Defining impact, measuring impact, and valuing impact have all become hot topics in the Service Design community. At Service Design Canada, we’ve been exploring the idea of impact in its various forms in hopes of helping practitioners better discuss and quantify the value of their work. We’ve learned there is no consensus when it comes to defining impact, and the standards for measuring it differ greatly depending on organization, sector, and industry. Social impact, business impact, technology impact — why are we so interested by the idea of measuring impact?
To get some answers, we sat down with Christian Bason, author, academic, and Head of the Danish Design Centre. Christian is also this year’s keynote speaker at the Service Design Canada Conference in Montreal, Quebec on November 29 and 30. Here is an edited excerpt from the interview.
SD Canada: In your research, you talk a lot about design impact. Why do you think it’s only more recently that impact has become a topic of conversation within mainstream design practice? Hasn’t design always been about impact?
Christian Bason: Indeed, some — myself included — tend ultimately to define design as “the creation of value”. Designers have for at least a century — been occupied with the shaping and making of attractive, useful, functional and indeed valuable products and services. But perhaps in popular culture, there has been a tendency to focus on design as something more superficial — more about surface than depth, more about fast consumption than sustainable solutions. I think the rise of the question of the value of design has several causes. First, the general focus on utility and measurement in management methods. This goes for many other approaches to value creation in contemporary organisations. Second, the “splintering” of design into new forms and applications, including service design and design in the digital space, and indeed in policy. Third, the work of organisations wishing to advance the role of design in business and society, including professional associations, design policy bodies, consultancies and even academic institutions. Fourth, the pressure globalisation has put on organisations to differentiate themselves and to find ways to measure that differentiation. As a whole, this has shifted our attention to the value and impact of design to an unprecedented degree.
SD Canada: Impact and value have historically been measured by metrics like return on investment and market share. What does design contribute to the ways we define and measure impact?
Christian Bason: Well, the impact and value of design can indeed be measured (somewhat crudely) in that way, and we also do so at the Danish Design Centre. Interestingly, many firms who invest in design do not systematically measure even such traditional types of value, and so here we have been able to assist and shine light on the impact. However, we are also looking much broader to the kinds of value design work can bring to organisations. So in our own programmes, we use anthropologists and other social researchers to unpack what happens at the micro level when firms and public organisations go through design processes in pursuit of innovation, using the data to write up case studies. But we also do follow-up impact surveys. The results show that impacts can be measured at many levels: increased innovation capability, more risk taking, faster development processes, deeper customer insight, stronger branding, and of course “hard” metrics like increased revenues or exports. So we see a balance of impact types across internal capacities, stakeholder relations as well as enhanced organisational and market performance.
SD Canada: In your opinion, how has the definition of impact changed over time? Why?
Christian Bason: In addition to what I mention above, governments as well as firms are increasingly orienting themselves around social and environmental impact — not least fueled by the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals agenda. As an example we have worked with the United Nations Development Programme to leverage design approaches to create new collaborative platforms for achieving Sustainable Development Goals(SDGs) and the UN’s 2030 agenda. Leading businesses are also beginning to measure value as their ability to create impacts, and are orienting themselves around the SDGs. I think we will see more examples of design and designers working in this context, and measuring value across the SDG dimensions.