May 22, 2020

3 min read

Why social design?

Design-based practices towards collective and social ends rather than predominantly commercial or consumer-oriented objectives

This is how social design is defined by Social Design Futures. What happens when a new discipline like social design emerges? If we look back to the emergence of similar disciplines, it could be argued that social research emerged as early as the Doomsday Book in the 11th century even if it was formalised in the late 19th century. Design was formalised much later, in the 20th century under the guise of applied arts.

Is social design a discipline or just another buzzword, whereby “social” has been added to an existing method to give it greater street credibility amongst practitioners on the ground, in a similar way to social media and social enterprise?

Is it to make the discipline seem more exciting and even more inclusive to non-professionals in the field? Is it to create a sense of ambiguity whereby you can put under it any practice that goes off the beaten path of design?

Or is to account for the disruptions that are taking place in a discipline and contrast these new practices with more established ones, dare I say challenge the status quo?

Is social design more of a discipline or a mindset? Indeed, it finds itself — or has created itself a space — at the intersection of both practice-based methods, such as community development and academic-based methods, such as social research and design.

Social Design Futures evokes the history of socially-oriented design within both the radical social evolutions, urban activism and even the anti-design movement of the 1960s.

Given its radical roots, should we reframe social design as radical or critical design? If not, do social designers need to be more critical or radical vis-a-vis not only traditional design approaches but the very issues, environments and structures it is working in?

Perhaps one of the main reasons why social design is so “en vogue” is that being at the intersection of practice and research, of different different disciplines and working in different areas — from public services to international development via climate change, it is suited to the complexity of the challenges our 21st century society faces, the growing frictions between the legitimacy of professional versus the wisdom of the crowd.

What’s the difference between social design practices orchestrated by organisations — be they public, private or voluntary — and those used by individuals or communities? Is it the motivations behind why they’re using them, their theory of change?

Is it to work in a more collaborative way, where social design’s multi disciplinary focus makes it easier to work across sectors?

Is it to handover the responsibility of providing services or meeting social needs to communities?

Is it to design solutions to social needs in a way that builds the social capabilities of the people that take part, and the communities they’re part of?