Design For Meaning: A Co-op Project For Positive Change

Design For Meaning: A Co-op Project For Positive Change

Last month (September 2012) Anthony Quinn, Yummii Ong-Tran, Stephen Cox & I started a little co-op project we’re calling Design for Meaning. As part of this process we’ve been brainstorming what we each see as key issues, ways we can individually or collectively make a difference and a way we’d like to take this forward. Here are my ponderings…

What is our project?

We have come together because we share a motivation to make a positive impact. We see social business as a way to achieve that. A business that is ethical, sustainable and profitable but is focused on doing good. Prosperity that is not measured in dollars but quality of life.

We agree that using participatory and people centred design is the right approach to facilitate a group of people with a common issue to improve their situation. By being creative with business models and the creation of products, services and organisations, we can work with people to achieve sustainable change without the need for charity.

Unfortunately, we don’t think the traditional aid model has been able to make a sustained change for the better or address root cause.

We all have years of experience designing in business. Being both successful business people and designers and believing that these skills are key ingredients in making a positive impact, we feel a powerful and nagging urge to use them to help people. That we can apply our knowledge and skills to creating a social business that will take steps to achieve that. We will also capture our journey of creating this business. This is for the sole purpose of sharing openly what we learn about getting started and running a social business. Our hope is this will help accelerate the process for other people thinking about starting their own social business.

Ultimately this is an open and transparent experiment. To observe and experience the wins and fails of our journey. To connect with and share the learnings. To contribute to the process. We invite people to participate and share the wins and the fails of their own journey. As we pass through key stages of the process, we will package what we’ve found to be true for us. The options, the smoothest path and the gotchas. We plan on making all of this available as Creative Commons ShareAlike – maybe with a tip jar or pay with Tweet option.

So the primary focus of our project is to identify a manageable opportunity where we can start a social business to make a positive impact. We will treat this exercise as a transparent journey with open participation. We will document the journey and what we learn so we can communicate it and share with others effectively, to help them on their own social business adventure. Ideally we would spawn many of these social businesses that are designed to be low touch, low overhead and the model could be easily replicated by others.

What to focus our project on?

I fundamentally believe the consumerist and materialistic culture embedded in the West and spreading throughout is the root cause of most if not all of the issues in the world. The imbalance of people who have more than they can possibly need and those who don’t have even the basics of survival is staggering.

This position makes it easy for me to be quite certain of things I feel our project should not be but doesn’t make it any easier to say what it should be.

Consumerism is now systemic. To be overly simplistic, I reckon if we could influence a bunch of people to ease up a bit on the mindless consumption cycle and redirect some of that time and money into improving the quality of their own life and that of others – real change could be made.

Where does this redirected time and money come from? Time from working extra to get more now or to get the next job. Money spent on collecting possessions, a lot of which we don’t need and then we have to get more space to store it all and pay insurance to protect it.

I wonder what would happen if we stopped calling ourselves consumers and stopped allowing big brands thinking of and labelling us as consumers. Constantly working on ways to increase the amount and speed of our consumption cycle.

I’m also not talking about living an austere life as a martyr. I’m thinking of it as a continuum and being mindful of where we’re at between having what we truly need (not the artificially fabricated need) and endlessly buying stuff to sate our seemingly endless want.

I know I have a lot more than I need. I feel the frustration of being stuck in the consumption cycle. I feel the pressure to keep working at high paying jobs to at least maintain and protect what I’ve already accumulated and my lifestyle. I’ve reached the point where the thought of buying something else we don’t really need and having to work even more to buy it, protect it and store it exhausts me. I have a long standing goal to get back to running Dynamic4 for most of my work hours but the gap in income is hard to bridge and every unnecessary purchase widens the gap.

I’d like our project to somehow help people be mindful and raise the level of self-awareness. To be conscious of what we’re doing, the impact to ourselves, to others and to the planet.  It’s then a personal value judgement on what action to take, if any… and when to take action… but maybe we could help make that action easier? I’d love to see a culture where we spend more time creating. Where we are creative in the way we solve problems. Where our first instinct to solve something is to think about what we can make, not what we can buy.

What if we could save just a fraction of the endless waste we produce packaging the stuff we don’t really need and may not even use.

I’d like our project to help people unjustly disadvantaged by this situation.


  • Local, national or global
  • Environment / climate
  • People who aren’t in a position to achieve their “Fundamental Human Needs”
  • Physical needs: food, shelter, work, clothing, rest, healthcare, security
  • Emotional / social needs: affection, understanding, participation, leisure, creation, identity, freedom

I like the classification of types of satisfiers for these needs. The concept of synergistic satisfiers where one behaviour meets multiple needs simultaneously seems like a sound thing to identify.

My preference is to find something that focuses on local to start with and may be scalable or be easily replicated with some tweaks in other locations. There’s always the cliché of think global act local.

Over the next few days I’ll be trying to generate and capture as many random social business ideas as I can.

Our values / design & guiding principles

I think a lot of our value and guiding principles are implicit in what we’ve already been talking about. I’ve found it useful to actually write them down for Dynamic4 and my own life. I find they’re useful as a filter and a reminder when things get complicated. Here’s what I did for Dynamic4 a while ago…

These design principles are at the core of what Dynamic4 is about. They guide decisions in everything Dynamic4 does, from top level strategy through to daily operations.

People first

  • Personal people: my own family and friends
  • Dynamic4 people: the team and partners
  • People centred design for Dynamic4 clients
  • People centred design for customers of Dynamic4 clients

Positive impact

  • Be positive. Work with positive people. Nurture long term relationships
  • Create great experiences. High production value. Consistent brand
  • Challenging but not confrontational. Applied inclusive design
  • Look after the environment. Offset carbon
  • Leave things better than we found them. Follow through. Be reliable and trustworthy

Perspective & context

  • Keep sense of perspective. Remember the context of what and why. Don’t get lost in the detail
  • Balance life, fun, work and learning
  • Focused diversity

Dynamic & adaptable

  • Lean business architecture and infrastructure. Partner before build
  • Reduce, reuse and recycle concept is core to business and design practices
  • Just enough, just in time. Resist doing more when less is right

I’ll share my musings over the next few days…