We live in a world of tricky social problems with multiple and interconnected causes. They require multiple interventions from multiple disciplines.

Health problems cannot be solved solely through clinical methods, homelessness cannot just be solved only by housing solutions. We know that education, employment, social networks and the built environment all impact personal well-being. Or as Alain de Botton puts it in the Design Museum’s exhibition on home, “the problems that people have in advanced societies, that show up in novels, poetry, the therapist’s couch are really problems of architecture”.

We often talk about having a multidisciplinary approach to agile teams. And within design, different design disciplines often come together and combine their practices to provide better solutions to problems around a place, individual or family and meet holistic needs. As part of the Industry Insights series last week, the Design Museum asked me to talk about this.

Designers can use multidisciplinary approaches for a few reasons:

Different ways of looking at a problem

We all approach problem-solving in different ways, influenced by our backgrounds, experiences and disciplines. A fashion designer will come up with a different solution to a problem about, say trust in the police, to a product designer. Approaching a problem alone, we can only see and answer to the extent we individually know.

A multidisciplinary approach means drawing from multiple disciplines to redefine problems and reach solutions based on a new understanding of complex problems. By bringing different perspectives and experiences to the table, we can generate better solutions with better understanding.

Kenya Hara’s book Designing Design catalogues his experiments in asking different designers from different practices to re-design everyday items. An architect redesigned a toilet roll using inspiration from corrugated roofing to make it more sustainable. A service designer redesigned an official airport stamp, building in friendliness to the immigration experience.

Reaching beyond discipline borders

Multidisciplinary design is when different design disciplines are used together. Or, when design reaches beyond its borders to other fields in order to enhance the way it solves a problem, or think laterally about how it can.

Technology and data are two examples of practices that provide many new ways of approaching old problems. Together, they’ve shifted our expectations about how services should be delivered. Technology on its own has given us powerful abilities to reach critical information and support at any time, while data on its own can tell us a lot about who needs it, or might need it.

However, it remains important though to make sure technology and data are used to design for the needs of people using services (rather than for the people designing them). And that — particularly in the case of data — they’re used responsibly. Care City is an organisation in East London that is testing out new technological solutions to dementia and using service design to make sure they’re right for the people using them. And the Government led a participatory process with citizens to create an ethical framework for how it uses data science to develop policy and deliver services.

Multidisciplinary design in practice

I cannot think of a recent project which was not multidisciplinary. My own background combines policymaking, design (at 28 I went back to uni to do a graphic design MA) and data. At FutureGov, we’re around 80 people with backgrounds spanning product design, service design, organizational design and policy design.

We’ve worked with data scientists, ethnographers, digital designers and GPs to develop new ways to support people to manage their health conditions and stay in work, with blockchain specialists and lawyers to create a speculative blood transfusion drone for the EU Policy Lab and I co-present BBC Radio 4’s The Fix which brings together bright minds from different professions and local ‘unusual suspects’ and takes them through a design process to develop ideas to tough policy problems.

Ultimately, it’s about collaboration

There are many methods to drive change — across design disciplines and beyond them. As our work is about equipping those delivering and receiving services with the methods they need to make change, we have to understand their practices as much as share ours. Together, we can optimize our ability to see every possible solution, deliver better outcomes and create impactful change. Multidisciplinary design is all about collaboration, being curious and adaptive, combining methods and creating new ones.

Read on in this next blog of top tips for multidisciplinary design.

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