Transformation Design

By Colin Burns, Hilary Cottam, Chris Vanstone and Jennie Winhall

Burns, C., Cottam, H., Vanstone, C. and Winhall, J. (2006)  Transformation Design, Design Council UK, London.

Transformation Design is an oft-cited publication that is credited with laying some foundations for linkages between design and social innovation.  It is included here for this reason – whilst not new, it has certainly been influential as design approaches are increasingly applied to social innovation.  The publication comes out of the RED project that was initiated by the Design Council, UK and operated between 2004 and 2006 to “tackle social and economic issues through design-led innovation” (this project led on to the establishment of Participle ( in the UK which has taken forward many of these ideas into practice).

In this paper the authors share a call to action for the creation of a new design discipline that applies design skills to social and economic issues; that fosters interdisciplinary collaboration; proposes practical solutions; and adopts a ‘user-centred approach’.  They refer to this new discipline as ‘Transformation Design’, meaning that they are interested in how design can help to create fundamental changes and social transformations rather than merely moving the pieces around on the same chessboard.

The authors trace the evolution of ‘user-centred design’, arguing that there has been a fundamental shift away from a paradigm of the ‘master designer’ to a position where the needs and experience of the ‘end-user’ of the product or service are seen as central to the design process.  In the twenty-first century, the nature and scope of design has altered significantly in terms of where design skills are applied (opening up more holistic approaches that focus not only on products but also on interaction, experience and service design), and who is doing the designing (so that it is no longer the designer responding to a brief and designing ‘for’ the user, but the users themselves taking on or actively participating in the design process).  ‘Users’ are therefore no longer seen as merely recipients of the design process, but rather, are experts in their own right, and have both the capacity and right to participate in the design of services, experiences, products and interactions that they will ultimately consume or engage with.  Indeed the twenty-first century thus far has been characterised by a ‘user-revolution’ whereby ordinary people with real-world experience (so called ‘expert users’) have taken the design of products, services and processes into their own hands, often minus the expert designers (think here of the many user-led initiatives the internet has sparked over the last decade).

This is particularly relevant in reflecting on use of design in social innovation, as what it reminds us, is that the ‘users’ of these innovations are critical not only at the end (i.e. as ‘end-users’) but as intimately engaged with the whole process.

The authors take readers through a number of case studies of how design could be applied to social issues, from ‘Diabetes Agenda Cards’, co-designed cards that changed the nature of interactions between medical staff and people with diabetes (see:, to an examples of co-design processes in rural community transport and the design of health services.

Together the case studies provide the basis for discerning core skills of a ‘user-centred approach’:
–    Looking from the point of view of the user:  understanding the world of the user of products and services and seeing things from their perspective, which can help to generate insights into how things could change and it can thus form the basis of collaborative action;
–    Making things visible:  making sense of complex information through the use of visual frameworks, which can create a common platform for discussing alternatives and make sense of opportunities and resources;
–    Prototyping: trying solutions out and getting feedback in situ and with the users to test out possibilities for creating transformative changes.

From my perspective the case studies used and the analysis of this ‘user-centred approach’ could have been developed further in the paper, and perhaps the engagement of users could have been more radical still.  This is where I think there is much scope for joining up design approaches with methodologies such as community development which are focused on the ‘how’ of participatory process.

The authors draw together the learnings in the case studies and suggest that they demonstrate six key characteristics:
1.     Defining and redefining the brief:  an important part of transformation design lies in defining the problem.  So, rather than responding to a brief that outlines the problem to be solved by designers, such approaches start ‘upstream’ with problem definition, and the brief may indeed go through several iterative phases as the work uncovers the layers of complex problems;
2.    Collaborating between disciplines:  recognising that complex issues require multiple perspectives, in transformation design  “the designers are not always ‘designers’”, and teams are often interdisciplinary;
3.     Employing participatory design techniques:  the design process is not purely ‘top-down’, it is equally bottom-up, inside-out and outside-in, involving front-line workers, clients and constituents in co-design processes;
4.    Building capacity, not dependency: acknowledging that design is an ongoing process, and so transformation design involves not just a single design event, but ensures that skills and capacities are left behind so that people can keep on designing and innovating into the future;
5.    Designing beyond traditional solutions: such approaches require systems thinking and holistic responses, that can result in “non-traditional design outputs” (outputs that are not necessarily products or services);
6.    Creating fundamental change:  transformation involves fundamental change in a situation, and therefore requires proactive design approaches that “aim high”, are radical and seek to create progressive, human-centred design solutions.

The new discipline of transformation design has not necessarily taken off in the way in which the authors envisioned (at least not under this title).  Some practitioners have suggested that this is because it is “too hard to formulate into a practical discipline (for now at least)” (Joe Heapy, Engine, UK, cited in Meroni and Sangiorgi, 2011;p.232).  However, some of the core characteristics outlined here have found their way into the heart of other ‘new’ design disciplines such as service design (design focused on the “application of established design process and skills to the development of services” (Live|Work,

The full paper is available for download here:

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