There are four kinds of designer or innovator, each with their own style. No style is right; each has its merits and its limitations:


Radical design – this is direct and active – it tries to identify a core functional structure – for example, making a garden from scratch. The radical designer is still constrained, but tends to treat all existing constraints as ultimately negotiable (although is clearly an impossible extreme – many constraints will continue to frame the design, even if they are in the unconscious of the designer).

Compensatory design – this is indirect and passive – it accepts the limitations of all the prevailing structures and identifies a different functionality – for example, putting a building into an existing garden. The compensatory designer is respectful of all constraints; how this is also an impossibly conservative extreme – anything new must in some way change what was already in place.

Adaptive design is direct and passive – it accepts the constraints of the prevailing structures, but tries to find new ways of building in functionality – for example, managing a garden over time. The adaptive designer is mindful of the finite nature of resources, and seeks to massage the given into something more useful.

Constructive design is indirect and active – it treats the foundations of the structure as fixed, but tries to add new or positive features – adding plants, sculpture to an existing garden. The constructive designer is highly tolerant of additions, of bells and whistles, of new features and new ideas.

For those of us involved in trying to reform the welfare system we must be mindful of these different styles of design. Often we may find that we agree about the need for redesign but that we do not share a notion of what kind of design is best. Simplifying we might say:

  • Theorists tend to be radical designers – “What we really need is…” or “The system is wrong!”
  • Bureaucrats are compensatory designers – “We can’t possibly change anything that already exists!”
  • Managers are adaptive designers – “How can we reshape what we already have?”
  • Advocates are often constructive designers – “We need something different and new” or “That change is wrong!

Each designer has their own burden to carry and we are wise to recognise that each has their proper place. Those of us who think that the welfare system is badly designed at a very deep level will need to show some patience with those who have a different temperament and we will need to explore to what extent merely adding, adapting or developing new features can still help move us towards a more just settlement. We may even need to accept that our own radical ideas will need to be reinterpreted as additions, adaptions or developments by others. For there will be some truth in such an interpretation.