The Politics in Social Design

This is a re-post from

Recent years have seen something of a proliferation of social design work (see here for our working definition of social design). Some of this has been about making objects that ‘solve’ social problems: for example the One Laptop per Child project. But there has also been an expansion of non-object-centric projects, of design methods being applied to social challenges that would normally be tackled in other ways. Much of this kind of social design practice has involved either:

  • designers working with, or within, governments, or
  • governments themselves explicitly adopting design methodologies as part of their own toolkit, or
  • designers working with social groups to develop new offerings that replace eroded public services (the space formerly known as Big Society).

This new context for design has not gone unnoticed. In fact, the idea of design stepping into an overtly political space tends to cause a fair bit of consternation: is it fully equipped for the challenge?

Under New Labour (when it all began in earnest in the UK), designers were liable to be written off as complicit in – and significantly benefitting from – the marketisation of public services, and the move to turn ‘citizens’ into ‘consumers’ (a new identity that not all ‘citizens’ readily recognised).  Under the Coalition, there is a tendency for the (predominantly left-leaning) majority of the design community to be suspicious of any designer willing to fraternise with a Conservative agenda, and to read a malevolent undertone into attempts by a right-of-centre government to make use of design.

For example, see this comment from Jeremy Till on (the new single platform government website) winning the Designs of the Year Award 2013. Till suggests that’s design principle of ‘do less’ (in their own account, a response to previous government websites that handed out unnecessary pieces of advice like ‘put a jumper on if cold’, and ‘how to recognise a wave’) is in fact the embodiment of the Coalition government’s determination to ‘do less’ for everyone. Justin McGuirk says a similar thing in a piece entitled ‘Design and the Right’, and, following Morozov, points to the use of utopian design terminology to support a ‘hard core right wing agenda’ (participation becomes DIY public services, open source becomes open government, customisation becomes localism).*

The problem here is design’s slightly chameleonic ability to slot itself into any system as a catalytic element – and indeed to actively seek opportunities to do so for commercial reasons. This means that it’s liable to find itself with a range of bedfellows. However in government there is a difference between politics and administration. Most designers working with or alongside the current government, and particularly those working with local authorities – a level removed from national politics – would clearly distinguish between aligning themselves with the wider political agenda, and helping administrations work better for the benefit of the communities they govern. Often that means helping organisations adapt to changes instigated by political decisions (such as funding cuts). Most designers would say they have little power over the political decisions, but can make a big positive difference to the front line, so why shouldn’t they help where they can? They would favour pragmatic action over conscientious objection.

But should they be ‘pushing back’ on some of this, in the case where they don’t agree with the politics? Perhaps a better understanding of systems and theories of power would allow them to tackle problems at that level, rather than just focusing on helping people deal with the systems. At the very least, perhaps they do need a better framework for understanding whatever political context they are launching themselves into.

A similar criticism might be levelled at those designers working with communities on social innovation-type projects, facilitating the development of some kind of new service or system in the absence of state-funded services. Even though many might see such work as ethically and socially motivated, and apolitical, in fact this too can be read as compliance with a neoliberal agenda to dismantle the state – a way of making sustainable a particular political project. Cameron Tonkinwise discussed this very question in an article for Core 77 a couple of years ago, and commented:

‘being ethical, in order to avoid politics, is a political position, most definitely if you are trying to design (or redesign existing innovations in) non-government-based social services… it does put you on the ‘make-government-smaller’ side of the neoliberal-liberal spectrum’.

In the UK this is further complicated by the toxicity of the ‘Big Society’ brand. This has now been fully written off by the left as ‘Cameron’s sleight of hand for scaling down of government in accord with neo-liberal and libertarian ideologies’. And it’s been written off by everyone else as a lot of hot air that didn’t really deliver.

But whilst ‘Big Society’ was undoubtedly a Tory project, actually there is more than one way, in terms of ideologies, to read attempts to rekindle the strata of civil society that has been undermined by globalisation and the natural break-up of closely-knit communities. It’s not necessarily an evil neoliberal plot – and designers choosing to work in this space might be doing something different – even inventing new kinds of ideologies and politics.

The question underlying all of these things is whether we expect designers, as a professional group, to take political and ethical stances on things? Historically – with the exception of activist designers – they have mostly taken the money and done the work. It hasn’t been their job to consider the wider context. If they’re now engaging in big public issues, and social contexts, ought there to be a rethinking of the professional framework? Should there be a Hippocratic oath for designers? In all of the design community it’s only the architects who have institutional structures guaranteeing a certain level of professional ethics. (In theory. Certain people obviously missed that memo.)

So: how do we know, essentially, that whenever designers are peddling their wares to governments and communities-in-need, they aren’t just following the money? And how could those designers who are motivated by a social change agenda do their work whilst taking a stance on the political context?


*What’s being elided in both these examples is administration and politics: the Civil Service’s attempts to improve its own systems of working (and thereby spend taxpayers’ money more efficiently), and the wider agenda of a section of the political class. Of course those two things aren’t entirely separate – but neither are they, as any Minister would affirm, seamlessly joined up. and the move to ‘open policymaking’ are not, in themselves, especially political projects, neither of them are about shrinking or expanding the state, and it’s important to distinguish between what they’re actually about, and what politicians happen to say about them to align with their own messaging.

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