Let’s talk about meaning and purpose rather than impact and results

When we are asked to present our work and talk about the ‘results’ and ‘impact’ of projects we work on, it is often difficult to pinpoint and demonstrate. I’d like to make a case for embracing an alternative perspective: let’s talk about purpose, intent, direction and meaning. This is a suggestion I recently made when I was invited as a guest speaker at the Service Design Drinks Berlin. We had a good conversation about it, so I thought to follow it up with this further note.

We need to learn how to better speak about the purpose and meaning of our work. We need to get better in embracing the fact that we don’t ‘own’ the impact and results of the projects we work on. Although we are often very engaged with the projects we work on, it’s the client organisations commissioning the work who are the owners and implementers of the results. However, as committed and highly involved actors in the projects, we are surely making a big contribution to the purpose and meaning of the work. 

Most people engaged in Human Centred Design, Service Design, Design Research deeply care about making a meaningful contribution to positive change. Some people tend to call this ‘Social Design’ and primarily connect this to projects for public sector, charities, or self initiated projects. This focus can and should however also be part and parcel of large, complex projects that we work on with corporate clients. But in both public and private sectors, how can we ensure we make a positive contribution when we’re often far removed from where the changes actually happen?

This is where purpose, meaning and intent come in. We should be asking ourselves: What is the desired direction of change? If we don’t have that as the fundamental orientation of our compass, our work is meaningless. If we care about purpose and meaning, the key focus is on how we can best contribute to transformation processes that aim towards more human, fair, sustainable ways of living, working, and doing business.

What has united STBY’s work over the last 20 years are some key underlying principles: make things more human centred, more participatory, more fair and equal, and for a better quality of life. Our purpose as an organisation drives the purpose of the projects we work on.

Creative and analytical professionals are important catalysts in transition processes. We keep moving the goal posts and keep challenging approaches and objectives. We enable organisations to embrace change through our frameworks and methods, as well as through our ongoing quest for meaning and purpose. Process, methods, skills and purpose are closely interconnected. They are all critical to meaningful change. Process and method without purpose and intent is meaningless. As results and impact are difficult constructs for us to own, purpose and meaning might be better focus points to reflect on in peer to peer conversations.

Usually we can most freely speak about processes, frameworks, methods and tools used in projects. So that is what we share at conferences and in publications. A perspective on meaning and purpose is always an inherent part of our presentations. While adding a perspective on impact and results is often a more difficult challenge. Our work will have contributed to critical and foundational strategic decisions but, especially for corporate clients, we are not often allowed to speak about strategic considerations and we are also not part of the subsequent implementation. The results of our foundational explorations often end up being distributed among a wide range of follow up projects. They have contributed to considerable change, but it’s difficult to exactly pinpoint specific results or impacts.

A similar challenge presents itself when speaking about projects that deal with big complex issues (like climate change, equal opportunities, energy transition, health care reform). While we can talk about making a meaningful contribution to positive change, we need to accept that we are only very small players in these overall change processes. These complex changes take a very long time, and there are many moving targets. We may be contributing to the overall change, but it is very difficult to exactly point out how and what in terms of impact and results. Again here, talking about the more overarching purpose and the contribution to meaningful change seems to be more relevant and make more sense than enforcing a focus on direct results and impact. 

True to the tradition of ‘Reflective Practitioners’ (Donald Schön’s, 1983), we make an effort to regularly reflect on our work, together with our peers, so we keep learning and developing better practices. Our connection to meaningful change is one of the lenses we use for that. If you’re interested in reading more about this line of thought, we recently co-authored a publication, together with our international partners from the Reach Network. This is the title and link:  Catalysts – Thoughts about Design Research for Meaningful Change. 

Reference and credit for the image at the top: “The next big thing will be a lot of small things” (statement by artist Thomas Lommee, painted on a building  of the University of Gent in 2015). Photograph by Hilde Christiaens for UGent.

Geke van Dijk