Henry Ford, Genius of Design and Social Care

Tonight I found myself watching The Genius of Design a new series on BBC2 exploring the history of design. The first episode, Ghosts in the Machine, looked at industrial design, Morris, capitalism, manufacturing and Henry Ford. I know very little about design, even less about the history relating to it, but found it really fascinating. Well worth a watch.

The thing that I thought I’d blog about was Henry Ford, the history of design and its relationship to social care! You might be asking how I’ve made that leap. Well, in recent years if I’ve heard the following quote from Henry once, I’ve heard it a million times:

If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.

It’s rolled out all the time by people in social care who are trying to advocate for the brave new world of personalised services. Putting People First (PPF), the government concordat from 2007, set out the shared values and aims for the future of Adult Social Care. The hope of this agreement was that it outlined a “shared ambition…to put people first through a radical reform of public services, enabling people to live their own lives as they wish, confident that services are of high quality, are safe and promote their own individual needs for independence, well-being and dignity”. In a nutshell the bulk of this reform, or the social care ‘transformation agenda’, has focused on giving choice and control to those requiring support from services; the introduction of personal budgets will enable people to choose what service they receive.

Bear with me for a moment if you are wondering what’s to discuss. Well, the Henry Ford quote is used to challenge the naysayers, those who are scared, who don’t like change, who are far too comfortable with the way things are. I’ve heard it used time and again to make the point for innovative thinking. It’s great for this, a handy one for rolling out and challenging people who want to go with the status quo without first questioning it. However the history of design revealed a different side to this well wheeled argument.

At its peak virtually half the cars in the world were Model T Fords; think you’d struggle to get much more of a mass market than that. However there was a fatal flaw with the Ford system – it had become too good at what it was designed to do.

Photo by DaGoaty

It seems that Henry Ford felt that he’d unleashed a monster! The quirk of consumer society means as soon as you establish a baseline, somebody wants more – more comfort, more speed, more style, more colours. Ford however felt that he’d designed a ‘correct’ car, the Model T was not just all you needed in a car but it was all you should want. Ford wasn’t enamoured at the suggestion that new models were required and he hung to the Model T design refusing to make changes, but to no avail – the monster was unleashed and Ford couldn’t slow it down. << See the irony here – Ford wasn’t advocating for changes at all >>

J Mays, Chief Designer at Ford  reports that “Suddenly at that point was when design was born because we had answered the functional attributes of moving the customer from Point A to Point B and now we were offering the customer a choice of how to go from Point A to Point B. Then you could make the car more attractive through colours, through different materials and then eventually through different shapes and that started to create the design industry as we know it”.

The commentator goes on to state:

Today we live in a post Ford world…a world in which mass production has been replaced by mass customisation and the buzz phrase is “a market of one”; a world in which our appetite for stuff has become a problem we’d rather not think about too much. But however our stuff is designed, and made, and disposed of, it remains a designed world, made by us and for us, overseen by designers who will continue to worry about the way things are and how to make them just a little bit better.

So Henry Ford was actually advocating for mass production and industrialisation, quite the opposite of what PPF calls for in social care. According to Mays, design was introduced once the functional basics were mastered to introduce choice. So really what we should be doing is talking to designers, not just trying to inspire change with a repertoire of historical wisdom.

I guess all of this rambling reflection is really part of something far greater that has been brewing in my mind in recent months, a real hope that those who are involved in design might have something to offer in the restructuring, reshaping and redesigning of adult social care as it moves away from mass provision to individualised and personalised services. For social care as a system it is still relatively early days, the push is for mass customisation and ‘markets of one’ or maybe three or four, but there is still much to be learnt and a long way to go.

The programme ends with Dieter Rams and the reassurance as stated above that “it remains a designed world, made by us and for us, overseen by designers who will continue to worry about the way things are and how to make them just a little bit better” … well I know that there are some designers out there who aren’t just interested in designing stuff better but who are also interested in designing systems and services better. So if anyone reading this is interested in design and would like to join a discussion about the potential role of design in the transformation of the social care system then please drop me a line (here or via twitter @georgejulian). I’m not sure where, if anywhere, this is likely to go but I would love a few more people to chuck a few ideas around with and who knows where it might lead.

2 thoughts on “Henry Ford, Genius of Design and Social Care

  1. George – you are absolutely right – public services are crying out for the application of design, design professionals and design methods, tools and practices. You are not alone in thinking this – here are a few links you may find interesting if you haven’t already seen them:


    Click to access SFI%20-%20Innovation%20by%20design%20in%20public%20services.pdf


    I am Chief Technology Officer of the ONS (when were you working here in Newport?), but I am also a part-time DBA student at Glamorgan Business School, where my focus is on Service Design, and the concept of Service Architecture Reviews. I’ve posted a few entries on the topic on my site, and can share more info if you are interested. I am currently engaged in some service design case studies at the UK Border Agency and at ONS, but would be interested in one in social care too.

    Simon Field

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