So close yet.. far apart

On first thought, design and economics may appear to have little to no relation at all. Infact, design is still viewed as a tool of creativity, colours and emotions with little regard to its more philosophical roots. When I discussed the idea of a Design and Economics Unconference with friends and family, I received remarks of confusion and uncertainty. As a designer myself, however, I am aware that design is constantly pushed as being a valuable strategic business resource and is much more than a decorative tool. I appreciate the role of design as being a strategic and planning instrument and above all, a focus on creating change, resulting in the well-being of our lives. 

When we begin to unpack this idea, we might see how the functioning of something, in this case, the economy, is closely linked with how it is designed. This could move us away from the idea that economics only deals with money, statistics and numbers and closer to one where the economy is seen as a system aimed at improving the well-being of those that it provides for. 

Often with businesses and management, strategies for growth, innovation and revenue are not seen as an output of employing and managing design. It stems from the idea that design and business are in fact two very different disciplines further emphasizing the missing piece of design education – collaboration. You usually find collaboration in the same realm where designers of different disciplines will work together. This can deliver fine outputs and experiences and even underpin methods of learning. However, the epistemological questions for every discipline relating to how problems are approached, research is conducted and solutions are evaluated are unique to the disciplines. A designer’s positionality then becomes of greater importance where they must be sensitive to their own epistemological positions when collaborating with others. This also allows for creativity and inspiration, something that designers usually seek from the outside world. Looking beyond the boundaries of your own disciplines offers the potential to gain insights from different perspectives – something that the post-growth economy can benefit from. 

So, what is it that designers can learn from economists and what are the similarities and differences that draw these professionals together? My first thoughts about this are ‘forward thinking’. Something that both economists and designers do is to look at trends and how things could be and draw conclusions from observations in the system around them. Dieter Rams had once said that design should be as discreet as an English butler. Good design is not noticed, but only the lack of it is. The same thing can be said for the economy that deals with financial regulation. Designers and economists perhaps face the conflict of serving the outside world with a sustainable long-term achievement whilst trying to fulfill their own short-term profits. But while the two are not mutually exclusive there are smaller ideas that designers can learn from economists. The first is conducting thorough research. As designers, it is tempting to delve straight into the problem because our first instinct is to find a solution. But economists are trained to go into everything by starting off a thorough research which helps them to gain comprehensive knowledge about the issue and provides a better background analysis. Within design, this research helps to break down barriers of assumptions that we make and identify behaviours and attitudes of customers.

The second is about considering other and bigger factors. Economists deal with a concept known as multicollinearity. This means that multiple factors can influence a result or outcome. As well as multiple factors, there can also be multiple outcomes – leading to unintended consequences. Economists can forecast the effects of their decisions using tools such as the general equilibrium model – which read the behaviour of demand, supply and markets. This involves the account of the entire system rather than a user focused approach. This approach within design would mean that design moves away from being focused on a group of people to considering how solutions affect the larger systems. Solving customer problems without the intention to take responsibility for the worsening or improving of societal problems is futile and not a way forward. 

On the other end, designers are forward with their human-centred approach when tackling problems. Good design begins with the people that we design for and so much of good design is based on bringing convenience and change into our own lives. Economists may be able to address societal issues better by listening to what the people have to say. It can help avoid the fundamental attribution error, which happens when the behaviour of others is explained from assumptions rather than detailed knowledge itself. The book Poor Economics: A Radical Rethinking of the Way to Fight Global Poverty is based on a similar thinking and advocates for the fact that the battle against poverty can be one if we take the time to understand poverty and listen to the poor. Furthermore, good design is a direct result of storytelling. Brands use effective narratives and stories to sell promising designs and connect with users emotionally. Bigger brands such as Disney have mastered the art of letting stories and narratives communicate the value of their products to their customers. If this was to be used within economists, they could connect with the people that policies are made communication around such policies is framed can determine whether people support them. Finally it is how multimedia can be employed to deal with the ramifications of policy decisions so people feel like they are made in interest of them. 

Ultimately, empathy and practicality embedded in our work adds more value to the lives of people and the systems in which they exist. There is still so much more we are yet to learn about the nexus between design and economics – but the fundamentals such as why these fields are relevant might help answer bigger questions, post-growth.