Five common design myths, and how to rethink them

Published: 13 November 2023

Photograph by David Jones
Last month, team members from our Design and Research practice visited the Design Museum in London. 

This was a chance to step back from our regular activities and take a leap into the rich world of design. 

The Design Museum is the world’s leading museum devoted to contemporary design in every form. Our visit took place during the Design Researchers in Residence programme, so we had the opportunity to explore other design researchers’ projects whilst reflecting on our own practice. 

Misconceptions and recalibrations

At Social Finance, we conduct research and develop solutions to complex and enduring social problems. We recognise that the role of design in our mission can be hard to communicate. One of the things we liked about the museum was how clearly it shared the value of design to audiences who might be new to the subject. 

We were particularly struck by how the museum helped to break down some of the myths that we commonly hear about design. Inspired by our visit, we’ve recalibrated some common design myths and reshaped them in the context of our work. 

Myth 1. Design is only about solutions

We say: Design is a way of approaching problems, as well as developing solutions.”

It’s easy to fall into the trap of seeing design’ as only the end part of a creative process. In the Designer Maker User exhibition, design is often presented as a tangible product, such as an ergonomic chair, a Lime bike, or a shoe.

Design is what happens when people use creativity to solve problems. At Social Finance, we see design as a verb, as well as a noun, and we use design approaches at all points in the lifecycle of a public service. Whether we’re gathering insight from participants, testing usability, or developing service blueprints, we use creative ways to draw out insight and surface information.

Myth 2. Design is about the way things look

We say: Design focuses on the interaction between a user and the aesthetic, functional, material and social world around them.”

In his book How Design Makes The World, Scott Berkun writes that: Most people think of design as a layer on top, the final paint colour or style… but design goes all the way down.” 

Too often, design is simply seen as making things pretty. Designers can and do shape the way that things look, but design isn’t just about the surface of things.

Designers consider the experiences of users as they navigate different products, services, and systems in their environment. Inclusive design means understanding the human condition in its many variations. This means designing for the ears, hands, and hearts as much as the eyes.

A road sign, with direction to Maidenhead, Uxbridge, Windsor and other locations.
How do we move through space? Jock Kinneir and Margaret Calvert’s iconic 1965 road signage

Myth 3. Designers make small tweaks; they don’t change systems

We say: Design can solve big social problems, one part at a time.”

The museum showcases excellent examples of product innovation: Emily Brookes bike light to improve cyclist visibility, or James Powells home for urban pigeons: a dovecote that collects droppings which can be turned into fertiliser. 

Design may not solve the whole problem in one go: designing a bike light may not prevent all cyclist deaths in the UK, and a dovecote alone cannot solve the climate crisis. However, they demonstrate how designers analyse issues holistically and target key intervention points. 

At Social Finance, we follow an iterative cycle which converges on the crucial problems within larger, knottier systems. Solutions build momentum by addressing root causes, not just symptoms. We acknowledge that our new products, services, and tools have cumulative effects that go beyond what is immediately obvious.

Two people, in conversation,standing in front of a series of wall-mounted posters at the Design Museum
Team members Chloe and Jess at the Design Museum

Myth 4. Design research is time-consuming so we shouldn’t bother doing it

We say: Design research takes time, but it’s worth it.”

Marianna Janowicz’s 1001 Drying Rooms explores how laundry drying practices can exacerbate damp living conditions in UK housing. Marianna empowered her research participants to record a visual diary to show how they dry their laundry, exploring the impact of these methods on their health and the environment. 

At Social Finance, we engage users at every step of the way: from explorative research to gain a deeper understanding of systemic problems, to rapid prototyping, incubation, and scaling of solutions. We know that ethical engagement with people and their communities requires careful preparation. We also know that it’s more cost effective to invest in research upfront than fixing big issues late in the development of a digital prototype, policy, or service. 

In other words: it’s worth it. 

Myth 5. Design is not relevant to my work

We say: Human-centred design is central to driving real social change.”

The Design Museum tells the story of mass production, manufacturing, and innovation through products like fashion, furniture, technology, and transport. You’d be forgiven for thinking that these examples aren’t relevant to social impact programmes.

Whether we’re considering the structure of new impact bonds in Cambodia, shifting outcomes for young people at risk of exclusion, or developing a tool to help social workers better support children, we consider the multiple interactions, experiences, and touchpoints that users will encounter as they try to achieve a goal. 

Design is essential: only through understanding user needs can we develop social interventions that work.

Want to know more?

Get in touch with our human-centred Design & Research Practice Lead, Camilla Devereux, to learn more about our design and research work.

Contact Camilla

Latest blogs and videos

Stay up to date

Sign up to our mailing list for regular updates.

We'll keep your data secure and won't share it outside of Social Finance, ever. For more details read our privacy policy.