-up by management in many different fields looking for alternative approaches to change and innovation. It is typified by the idea that designers have an outlook based on creativity and invention that is best-placed to challenge status quo. Similarly the design approach is valued as collaborative method of problem-solving, that encourages practical solutions and based on experimentation – an ideal set of characteristics for finding solutions to our complex modern problems.

3. The pervasive nature of design

It has long been recognised that designing is a very common human activity. In 1969 Herbert Simon had already noted that:

Anyone is a designer who devises courses of action to turn an existing situation into a preferred one.

This description helps reposition design as a practice that is already implemented in very diverse settings by a very diverse set of professions. Policymaking has been the latest sector to be described as a design process, as it generates new policies that aim to turn existing situations into preferred ones. As argued by Sabine Junginger, associating policymaking with design opens up the question of how design thinking might inform the very practice of government itself.