Scottish designers lead the way in designing social change


by Kathleen McLaughlin

A new breed of designer is emerging in Scotland.  In the midst of public sector cuts they are showcasing the value of giving local citizens a voice.  But how can design tools and methods be used to create a positive social change?

As part of the legislative programme of the Conservative – Liberal Democrat coalition agreement, the ‘Big Society’ proclamation declared its intention “to create a climate that empowers local people and communities, building a big society that will take power away from the politicians and give it to the people.”

However, service designers in the UK have already been impressively pioneering such a movement for some years and are leading discussions with both the government and general public alike in how to implement creative action which can transform our daily experiences with public services.

Most people think of designers as creating tangible products such as chairs, a dress or packaging. Instead service designers challenge the role of design within the public sector by placing design thinking at the heart of the service process.

Recent Scottish design graduates Sarah Drummond and Lauren Currie are not only part of this new movement towards a social conscience, but are firmly in the driver’s seat in Scotland (and indeed internationally) in their quest to change attitudes to the way we experience public services.

“Our job is not only to understand what is going on inside people’s heads, but to find ways of getting that thinking out into the world,” said the duo.

Together they have formed Snook, a social innovation outfit with a determined ambition to change the lives of the people of Scotland. Within its first two years, Glasgow based Snook has expanded to create three additional roles within their permanent team and have attracted a host of clients ranging from the Scottish Government to the National Museums of Scotland looking for their skills in transforming how people view and interact with their services.

The concept of designing a service is a difficult one to translate.  How does one communicate an experience or for that matter design a new one?  Designers such as Snook see their skills as easily translatable and perfect tools for the new and evolving discipline, which might otherwise be considered intangible.  Using design techniques, they work closely with people to visualize and communicate aspects of their lives, their ideas and opinions, and they do so with an infallible enthusiasm and empathy for the people and communities they aim to help.

“Snook love working with people to improve the things that determine the quality of their life – Education, Health, Welfare and Social Care – and giving people the opportunity to take more control over these services.”

One such example of Snook’s design application is – an online feedback tool for the interaction between police and public.  Currently being piloted in Tayside, its success in improving communication between Tayside police and its public looks set to result in the initiative being applied on a national scale.

Start-up companies such as Snook are proof that as the political landscape in Scotland continues to change, a growing number are pushing the boundaries of how public services could look in the future.  

On 22nd September in Edinburgh, the Guardian newspaper sponsors the first Public Services Summit for Scotland.  The summit is a significant step in recognizing that public services need to be re-examined and re-worked to deliver better people experiences.  Design might just be the answer in doing this.