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Could design competencies contribute to a happier society?

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By Aija Freimane, PhD, Design Researcher and Lecture at TU Dublin School of Art and Design, Ireland; Director of Board, NGO “Creative Partnership”, Latvia.

Design as a practice has been developing since early 19th century in tandem with the industrial revolution. Before that, vernacular design as crafted solutions or use of material, was a prevailing practice to create products for daily life. Since the 1990’s design activities such as service and social design, system and process design, and lately even design for happiness, have emerged.

Design in the 21st century is neither the subject nor object; rather, it is a method for defining why one or other solution or design intervention is needed, who the beneficiary will be and how to resolve the defined challenge for the most sustainable, socially responsible and innovative result[1]. In the material world, quality and the use of products and services impact our sense of happiness and satisfaction; this does not arise as an external stimulus, but rather, as a purposefully favoured experience and sense of interpretation, which is the key element of feeling good[2]. The United Nations have stated that happiness is a fundamental human goal. Hence, I propose defining design as a method of moving towards happiness and satisfaction that are end results of a feeling or experience created by positive emotions and memories when products, services or systems[3] are used in line with a social interaction, thus reflecting the saying ‘design makes the world a better place’. We as humans are longing for positive experience, wellbeing and peace, we need convenient, useful and durable products, safe, accessible, perceivable, intelligible and experienceable services[4]. Hence, happy and satisfied societies and customers should be the purpose of design actions and their end results.

Since the 1990’s it has been suggested that the world needs design as “design thinking” to solve local and global economic, social and ecological problems. Over the last two decades design process as crafting and thinking through the material has been purposefully replaced by different software programs. Supportive tools as technologies have enriched and made the design process not only effective, but also depreciated doing by hands as thinking and practices deeply rooted in every culture as an intangible cultural heritage. A post-it design thinking approach has led to a mindset reflecting misconceptions about the world in which designers work and what designers do[5].  Design has shifted from being merely artistic activity to being an activity that ‘makes everything possible’[6]. What design principles and competences can help to facilitate the developments of better solutions or even to re-generate the region?

The McKinsey Global Institute study has said that the demand for manual and physical skills, as well as basic cognitive ones, will decline, but demand for technological, social and emotional, and higher cognitive skills will grow.[7] Furthermore, the World Economic Forum’s Future (WEF) Jobs Report noted that around 50% of all employees will need reskilling by 2025, as adoption of technology increases. WEF highlighted critical thinking and problem-solving, self-management, active learning, resilience, stress tolerance and flexibility to be in high demand in the near future.[8] The journal Forbes has featured 8 skills, that are and will be in high demand: to deal and to embrace ambiguity, curiosity, openness, entrepreneurship and empathy, resilience, ability to envision and foresee, to build and to sustain social capital and primary, secondary and tertiary relationships and to have an ability to make things happen[9].

While design competencies largely correspond to entrepreneurial, life and green competencies, there are certain skills and competencies that are unique to other professions that designers may not necessarily have. However, to design products or services that are safe, designers need an insight into regulations of standards as well to have some level of technical expertise. It is common that designers collaborate with other professions in multidisciplinary teams to find the best possible solutions.

Design competencies could be beneficial to other professions such as business, healthcare, education, and government, among others. They encourage a problem-solving mindset that is focused on empathy, collaboration, and creativity. Design emphasizes understanding the needs and perspectives of people or problem created by man-made environment.

Let’s highlight a number of design approach and competencies that could lead towards happier society via better providing better products and services:

  1. Design is an iterative process that involves multiple rounds of prototyping, testing, and refining to meet the best human-centered, experience-led, outcome.
  2. Unlike other professions that may rely on a linear process, designers are comfortable with uncertainty and embrace the idea of failing fast and learning from mistakes. These days when uncertainty is an inherent part of the design process, it can be both exciting and tough for designers to navigate a range of different challenges and obstacles to arrive at a successful outcome[10].
  3. Design helps people develop problem-solving skills by encouraging them to identify the root cause of a problem, explore multiple solutions, and test and iterate until a viable solution is found. These skills are valuable in many other areas of life, such as business, education, healthcare, and social services.
  4. Designers apply a user or human-centered approach to problem-solving, which means that solutions are developed with the user in mind. In such way designers prioritize the needs and desires of the user when creating solutions. They consider factors such as user experience, usability, and accessibility when designing products, services, or systems. Human-centered approach is transforming towards planet-centered approach by reconsidering resources we are exploring and using for better quality of life.
  5. Designers apply empathy, which means understanding the needs, wants, and motivations of the people for whom the solution is designed. This skill is essential not only in design but also in many other areas of life, such as education, healthcare, and social services.
  6. Design promotes collaboration and teamwork, as today’s complex problems can be solved by encouraging people from different disciplines to work together. This collaboration can lead to more innovative and effective solutions.
  7. Designers are trained to think visually and spatially, using sketches, diagrams, and models to communicate their ideas. This allows them to explore different possibilities and quickly iterate on ideas.
  8. Design is a powerful tool for innovation. By encouraging people to think and find solutions ‘outside the box’, design can lead to new and innovative products, services, and solutions.

Although most of highlighted design principles and competences are evident in other disciplines, the uniqueness lies in how these competencies are developed by design methods. Overall, design competencies are valuable for all people, regardless of their profession or background. By learning these skills, people can become better problem-solvers, innovators, collaborators, and empathetic individuals, leading to a more fulfilling and successful life. However, thinking visually and spatially is specific competence and skill taught trough professional design education.


[1] Freimane, Aija, 2020, Identification system of Design’s socio-economic impact towards transformation to a knowledge-intensive economy in Latvia; Art academy of Latvia

[2] Seligman, Martin, 2011, Flourish, Nicholas Brealey Publishing, London

[3] Freimane, Aija, 2020, Perceived Design value. The Socio-economic impact of Design. Rīga: Art Academy of Latvia..

[4] Ibid.






[10] Freimane, Aija, 2023, How do you feel? Emotional wellbeing in distributed learning environment in design studies.”, 2023, Forthcoming publication for the 25th International Conference in Engineering and Product Design Education, 2023.

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