What is the Role of Design in Economic Development?05.24.18

Over the past 4 months, I’ve had the privilege of collaborating with a large coalition of industry, community, government, and nonprofit folks working on defining version 2.0 for Maine’s forest economy. The forest industry, facing similar global forces as the coal industry and other U.S. industrial operations, has experienced some decline as global markets have shifted dramatically. Maine’s forest industry had a big concentration in pulp & paper manufacturing, and the rise of the internet and e-communications has led to less demand for printing paper, and the closure of 5 of 11 pulp and paper mills in the state since 2014. These plants were sited in small, rural ‘company towns,’ where the loss of the major employer has been devastating.

Fortunately for these communities and all of Maine, the long term outlook for the forest economy is very different from a fossil commodity such as coal. There are very exciting new products and markets to be developed for timber products, and the global trend toward sustainability makes bio-based products more attractive to consumers than ever. In January of 2017 Maine received a federal grant to develop a long-term vision and strategic plan.

So, what’s my involvement in this as a designer? Design is usually thought to be the purview of large consumer brands with generous marketing budgets. Design is for sexy products and glossy ad campaigns and slick websites The subtext is: design is for building desire for things that we don’t really need; design doesn’t do anything “good” for society. In this typical view in the social sector, design is a fancy and unnecessary – if not wasteful – add-on on top of the actual function or value of something.

This view is short-sighted, and based in a misunderstanding of design. The reason that economic development (as well as other public and social sector) projects should include design in their budgets and project plans is the same reason that for-profit business do: it yields better results. Won’t a social service or economic stimulus program be more effective if it works with the context, needs and wants of its users? (Service design.) Won’t more people participate in a program if they know about it, and it seems relevant, helpful, and attractive? (Brand and communication design.) Won’t a service actually have more impact, if it is easy to access and intuitive to use? (User experience design.)

Ironically, design is perhaps even *more* relevant and needed in the social sector, which is often trying to provide existentially critical services to people with  less access, less education, and less ability to work the system.  Shouldn’t the offer to them be even more carefully designed so as to be as effective as possible with limited resources?

Back to my involvement in FOR/Maine – luckily the coordinators of this project, the Maine Development Fund, trusted that they needed design, even though it wasn’t their area of expertise. So far the design process has brought their audiences front and center into the picture, and created a unifying brand platform and professional visual identity. It will continue to be the backbone of communication and coordination between all the various stakeholders. My work is small compared to some of the other parts of the project, but I am so grateful they included this small component, as it will help all of the rest of the work be as successful as possible.