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The role of the designer in a changing society

13 Feb , 2016,
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The design of everyday products and services is one of the key factors that shapes the evolving nature of societal change. It is a complex issue whereby new innovations may spark social structural change, or social change sparks new innovations. One example from  Hans Rosling’s brilliant TED talk is the invention of the washing machine, which dramatically changed society by radically reducing the manual, time-consuming task of doing the laundry, allowing women the opportunity for education.

Household behaviours are learned by cultural norms from other family members. Energy intensive household behaviours get passed down from generation to generation, with users unlikely to alter their habitual behaviours unless there is a significant or disruptive change in their environment or the tools they use (for example the invention of the washing machine). Incremental changes to household behaviour may be slow and costly because the advice from other family members will have a greater impact than advice from corporations.

Designers have a responsibility to monitor shifts in social structures and innovate accordingly. Single occupancy, smaller living, urbanisation, and an ageing population are just a few of the major social changes that affect energy intensive household behaviours and designers need to be integrated into the structural and social decisions that affect these changes. Will smaller family size and urban living affect the use patterns of the washing machine? How will the gender imbalance around household chores be affected by more single occupancy homes? These are questions that designers need to be aware of when looking to innovate in new markets where the social and cultural norms of family life may be unfamiliar to the environment the designer is used to.

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