Social design under the microscope

ADF Papers Series 4: architecture and drawing, social design, fashion as installation. Image © OBJECTIF, courtesy of the British Council.

For the next few months I’m working on a research project for the Arts & Humanities Research Council. We’ll be mapping the academic work that’s been done on social design, as well as looking at the practice of it in the real world. The aim is to identify the gaps in thinking about this emergent area of design: what questions haven’t been asked? What might stand a bit more evaluation/ critique? Where are the new frontiers?

Social design isn’t a particularly established term. To some it means designers doing their work with a heightened awareness of the social and sustainability impact. But in the context of this project, we are talking about the increasing tendency of people with a design background to apply their methods/ approach to social challenges. The focus of analysis is more on the process than an end ‘product’ (although often there is a product or service that results). So while there isn’t yet an agreed name for this kind of activity, it’s getting to the point where it could bear being put under the spotlight.

Not least because this seems to be a critical moment for design. Governments around the world are starting to consider incorporating design approaches into their toolkits for policymaking and public services. But it’s still a relatively immature field, and there is plenty of scope for it to underperform: in which case it risks being consigned to the scrap heap of failed government experiments.

If this all sounds overly negative it’s because it’s a field in need of critical friends. In theory, it has a lot to offer at a moment when the relationships between state, civil society, publics and corporations need reconfiguring. It’s a promising field, but not an untroubled one. My fellow researchers (Guy Julier, Lucy Kimbell, Leah Armstrong) and I definitely come at it with a critical eye, wary of grandiose claims as to its effectiveness, and conscious of the additional complexities of intervening in social contexts, which a design training doesn’t necessarily prepare for.

For some potted examples of social design working well, see a paper I wrote recently for the British Council’s  ADF series here, and also the ‘social design talks’ blog, which documents two years’ worth of presentations about social design. For some slightly more reflective writing – and to follow the progress of our project – see our blog here: mapping social design research and practice.

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