The Social Design Reader
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The Social Design Reader

Elizabeth Resnick

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eBook - ePub

The Social Design Reader

Elizabeth Resnick

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About This Book

The Social Design Reader explores the ways in which design can be a catalyst for social change. Bringing together key texts of the last fifty years, editor Elizabeth Resnick traces the emergence of the notion of socially responsible design. This volume represents the authentic voices of the thinkers, writers and designers who are helping to build a 'canon' of informed literature which documents the development of the discipline. The Social Design Reader is divided into three parts. Section 1: Making a Stand includes an introduction to the term 'social design' and features papers which explore its historical underpinnings. Section 2: Creating the Future documents the emergence of social design as a concept, as a nascent field of study, and subsequently as a rapidly developing professional discipline, and Section 3: A Sea Change is made up of papers acknowledging social design as a firmly established practice. Contextualising section introductions are provided to aid readers in understanding the original source material, while summary boxes clearly articulate how each text fits with the larger milieu of social design theory, methods, and practice.

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Social design … with its growing range of genres and practices, has seen an exponential expansion in the last decade. Design is no longer a twentieth-century studio-based practice confined to the authorship of given individuals, or the strictures of a purely profit-driven design management team working to a fixed brief and a crude consumer profile. Models of the autocratic design guru behind his drawing board appear today as anachronistic as the notoriously misogynistic advertising industry of the 1950s. As user groups, co-design and participatory methods increasingly shape the practice, and as a renewed focus on people, their relations, beliefs and practices comes to the fore, we are witnessing a seismic shift to the “social.”
—Alison J. Clarke, Émigré Culture and the Origins of Social Design, 2015
Social Design is the practice of design where the primary motivation is to promote positive social change within society. As both a discipline and a professional practice that has experienced dramatic growth in recent years, Social Design remains nascent in its teaching, research, and community-oriented practices. Initially inspired by the writings of Victor Papanek and many others, social design’s “social” agenda is to encourage designers and creative professionals to adopt a proactive role and effect tangible change to make life better for others—rather than to sell them products and services they neither need nor want, which has been the primary motivation for commercial design practice in the twentieth century.
The term “social design” has continued to gain momentum within academia, business, and governmental organizations over the past twenty years. But what does this term actually mean? When linked together, the two words social design seem to simulate a state of ambiguity. It is no wonder that there seems to be no consensus on the meaning of this term! If we separate the words “social” and “design,” we discover that both words are nouns.1 As a noun, the word social is defined as “an informal social gathering, especially one organized by the members of a particular club or group.” As a noun, the word design is defined as a “purpose or planning that exists behind an action, fact, or object.”2 The word social is also an adjective which is “a word naming an attribute of a noun”; and the word design is also a verb which is “a word used to describe an action, state, or occurrence, and forming the main part of the predicate of a sentence, such as hear, become, happen.”3 For example: “Everyone designs who devises courses of action aimed at changing existing situation into preferred ones.”4
A term is a “word or phrase used to describe a thing or to express a concept, especially in a particular kind of language or branch of study.”5 In the term social design, the use of the word social functions as an adjective naming a particular attribute of design or “a synonym for ‘highly problematic condition’, which poses the need for urgent intervention, outside normal market or public service modalities” as suggested by eminent researcher and educator Ezio Manzini.6 However, what do we have in mind when we use the term social design? Isn’t all design understood as social by nature? “Design is the enactment of human instinct and a construct that facilitates the materialization of our world.”7 I would agree with this statement. Design gives shape and form to the material and immaterial products and services that can address problems and contribute to the well-being of humankind. Wikipedia defines the term social design in this way: “Social design is design that is mindful of the designer’s role and responsibility in society; and the use of the design process to bring about social change. Within the design world, social design is sometimes defined as a design process that contributes to improving human well-being and livelihood.”8
And on the use of the term itself:
The term social design is also increasingly used to describe design of the social world. This definition implicates a perception of a man-made reality, which consequently can only be changed by humans, and is changed by humans all the time. In this view social design is inescapable, it is there whether people are aware of it or not. The social reality is created as a result of the sum of all our individual actions. There is an emerging discussion of this concept of social design, which encompasses all other definitions of the term.9
In 2010, the Winterhouse First Symposium on Design Education and Social Change was convened to form the basis for a collaborative network with the goal of providing students with the tools and training to explore and address social-design problems:
The diffuseness of social-design educational efforts can be partly attributed to vagueness in definition. The phrases “social change,” “social innovation” and “social design” appear frequently in academic and journalistic discourse, but rarely with precision. At the same time, the meaning of “design” has expanded beyond the creation or arrangement of objects and communications to describe such conceptual approaches as systems design, service design and design thinking … The concept of “social design” is still in its infancy. Social design needs to be defined more clearly in relation to social enterprise, social entrepreneurship and social innovation.10
In 2012, the Social Impact Design Summit was convened at the Rockefeller Foundation headquarters in New York to address the challenges and opportunities within the field today. A white paper based on the summit titled “Design and Social Impact: A Cross-Sectoral Agenda for Design Education” was published and widely disseminated. One of the major stumbling blocks that emerged was that “summit participants singled out the lack of a clear understanding of what the term means. Greater clarity, they proposed, would lead to better-defined goals and would boost appreciation of the value of the field.”11
They identified socially responsible design [as] an overarching term for design that is socially, environmentally, and economically sustainable—three quality-of-life pillars defined and addressed by an international community. The field is also known as public-interest design, social design, social impact design, socially responsive design, transformation design, and humanitarian design. In this report, the terms social impact design and socially responsible design will be used interchangeably.12 Laura Kurgan, one of the thirty-four summit participants offered:
Socially responsible is often the wrong term to define what it is trying to address. Often, socially responsible design implies a) solving the problem of poverty, or b) prioritizing people and use in a design problem rather than design itself, or c) sustainable design, which is equally hard to define. Being socially responsible—or solving urban problems through design—means addressing politics, globalization, health, education, criminal justice, or economics among others.13
In 2014, a report was commissioned by the UK-based Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) and published by the University of Brighton that presented the findings of a nine-month study of opportunities and challenges for research in the social design arena. This report offered a cogent description of the term social design:
The term “social design” highlights the concepts and activities enacted within participatory approaches to researching, generating and realising new ways to make change happen towards collective and social ends, rather than predominantly commercial objectives. Social design can therefore be understood to encompass a broad set of motivations, approaches, audiences and impacts. For instance, these may be embedded within government policies or public services extremely critical of and divergent from these. Social design may be carried out by people who think of themselves as designers or who studied at design schools, or it might be an activity of designing that takes place involving people who are not professional designers.14
Is Social Design a Thing?
To continue the exploration of the meaning of the term social design, design academic Cameron Tonkinwise posits important questions we should all consider and contributes a “schema of the different meanings of the ‘social’ in Social Design” in his 2015 rumination “Is Social Design a Thing?” He concludes (thankfully) that Social Design is indeed a “thing” in its own right.
Social Design: From Utopia to the Good Society
“I believe we are at a global turning point. Design now has to be for social good and I’m shaping a vision of what a ‘good society’ could be and how design and designers could help to bring it about.”15 Eminent design historian and scholar Victor Margolin shapes his vision of the “good society” in his 2015 paper “Social Design: From Utopia to the Good Society.” Design has a long history of commitment to addressing social issues in the design movements of the late nineteenth century that sought to improve working conditions to the mid-twentieth-century designers critical of consumerist society. Surveying social design’s historical roots, Margolin connects its origins by examining influential utopian visionaries such as designers William Morris, Walter Gropius, and Richard Buckminster-Fuller. Margolin concludes that such a study of their foresight, ethos, and values could be very beneficial in visioning the future of social design—“utopian thought is a particular kind of proactive thought that is removed from the constraints of the real world. It provides an opportunity to imagine an ideal place that can serve as a beacon towards which to strive.” While Margolin does recognize the aspirational value of utopian ideals, he argues that the “good society” project16 should move beyond these ideals to address real world situations realized by real world actions.
In evaluating the importance of Victor Papanek’s 1971 book Design for the Real World, Margolin acknowledges that Papanek “was one of the first designers to call attention to ways that design could be practiced outside the market.” But Margolin is also critical that Papanek did not “recognize the problems he identified as part of a dysfunctional social and political system that itself was badly in need of redesign” when he argues that “when the mechanisms to engender change from within the ‘real-world’ are flawed, we need to address these mechanisms themselves and develop an alternative ‘action frame.’ ” To this end, Margolin advocates that designers should come up with a new “action frame” for the world: “We need to rethink the way we organize our lives at every level from the local to the global.” He concludes by asking “whether the international community of design educators and designers can recognize its own power as a collective agent of change and undertake a radical rethinking of how we could live, a rethinking that this community, better than anyone, can translate into propositions for projects that inspire people to carry them out.”
Émigré Culture and the Origins of Social Design
In her influential paper “Émigré Culture and the Origins of Social Design,” design historian and social anthropologist Alison J. Clarke explores the genesis of social design through the focused lens of the Austrian and Central European émigrés and exiled designers who established influential networks within the United States—to promote a more progressive humanist culture encompassing new strategies—for a socially inclusive design culture that continues to influen...

Table of contents

Citation styles for The Social Design Reader
APA 6 Citation
Resnick, E. (2019). The Social Design Reader (1st ed.). Bloomsbury Publishing. Retrieved from (Original work published 2019)
Chicago Citation
Resnick, Elizabeth. (2019) 2019. The Social Design Reader. 1st ed. Bloomsbury Publishing.
Harvard Citation
Resnick, E. (2019) The Social Design Reader. 1st edn. Bloomsbury Publishing. Available at: (Accessed: 14 October 2022).
MLA 7 Citation
Resnick, Elizabeth. The Social Design Reader. 1st ed. Bloomsbury Publishing, 2019. Web. 14 Oct. 2022.