Understated Change: We Are What We Do’s Design for the Masses

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At an event I attended recently about new initiatives and practices increasing citizen engagement, one comment made by the panelists has stuck in my brain: work within the system.

This particular designer spoke about how their architecture firm works within the existing planning and building system to do their work, which is nothing new to most firms. They don’t approach solely from one side–working with only the ‘grassroots’ organizations or only the ‘top’ level–but rather leverage both to bring all parties to a middle ground and produce a viable project.

We Are What We Do is a creative firm doing just this. Operating as a Community Interest Company and Charitable Foundation, they are on a mission to:

make stuff that people want to buy or use and which have positive behaviours built in, aiming to reach massive audiences and help address major social and environmental issues.

WAWWD began with the book Change the World with a Fiver, conceived of by the company’s founder David Robinson with the intent to “create something for consumers, something that acted like other consumer products and brands and unlike any other community engagement programme.”

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WAWWD has gone on to create a wide variety of positive behavioural change products. Historypin is a website that promotes intergenerational connections and communal archives. Chicken Shop is an initiative to improve health, the environment, and animal welfare with simple alterations to the beloved, cheap British food. Internet Buttons is a digital literacy and inclusivity tool that simplifies and customizes the web browser interface. And the I’m Not a Plastic Bag bag that decreases the amount of plastic bags used and thrown out each year:

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I had the opportunity to gain some deeper insight into the organization from WAWWD’s Creative Director Tori Flower.

How do you create your partnerships for the different projects? Is it something that these big corporations are seeking or do you approach them with the idea?

Sometimes we identify issues to work on ourselves and go through our innovation process model doing research, designing, prototyping, testing and developing products and services to impact these.

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For example, a couple of years ago we identified the inter-generational divide as an important topic that affected and was affected by large number of people, and created Historypin and Internet Buttons after our research into the issue.

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Other times we are approached by government departments, or organisation who have a specific issue they want us to work on, and we apply our process to that. For example, we worked with WRAP on the issue of Food Waste recently.

Currently we have research and development funding which allows one strand of our work to focus on a single issue of our choosing each year for three years (the first year we are focused on mental health and young people) but will complement this with other briefs.

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What has been your greatest accomplishment?

We were really proud of our evaluation for our Historypin project.

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The impact of Historypin in local communities has been measured and evaluated through a formal piece of work in Reading by the Local Government Information Unit.

This work found strong, tangible social outcomes through quantitative and qualitative analysis of 2,000 users and participants, including:

  • 94% agreed or strongly agreed that they had learnt more about the history of Reading
  • 82% understood more about their community in Reading and its history and heritage
  • 89% of younger participants spent more than an hour a week with older people through Historypin
  • 64% said they understood the lives of older people a little or much better
  • 79% of new interactions generated by Historypin in the community were inter- generational
  • 38% of participants became more active in the community after using Historypin

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Where do you envision WAWWD in 5 years?

Having put out a string of consumer products and services which have a substantial, measurable impact on a variety of social issues that are financially sustainable in their own right.

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What advice would you give to someone interested in doing socially-engaged design work?

Think about targeting people with no interest in doing socially positive things – it’s a harder but much bigger audience.

 

WAWWD, along with the AOC and plenty of other design firms, are succeeding by working within current social norms to achieve positive change, no matter how small or subtle. By steeping the start of a project in community research and partnering with invested companies, they are achieving products and services that are succeeding across many scales.

From this approach, we can achieve an inclusive project by incorporating as many voices as possible to reach consensus. And if we only look at it from one side, then we’re merely operating like the system we’re trying to change.

How about you? Are you a radical changer? Or like the subtle, inherent tactics? I’d love to hear what works best for you.

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Image sources: We Are What We Do

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