Humble Design for a Social World

In our presentation of the J-Frame, we refer to “social design” as distinct from “total design”.

Total design is a term we use to describe the world view of design that started with the Bauhaus movement: it is interior design applied to the external world. What we mean by this is that the underlying assumption of most design practice is that the designer is ultimately tasked with using her expertise and insight to shape the world in a way that people find to be better for them. The designer immerses herself within a slum community, identifies their relationship with water, and ultimately delivers a new clean-water product that works better for them. She is drawing on her internal conception of what the world should be to shape the external environment.

Co-design is, in part, a reaction to the centrality of the designer in the creation of products, services, and experiences. It places the designer in the role of facilitator, drawing out the imaginations and problem-solving abilities of a community to redesign their world in a way that is better. Nevertheless, the same “total design” principle applies of an internal concept of what ‘good’ looks like being used to actively shape the world.

In our J-Frame, we juxtapose “total design” with “social design”. Social design is, however, already a loaded terms with multiple meanings and representing different world views.

  • For the technology community, ‘social design’ tends to represent the integration of systems for easy connection and communication between people as part of their participation in an experience.
  • For the design community, ‘social design’ seems to be associated primarily with using design as a tool to bring about social ‘good’.
  • For a small sub-section of the design and technology communities, ‘social design’ appears to be associated with the concept of crowd-sourced design – drawing on the collective imagination of people to create something new.

At ImpactReady, we have a working model of social design that draws on all of these ideas. [Caveat alert – this is still very iterative and we continue to learn]

We start by defining “Social Design” as “designing for a social world”. We believe that the world is becoming more social: more connected, more aware of our responsibility for creating good, and more informal in our organisational arrangements.

Social design has to respond to all of these trends by becoming:

  1. Collaborative: Social design needs to create the opportunity for collaborative behaviours and shared experiences. It should be rooted in concepts of trust, reputation and open knowledge. Recognition is derived from seeing new insights and creating real social value. Sharing is rewarded through more personalised and relevant experiences.
  2. Meaningful: Social design must go beyond concepts of conversation, community, and identity. It should be rooted in meaning: enabling people to express and realise meaning will drive the creation of collective good.
  3. Informal: The Social World can achieve organisation without organisations. Social design must recognise that relationships are fluid, organic and networked. Design can be truly inclusive and not geared primarily around institutions.

At the heart of this concept of social design is a changed role for the designer: from being at the centre (either as ‘architect’ or ‘facilitator’) to being in the background. The social designer becomes one who creates “social infrastructure”, building the opportunities, relationships, and platforms from which groups of people can discover one another, join together, and to create a new world for themselves.

With social design, building into the ‘public space’ becomes a more humble enterprise. The vision of a designer creating a statement through a building, product, or social programme is replaced by that of one in which the designer contributes to an empowering environment for all people to discover their individual and collective agency.

We are not sure how possible it is to realise this conceptualisation of social design, or where the boundaries lie for its application. But it serves as a landmark for us as we seek out ways to transform our existing institutions and processes: shaping them for a more collaborative future.