In early 2020, Dr Anna Whicher, who is leading Design4Innovation project, was awarded a second* Arts and Humanities Research Council Fellowship, which was a special commission to inform future AHRC strategy. The research focused on the use of design by government in the policy process (design for policy) as well as the use of design by companies and other stakeholders as part of multiple policy agendas (design in policy). The purposes of this review were to influence future funding agendas in UK Research and Innovation (particularly the AHRC), map the current research landscape and skills provision, showcase UK research on design and policy, foster future collaboration between academic institutions and government, create a case to government to invest in design-led policy and make a series of recommendations. The investigation involved interviews with 49 policy-makers, academics and third sector representatives mapping the current landscape, understanding the skills provisions and conducting new research in order to make recommendations to the AHRC, policy labs, business support organisations and academics. Some of the key findings were that:

Design for Policy (use of design in government)

  • There is no figurehead for design leadership in government like a Chief Design Officer.
  • Design for policy is an emerging yet growing field of research and practice that currently lacks strong conceptual, theoretical, epistemological, methodological and empirical groundings. 
  • Whereas the ‘user’ is the starting point of public service development (GDS Service Standards), the ‘user’ is not the starting point of public policy development in the UK.
  • Academic institutions are an underused resource by government policy teams and labs in terms of research and consultancy mostly because government is unaware of what universities can offer with regards to design and policy.
  • There is limited formal education in design for policy and thus a skills mismatch between supply in universities and demand in government, which is growing.

Design in Policy (use of design in enterprises and wider society)

  • There is growing interest in government on what design can achieve for policy-making and priority agendas like innovation, digitalisation, circular economy and health.
  • Design approaches are being embraced by companies that are innovation leaders but are not being harnessed by the wider enterprise base.
  • In the UK, design is part of the remit of all the devolved nation’s business support landscapes. In Wales and Northern Ireland design support programmes are currently EU funded so it is unclear what programmes will look like after this round of EU Structural Funds. In Scotland, in 2020, dedicated design support programmes were integrated into a streamlined innovation support offering. In England, design support is fragmented, delivered by a number of key players including Innovate UK, Design Council and Design Museum, among others.
  • UK academic institutions have been conducting research on and even delivering design support programmes directly to businesses for over 20 years but the design support landscape across the UK lacks continuity and is difficult for companies to navigate.

The report was widely circulated among government officials and resulted in Anna being asked to support the formulation of a consultation among civil servants on the reform of the Policy Profession by the Department of Education to ensure that policy-making is more ‘user-centred’. Following the call for evidence, the consultation is now progressing to the next stage and could highlight the role of design in people-centred policy-making.


Download the full report here.

*Through her first AHRC Fellowship project 'People Powering Policy', Dr Anna Whicher developed the Design for Policy PROMPT toolkit - you can find it here.