Comments on the US National Design Policy initiative

[addendum to this post: there was further discussion of this issue on a  discussion list focused on design research. I was prompted to write more about the national design policy in response to that discussion, from my social movement/activism perspective. The archive of the whole discussion is here. ]

On January 5th a group called “The US National Design Policy Initiative” launched a report called “Redesigning America’s Future: 10 Design Policy Proposals for the United States of America’s Economic Competitiveness and Democratic Governance.” The report is the result of the 2008 National Design Policy Summit held in Washington D.C. on November 11-12, 2008. The summit generated more than 60 policy proposals and over time the group aims to publish the rest of the proposals on its website,

The Praise
First, some praise. It’s great to see design groups working across disciplines to articulate the value of design in the public sector and in the marketplace. Good too to aim high (the report mentioned above is being sent to every member of congress as well as the incoming president and vice president). Some of the individual proposals hold promise, such as proposal 3 which mentions climate change and supports the 2030 challenge. Proposal 5 is my favorite exhorting “community empowerment in all designed aspects” of community life.

The Critique
But next, the criticisms, and I’m afraid I have a few.

Most of the 10 policy proposal are distinctly old school. They see design primarily for what design has been in the past–a tool of economic growth and technical functionality. They seem to overlook newer conceptions of design as a tool for exploration, transformation and actualization.

In this regard, to me the most glaring gap in the report is its neglect of the social, or civic, sector–nonprofit organizations, social enterprises, peer networks (such as open source communities) and other groups that work on building social capital and social innovation. These are typically the mechanisms through which individuals express citizenship, participate in democracy and through which they are “empowered.”

How could design policy support this social/civic sector, increasingly networked digitally, that is growing in importance and influence? This sector is generating the ideas, such as the 2030 Challenge, for transformation. Clearly the social sector’s role and capabilities are a central concern of democratic governance. Solutions to problems such as health care, education and housing increasingly engage the social/civic sector, one way or another.

more of the same, but better?


Beyond this basic gap in the report, I have a few other concerns. At a time when many people are questioning whether we can “afford”–in both social and environmental terms– endless economic growth fueled by consumerism, the proposals seem to accept the economic status quo and even further entrench design within it. For example, one proposal suggests commissioning a report “to measure and document design’s contribution to the U.S. economy.” Why not instead commission a report that explores design’s potential for helping to transform the economy, applying design thinking to gain social, economic and ecological advances?

At a time when many people are engaged in the struggle for a “creative commons,” these proposals seem to suggest further raising the fences of intellectual property, without reference to the issues associated with the digital economy.

At a time when social networking, online forums and peer production systems are eminently viable, the closed nature of The National Design Summit and the development of its policy proposals rings false. It seems ironic that this group aims to improve democratic governance, but yet used such a relatively undemocratic process to arrive at its policy recommendations.

Perhaps some of the group’s other 50 or so policy proposals contained more transformative, contemporary ideas. But generally, the proposals they chose to publish seem to accept as their central organizing principle, “more of the same, but better,” and with more design involvement.

Elizabeth (Dori) Tunstall, the convener of the National Design Summit, explains the background to it on her blog, and attributes the small scale of the event to limited resources. But I can’t help thinking that the process should have been better matched to the breadth of the task. An initiative termed “national” and represented to Congress and the executive branch of government as national, needs a much larger national participation. With all due respect to the people who participated in the 2-day summit and undoubtedly worked hard at hashing out these 60 proposals, if the resources weren’t there for a truly national process, maybe the initiative should have been scaled back.

Am I being uncharitable, or did this U.S. Design Policy Initiative process miss the boat? What’s your view?

One Response to Comments on the US National Design Policy initiative

  1. Hi Anne

    I can’t help thinking you are being uncharitable. It seems your critique is more levelled at the current global economic system and the limited resources and time available to the organisers of the Summit. These are not unreasonable things to discuss or dispute, but they are the parameters in which proposals to governments must operate. While we academics are merely observing we are free to imagine best case scenarios. However, when charged with the responsibility of (potentially) contributing to public policy its back to the old adage ‘politics is the art of the possible.’

    For myself, I’m impressed at the breadth of the proposals. I like your suggestions of ways the proposals could be extended, but it seems having an awareness of design is a pre-requisite to understanding or acting on them. The proposals as stated at appear to be introducing design to members of the senate in a fundamental way. First things first I reckon.


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