‘Designers are everything… and nothing’: Remaking the place of Design in research


Maria Portugal | Comms and Design Specialist

India Roche | Service Design Specialist

The Dartington Service Design Lab was commissioned by Save the Children UK to co-design a Toolkit to support place-based efforts to improve children’s early learning outcomes. Our team included experts in child development, evidence-based practice, system-change, and design. Maria Portugal and India Roche reflect on their views as designers developing the Toolkit across different contexts and audiences.

The challenge that designers often face in a multidisciplinary process, such as the making of the Early Learning Toolkit, is less about applying their technical skills and more about discovering how to define and fulfil their role in contrast to those from other disciplines and backgrounds. In the context of the Toolkit, we sat both inside and outside of the research process - being simultaneously ‘everything and nothing’. For us, the process entailed:

  1. being generalist and specialist: we had to find ways of knowing, and learning from, the diverse range of knowledge and experiences presented by Save and the site practitioners, whilst shaping a product that could go on to be used in other places at other times, and be personalisable for may different teams. 

  2. working with and for clients and stakeholders: it was crucial that we addressed the power dynamics between ‘us’ as the external experts and the people living, working, and expert in the places we were. 

  3. designing as a practitioner and as a researcher: we implemented experimental user-centred approaches that are frequently not explored in science and context-based projects

When developing the Early Learning Toolkit we also shifted to working as facilitators - supporting others within the process to express their views - and as enablers, creating the environment for stakeholders (including professionals and parents) to become designers themselves. This concept is well-known as ‘diffuse design’, where the role of the designer becomes the creator of an environment, whereby all of the creativity and expertise is shared amongst many within a project process.


“Creating the environment for stakeholders to become designers themselves”


But how much input do designers have in this shift? They have  to introduce new tools and ideas that may be unfamiliar, giving those involved within a project both permission and strategies to take a role in design. More than that we want the mindset shift this involves to outlive the immediatev project, and renain as a capacity within the team, or community, which will go on working when we are gone. 

The emergence of what is being designed actually supports this shift, and lasting change. As something tangible begins to emerge those involved in the design research process can see their thoughts, ideas and experiences come to life. The designers’ ability to visualise and communicate work is essential in demonstrating what has been created in an accessible and engaging way- turning intangible thoughts into tangible outputs. 


Turning intangible thoughts into tangible outputs

The Toolkit is a synthesis of knowledge, creativity, experience and interpretation gathered from a wide range of stakeholders. This was then shaped by the designers, before being given back to those who originally contributed to it. It is now possible for readers of the Toolkit to see their knowledge, and that of other collaborators, put into a useable and practical form. The visual diagrams and processes within the Toolkit show both how valuable design can be in re-framing and developing knowledge, but also in continuing to empower Toolkit users to employ new methods and practices within their own work.

The Toolkit demonstrated the value of working in a multi-disciplinary way; where designers worked side by side with researchers and project contributors throughout, as opposed to research and insights being handed to them only at the stage when final outputs were required. Through this immersive involvement, the value of a designer in helping the research process and the project outputs to evolve was evident. 

By supporting synthesis, testing and iteration of the Toolkit, we designers were able to help the team to balance the needs of Save the Children UK, the wider stakeholders in each of the places we worked, and the ultimate end users. This marriage of scientific and creative approaches made new tools and ways of thinking accessible and practical for those we were working with- sharing the benefits and methods of bringing evidence and people together to ultimately improve the lives of children and families.

ReflectionBLOGMaria, India