The importance of a design consultant towards socially responsible design

In the past decades, a number of environmental issues and social imbalance increased. In return, the consciousness and the need to address ecological, environmental and industrial challenges has steadily increased. Therefore, the discussion towards a socially responsible design approach has become an importantpart of many business agendas. In my opinion, a sustainable change can only happen through the companies themselves, initiated by the demand of the society. This is where the importance of a design consultant come into play, and their ability to connect the social needs with the companies’ goals. In this bog post, I want to raise awareness of the factors that shape the consultant’s behaviours towards socially responsible design.

Is socially responsible design a recent approach?

If you live in 2020 you may have heard about socially responsible design. The definition is as follows: “The use of design to address social, environmental, economic issues and focuses to move beyond first world consumer demands towards a more holistic and responsible approach to product or service design that embraces ethical, cultural and humanitarian values.” If you thought that this way of thinking just became visible in the last couple of years along with the sustainability movement, you may be wrong. In fact, design has a long history of commitment to addressing social environmental issues. Already back in 1971, Victor Papanek’s book “Design for the real World” referred to responsible design and the need for a sustainable environmental resource usage. On that note, the concept of socially responsible design has been further developed by design decision-makers, such as design consultants (Gladwell, 2000).

Why do the companies need help?

I recently read an interesting study by Morelli (2014) that mentions that many companies noted responsible design objectives are not often high up the list of priorities. Additionally, the companies have mentioned that a socially responsible design approach is seen as a viable alternative to a market-oriented approach. The fear that socially responsible design is not suited for a competitive company, however, is no longer a reality. Only a complementary design approach can connect the ethical, social, and environmental needs with the whole complexity of the end-user.

How does to role of a design consultant come into play?

The role of a design consultant and its importance in approaching socially responsible design is a complex topic. However, I truly believe in the value a design consultant can offer to a company in that regard. Especially since design consultants are able to propose design ideas or concepts to companies. Moreover, design consultants are considered to have the potential to widen the client’s perspective in the direction of a more comprehensive solution. To be more specific, the creation of meaningful solutions that integrate the society’s need of social responsibility within the company’s restrictions.

What strengths can a design consultant offer?

Firstly, I’d like to point out the design consultant’s adaptive nature to combine their knowledge, experience, and good communication. This so-called network thinking allows them to identify the essential factors involved and communicate them in an effective way to the clients. Especially, the way how to cross communicate between all the parties involved is significant.

For example, design consultants are good at talking and understanding marketing people, engineers, and production people; they care about the product right through the whole process. So, the relationship between all these elements gives them the vocabulary and also the attitude that enables them to work across the organisation. Additionally, because they are more on the outside looking in, they are ideally positioned to challenge and question the company’s set goals. On that note, possibly new directions and alternative thinkingcan be introduced.

Secondly, the design consultant’s relationship with the client can be of great use. Let me explain why this is such a crucial factor: Well, the client does not only have to agree with the proposal itself; more importantly, the client has to truly believe that it is the right way to go. In order to reach this level of engagement, the relationship between a consultant and its client is built on trust, as well as credibility throughout the whole process. Therefore, the design consultant’s strategic mindset is key. Especially, the carefully conducted research and the consideration of objective evidence and data in contrary to “I think” or “it might be” is essential.

Referring to Morelli (2014), the level of effectiveness of a design consultant is directly linked to the company’s perception of design and the value they assign to it. Therefore, it makes sense for a consultant to climb as high up the company’s organizational ladder as possible, in order to create greater influence. To be well heard and respected by the board of directors is very important; they have to fully understand the role of design, and with it the importance of a design culture and the freedom to explore.

What are the difficulties?

Although design consultants offer important skills, they also face some barriers along the process.

For example, the uncertainty on what the right way is to approach responsible design goals. According to a study by Norman Stevenson in the year of 2013, the lack of clarity on where to start, and how to be most effective in working towards socially responsible design goals can be perceived as a big challenge. So, the actual improvement and implementation of socially responsible design goal starts with the consultant’s confidence, as well as the knowledge of how to be most effective to approach the challenges ahead.

Another important point which influences the behaviour of a design consultant, is their own awareness andopinion of social responsibility and their own values. Because of the awareness of the complexity and scale ofthis topic, some design consultants have the feeling of not being empowered enough to guide or push acompany in a socially responsible direction (Norman Stevenson 2013). In order to fulfil their professional role, they would never suggest something that is not matching the client’s philosophy. In that sense, I would like to highlight that consultants are well-known to have a strong will to meet the client’s expectations.

Consequently, the willingness and motivation to address responsible design goals is also depending on opinion of the clients themselves. This stands, somehow, in contradiction to the design consultant’s function on representing the end-user.

Tips to overcome these difficulties

All in all, to eventually break through the barriers mentioned above and to gain confidence in the area of socially responsible design, it is important that consultants have a critical need for credible and dependable information. This will enhance the introduction of suitable ways to explore these new areas which may lay outside the client’s comfort zone. The design consultant’s mindset and engagement to act on this topic is essential. This goes hand in hand with the understanding on what the actual objectives are, in order to make a positive and realisable impact.

Once a design consultant has gained determination towards this direction, the next logical step would be to encourage others. This can happen through:

  • Seminars
  • Workshops
  • Publication of articles

The aim thereby is, to find possible ways to share insights in order to build up a knowledge transfer. This action will enhance other design consultants, and in the long run, it will also be beneficial for the companies the consultants are working for.

As I am sitting here writing this blog, I hope that the people reading it have learned and understand the influence of the behaviour of a design consultant in a socially responsible design scenario. In my opinion, a company and end-user’s positive impact for future efforts can only take place on a strong foundation that relies on a holistic understanding of all the parties involved. On that note, we will eventually be able to move towards a more sustainable future.



Victor Papanek was an Austrian-American designer and educator who became a strong advocate of the socially and ecologicallyresponsible design.

Malcolm Gladwell is a Canadian author, journalist, and consultant.

Nicola Morelli is a design researcher who has published a couple of papers and one study with the focus on socially responsibledesign.

Norman Stevenson is a PhD graduate who has published a study on the issues of a socially responsible approach for consultants.



6 Replies to “The importance of a design consultant towards socially responsible design”

  1. Nice post. I used to be checking continuously this blog and I’m impressed! Extremely helpful info specially the closing phase I take care of such information much.

  2. Thank you, Claire, for writing about the important role of a design consultant. A job title, I hear a lot, without ever really thinking about what it implies.

    Your blog describes the benefits and the role of a design consultant very clearly. From the first to the last paragraph you refer to the skills, benefits and importance of them. Especially when you give tips to overcome the difficulty of the willingness and motivation of clients it dawned on me that we as design management students are included in your suggestions as well. Like a design consultant, we need to be credible and base our arguments on dependable information if our discipline wants to get taken seriously. The steps you propose may be adequate for a design consultant which has already established him- or herself in one way or another. Here, I would have appreciated some low-threshold tips for me personally. However, since you address consultants directly, I am aware that I am not your main target group.

    You argue that the role of a design consultant is crucial for businesses who want to move towards sustainable change. Yet, you make it clear that the role of a design consultant is only effective when the desire to change cumulates from the company hiring the consultant in the first place. As design management students we can easily get the impression that design can solve anything. Therefore, your input that the consultant alone will not get very far with design mothodologies without management buy-in is fundamentally important, thank you for making this clear.
    You back your arguments and the relevance of your content with basic facts about the state of the world and business which I appreciate. You don’t try to sell us presumptuous facts based on hot air. There is even a bit of design history interwoven wich gives the article a solid foundation. You mention two studies with insights into the business world and the connection to design. Here, I would have appreciated some more recent studies. I can imagine that there has been a change happening in the last five years. However, this is now based on assumptions from my side.

    Already in the first paragraph, you state your personal opinion. I appreciate this since this way the reader does not have to wonder about it but can read the blog post with it in mind.
    Your post is structured as if the reader is in a conversation with you. Your train of thoughts is logically and easily traceable. In a way, it feels like you let us in on your process of recognizing the importance of a design consultant. You do this by writing self-contained paragraphs that built upon each other. Since grammar and punctuation is not my strongest suit, I will not venture into editorial work. Especially, since the style of your writing, the structure of your blog and your choice of words are, at least to me, perfectly adequate and on a high level throughout the whole post.

    Overall, it was relevant, easily digestible read. Thank you for caring and being an advocate about this to your fellow students.

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