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Design serving society: The Public Value Approach

If you want to get a sense for the state of design today, try this experiment: Go to an electronics superstore and stroll through the mobile phone aisle. Wander among the washing machines. What you’re likely to see is this: ten versions of each style of product, all produced by global multinationals, each with a slightly different and equally indecipherable set of functions. Designers are engaged to clean up the mess and try to make everything look nice. Was this what we had in mind back when we were studying for our dream jobs? When we talked about how design can be good for society? Design is not only a question of aesthetics, it’s also a question of ethics. But in our globalized economy, there is little room for ethical questions, particularly not in design.

If you look a bit further, you can find other models. Designers who see themselves not simply as service partners to industry, but rather as in service to society. By society, I’m not referring to high society or even those like us in the top ten percent. I'm referring to the rest. “DESIGN FOR THE OTHER 90%” was the title of a now legendary exhibition at Cooper Hewitt Design Museum in 2007. It was a wake-up call to many of us. After all, 95% of all designers working all over the world right now focus their attention on ten percent of the world's population. That ten percent is us.

Designers who focus on the ‘other 95%' have other concerns than just industrial design: they have to be designers, businesspeople and politicians all in one. They have to handle social media with a perfect pitch, master the art of crowd funding, they have to know how to battle bureaucracy. In some cases, they have to be willing to break the law (or at least bend EU guidelines). In short, they must be masters of persuasion.

Here are two projects that get it right:

CUCULA

CUCULA is a project initiated by designers Sebastian Däschle and Corinna Sy in Berlin with the aim of integrating West African refugees into society by taking them out of glum hostels and giving them a worthwhile cause and training program at the same time. The refugees are instructed in building furniture from Enzo Mari's infamous Autoprogettazione, a book of DIY furniture designs. Work is completed in the CUCULA workshop and chaperoned by a social worker, giving refugees a real chance at integration into German society. Hailed as a model project by the press, it is only when we look closer that we see the difficulties. The project’s organizers are constantly battling often conflicting bureaucratic regulations.

CUCULA

ugly fruits

If CUCULA aims to democratize design manufacturing, a second Berlin-based project looks at how approaching imperfection from a different angle can make a huge difference. ugly fruits began as a thesis project at the Bauhaus University in Weimar. Up to forty percent of all fruits and vegetables are thrown away by food producers, simply because they are not attractive enough for the tastes of consumers. The ugly fruits project challenges these expectations and asks us to look twice at imperfect produce. It all started with an image campaign. Now ugly fruits buys organic fruits and vegetables and sells them to supermarkets and organic food stores in Berlin. The goal is to one day open stores of their own. Both of these projects – CUCULA and ugly fruits – came from a design background but chose early on not to follow the path to industry. Instead, they chose to investigate the challenges faced by society. As luck would have it, there are a number of NGOs in Germany that are eager to offer financial support to social entrepreneurs with management skills. The two main contenders here are ASHOKA and Impact Hub.

ugly fruits

The academy has also begun to see value here: Professor Timo Meynhardt at the University of St. Gallen has investigated the meaning of public value for some time. At the center of his research is a single question: What makes an organization valuable to a society? He has defined five basic questions for measuring the public value of an organization or project:

  1. Is it useful?
  2. Is it profitable? 
  3. Is it decent? 
  4. Is it politically acceptable? 
  5. Is it a positive experience?

In 2015, iF organized the first-ever iF PUBLIC VALUE AWARD to give exemplary Public Value projects a public forum. The award ceremony will be held in the course of the MCBW programm on 23 February 2016.

About the author

Christoph Böninger

Christoph Böninger founded AUERBERG in 2010 as a design label for designers by designers. He served as a juror for the iF DESIGN AWARD 2016 and in many other juries.