Mapping Social Design Practice: Beyond the Toolkit

IDEO's Human Centered Design Toolkit

Along with the emergence of self-consciously social design or design for social impact over the past decade has come a plethora of toolkits. I’m guilty of having contributed to this development and will acknowledge below the publications I have been involved in creating. The purpose of this post, however, is to step back from the toolkits and identify some of the issues and themes emerging when designing – the intentional, skilled, reflective work practices of people who think of their activities as designing – becomes materialised in the form of artefacts such as tools, kits, templates, and card decks.  Although some of the most well-known social design toolkits will be highlighted, the intention is not to produce an exhaustive list. Rather, the aim is to prompt a critical and historically-informed conversation about the toolkit-as-device in contemporary social design practice.

There is a historical parallel with an earlier moment in design history. As an academic discipline, the study of design is about 50 years old. A summary of the history of what is called design research or design studies, often starts with the Design Methods Movement and some of its contributors’ attentiveness to the ways that designers do designing. Writers/designers such as John Chris Jones, author of the book Design Methods (1970, still in print), tried to capture what went on in designing. Although Jones and other collaborators later disavowed this effort because they thought it reduced design to mere procedure and missed the serendipitous discoveries of creative design practice, it is this body of research that was a forerunner of what we currently, and unfortunately, call design thinking.

There are other factors that shape the creation and dissemination of toolkits as a way of enacting a professional practice. In professions that have rigorous and legally-proscribed accreditation procedures such as law, accountancy, architecture and medicine, practices of certification and ongoing training and personal development include “practice notes” and toolkits. These are often published by awarding bodies and other institutions, rather than self-published by practitioners, as in design. Other influences include activities on the margins of contemporary professions, such as artist/musician Brian Eno and artist Peter Schmidt’s Oblique Strategies card deck. Originally published in an edition of 500 in 1975, this card deck stems from the dialogues between two artists, rather than being seen as a tool for designing. But it prefigures many of today’s design card decks as materialised way to engage people in doing and thinking differently.

What’s distinctive about the contemporary flourishing of social design methods, however, is that they mostly set out to be accessible to and taken up by people who do not think of themselves as designers. Located in an expanding field of professional design, these toolkits, typically distributed online or, if printed, often marketed and sold online, end up on servers and laptops, or stuck on bookshelves or on walls in organizations and project teams far beyond where their authors might have imagined they might end up. They disrupt the authority of the heroic individual designer, and aim to make available a designerly intention, or work practice and ways of going about things to change a current situation. It’s not clear, however, to what extent this is achieved in today’s social design toolkits, or whether indeed it is even possible.

Some of the issues and themes that emerge when reviewing the various artefacts associated with social design toolkits, their authors/publishers/funders, their intended uses, how use unfolds in practice leading to actual outcomes, and the networks in which they are caught up include:

–       The extent to which those engaging with a toolkit are inside or outside an issue it aims to address (an emic v etic perspective).
–       How difference, power relations, and conflict are acknowledged and handled.
–       Claims of legitimacy and knowledge by experts v non-experts.
–       How constructs such as behaviour, behaviour change, collaboration, participation and innovation are set up within the toolkit and how they unfold in its usage and in relation to wider conversations within policy, activism and politics.
–       The boundary-creating practices and moves that render some participants as insiders and others as outsiders, or as experts, or as designers.
–       The relationships between “tools” and modes of being and working in particular professional, activist and non-designer practices.

Here is a brief overview some of the most prominent toolkits (in the sense of easy-to-locate via Google or associated with influential organisations) that focus on social design or design for social impact. Presented in approximate chronological order by date of publication, these toolkits bring these issues into view in how these artefacts are presented and what they contain. (The descriptions below are edited versions taken from the resources’ own websites and any mistakes are mine.)

The Social Innovation Lab for Kent Method Deck (2007) (SILK) created by UK consultancy Engine as part of their work for Kent County Council was an early attempt to materalise and make more widely available to relevant professionals and local residents a design-based approach to designing public services.

IDEO Design for Social Impact guide and workbook. Commissioned by The Rockefeller Foundation, this guide based on interviews with designers involved in social sector work in 2008 explores how design firms can work differently to bring a social impact perspective into their work.

The IDEO Human Centred Design Toolkit (2009) commissioned by the Bill and Melina Gates Foundation is aimed at social enterprises and NGOs around the world. It is one of the most widely cited and linked social design resources.

Project H’s Design Revolution Toolkit (2009) is a teaching resource which offers a series of provocations and challenges aimed at students and teachers.

The NHS Institute for Improvement and Innovation Experience-based Design (EBD) toolkit (2009) is a way to bring patients and staff together to share the role of improving care and re-designing healthcare services.

The Design Against Crime research centre at Central Saint Martins, University of the Arts, London, describes its methodology for bringing a design-based approach to tackling crime with a focus on user/mis-user and abuser driven innovation (2010).

The Design with Intent tookit (2010) developed by designer-researcher Dan Lockton focuses on behaviour change in relation to environmental impact.

Nesta’s Prototyping Framework (2011), developed by UK agency ThinkPublic, is a guide for people working in the design and delivery of public sector services, to help them prototype services more effectively.

The Design Council’s Accident and Emergency (A&E) Toolkit (2011) is for NHS managers, clinicians and designer and healthcare planners who want to develop and deliver a better service in effective and inspiring environments. It aims to help people understand how to use design to develop integrated quality improvement plans and improve performance against A&E clinical quality indicators.

The Danish Government’s cross-ministerial innovation unit MindLab has published its Methods Cards. It uses methodologies anchored in design-centred thinking, qualitative research and policy development, with the aim of including the reality experienced by both the public and businesses into the development of new public-sector solutions.

The Australian Centre for Social Innovation (TACSI) published Co-designing Thriving Solutions: A prototype curriculum for social problem solving, summarizing the approach taken by its Radical Redesign Team (2011).

The Frog Collective Action Toolkit (2012). This is a package of resources and activities that enable groups of people anywhere to organize, build trust, and collaboratively create solutions for problems impacting their community.

The Social Design Methods Menu (2012) by Lucy Kimbell and Joe Julier summarises 11 methods used with both social entrepreneurs and MBA students, and suggests how to combine them into some recipes.

The Young Foundation Accelerator’s Social Business Model Canvas (2012), created by Stuart Thomas and Lucy Kimbell, reworks Alex Osterwalder’s Business Model Canvas and puts social impact at the centre.

Nesta’s Open Workshop is a web resource for social innovators soft launched in 2012. It includes a version of the social innovation project development spiral previously associated with The Young Foundation. A topic on creative thinking tools and techniques in the generating ideas phase includes the Creative Design Tool. This “is a way to help groups to become aware of the ‘rules’ that govern their thinking and to prompt them to imagine new possibilities”. Here it is notable that “design” is associated with idea generation, rather than the whole of the service/project development arc as in many of the other toolkits.

Laura Forlano and Anijo Mathew’s Designing Policy Toolkit (2013) is a place-based policy design toolkit funded by the Urban Communication Foundation. This resource illustrates the ways in which urban technologies are embedded with values, as well as how codesign methods enable diverse stakeholders to come together around the complex sociotechnical questions that are shaping everyday life in cities.

UNIDIR and livework are developing an Evidence-based Programme Design resource. This is an approach to reintegration programming with the aim of improving local-level effectiveness in post-conflict stabilization and peacebuilding efforts. Not yet published, this work is supported by the Ministry for European Affairs and International Cooperation of the Netherlands and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Norway.

For the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC)-commissioned study mapping social design research and practice that this blog is part of, some emerging research questions we will tackle are:

– What do these toolkits aim/claim to do? Who are they for?  What do they hope to achieve?
– What actually happens with/through/despite them?
– How relevant, adaptable, and useable are these approaches, methods, concepts and tools for the purposes to which they are put by people using such toolkits?
– To what extent are such designerly approaches relevant and productive in the  complex social worlds in which designing takes place?
– To what extent can designerly expertise/approaches/skills be embedded in toolkits outside of a learning process guided by someone with relevant knowledge and experience?
– If the use of different kinds of toolkits has been studied, what was learned?
– How do non-designers engage with the concepts and methods enacted in toolkits?
– How do designers engage productively with differences of worldview, power and experience when working with people who are constructed as users of public or social services especially those deemed vulnerable, or at risk?
– To what extent can a toolkit or other publication make available the approaches taken by people working within professional design culture (in the sense of design-school based design)?
– Given the lack of political, social and cultural knowledge within professional design (and most of its educational institutions), how are politics and power handled within the production and use of toolkits?
– How do toolkits relate to and intersect with other modes of action and learning such as digital communities, MOOCs, formal learning and professional development?
– How do the goals of particular funding agencies (eg Rockefeller, Gates, Nesta) construct social design in particular ways?

We’ll be answering some of these questions through our interviews, site visits, desk research and a forthcoming digital research initiative, which are part of the Mapping Social Design Practice and Research that this blog is part of.  We’ll also be engaging with others exploring similar questions such as Change Observer’s reviews of this area, Nesta (see Geoff Mulgan’s discussion of what works) and the Design Council, and with perspectives outside of design.

The aim is to help the AHRC understand issues in this emerging field, to help shape future academic research. We welcome contributions, for example in the form of posting comments below, adding to our partial list of toolkits and resources, and helping others working in this area understand what a design-based approach brings to policy and social challenges and issues.


About Lucy Kimbell

Director, Innovation Insights Hub, University of the Arts London. AHRC research fellow, Policy Lab, Cabinet Office. Associate fellow, Said Business School, University of Oxford. Author of Service Innovation Handbook. @lixindex
This entry was posted in methods, research, Toolkits. Bookmark the permalink.

19 Responses to Mapping Social Design Practice: Beyond the Toolkit

  1. Pingback: Mapping Social Design Practice: Beyond the Toolkit | Fred Zimny's Serve4impact

  2. Anon says:

    Really strikes a cord with me as are a series of issues that I have been thinking about to – and is the reason I have decided to try and take a different approach to design over the last few years.

    The list of questions you have pulled together are very poignant and certainly something I have been asking, more in terms of the “social design” more generally.

    In particular the lack of political, social and cultural knowledge within professional design and the ways politics and power are understood, challenged or (as is often the case) reinforced through social design theory and practice.

    More specifically I am conscious of how ideas of class, race and gender are treated and understood within practice. I feel that a lack of critical thinking, background knowledge and reflective practice is a really fundamental problem in some of the projects I have been a part of and this is something I have equally been guilty of not understanding or ignoring in the past.

    I also have similar questions around how the goals and ideologies of particular funding agencies shape the projects undertaken as well as the direction that those projects. Really interesting to see where this goes and your outcomes and would love to share some thoughts at some point.

    Also I feel that the industry is very closed down to this sort of critique or reflection which makes it very difficult to bring up these subjects without fear of being labelled negative – hence keeping my anonymity.

  3. catatsea says:

    Sorry you feel the need to be anon, Anon and hope to hear more from you. The issues you flag and the questions posed by the blog are absolutely crucial, or in sound bite terms “mission critical”. It’s in social design that the problem becomes most apparent and urgent – a universe where people with no conceptual models of how social worlds “happen” within which to frame their understandings and actions design for other’s social worlds. As Homer Simpson would say – doh! But it is a problem across the “design business”, not just for social design.

    Speaking as someone engaged with ethnography and design I pin a good deal of the fault at our own door. Ethnography has too often been sold (or bought) as a way of gaining “market intelligence” rather than as a way of helping people “doing” design understand that they are doomed to repeat their mistakes if they cannot unlearn their habitual ways of thinking, if they cannot embrace the possibility that individual and social consciousness and action are not pre-defined, stable, inevitable, or “natural” but shifting contingent sands that unfold in time.

    The problem with methods toolkits (and all co/collaborative/participatory/etc. design) is that they attempt to solve an important issue – the disconnect in understanding of social worlds between the designer and the designed for – based on an assumption that it is lack of designerly intention and skill that creates the problem. The non-designer can help the designer better if the non-designers can learn to act and think in designedly ways. But what if the problem is not lack of designerly skill and intention, but a lack of ability to truly engage with social worlds because you have never been trained to think beyond your habitual ways of thinking? This is exactly what ethnographers learn to do, yet we often hide all of that for fear of frightening people with our “ologies” and in so doing reduce our research to the status of another pot of knowledge whose status is never contested, to be used in processes of “reasoning” that are also never contested or even problematised. I am not familiar with all of the toolkits mentioned but several of those I have seen share a common concern with “making complex things easier to understand”… when in fact the aim really ought to be “making it possible to embrace complex things”. Design fails so often because it is really hard, and complex (again, d’oh!). But the real reason it is so hard and complex is that it is addressing needs that arise from the contingent shifting sands of social life.

    Design too often tries to present itself as a super-power that magics that complexity away (which of course very much tallies with capitalism’s elevator pitch “better living through more stuff”). Ethnography too often painfully straddles the problematic / de-problematised divide by claiming its own magic powers to engage with the complexity and reduce it to “actionable insights” (and don’t worry your pretty little heads too much about how we did that). In the world of commercial design the market and its forces can to some extent ameliorate these concerns – does it really matter if some design is quite crap, people will still buy crap (as Ratner so astutely noticed)? The issue does become more pointed in social design because the results of poor design can be a bit more immediately concerning / morally troublesome than yet anther crappy kitchen gadget hitting the landfill (where the moral trouble is more easily delayed). Rather than toolkits making it easier to embed existing design conceptual worlds and practices in social design perhaps what we need is to change the epistemologically uninformed habits of thinking of designers and non-designers alike? Perhaps what we need is a new model of “the prerequisites of good design” that prioritises having a rich enough “wisdom foundation” to frame our actions and efforts – a kind of “Noble Eight Fold Path of Design”?

  4. Dan Lockton says:

    I’m glad to see this more critical evaluation of the scope and impact of toolkits. When putting together Design with Intent, I was very much aware of the amount of assumptions and particular models of human behaviour that were embedded in it. It does include a number of patterns that I consider unethical, included for completeness rather than promoting them; as such I hoped that it could be used as a catalogue of tactics that might provoke discussion rather than suggesting them all as ideal solutions.

    The more ethnographic work I have done in subsequent projects, with a focus (again) on design, behaviour and practices, the more I have come to realise how limited the contextual scope of the toolkit, and the toolkit approach, can be. In the next version, which I hope to produce sometime next year, the aim is to address something like Catatsea’s “concern with “making complex things easier to understand”… when in fact the aim really ought to be “making it possible to embrace complex things””. I believe that by promoting actual research and co-design with people, with the public, as an integral part of design research, it can be possible for designers to understand the real-life social contexts of the people for/with whom they are designing. We must not lose the complexity, the requisite variety, of everyday life.

  5. alissproject says:

    Great post Lucy and a series of great questions. I am keen to follow this line of investigation and particulary interested in the political aspect of creating the right conditions for ‘social design’ research, tools, methods or so they have been boxed as to be used.

    We are often asked to share our tools, or repackage them for use after our work, however having studied these in use after designers with various depths of field leave the we are in the ideation and further realisation of the new\improved/altered context isn’t as impactful as when designers have been involved. However the method of thinking has led to some Incremental change.

    Keen to help in anyway from our experiences.

  6. Katie says:

    Excellent questions to tackle, Lucy, and ones that I’ve also been contemplating. I have trained and qualified as an architect but have been drawn to social/public interest design because of a more human-focused approach to problem solving that I felt was missing in architecture. There seems to be a lot of distancing from the end users of projects due to legal responsibilities and financial stakeholders, which leaves me questioning how the architecture profession has all but forgotten why we build in the first place–for people. I think there are a lot of learnings from both perspectives (formalized architecture and burgeoning social design) that can influence the future of design in general.

    A lot of great comments made by fellow readers as well. I look forward to seeing what you discover!

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  12. Aditya Pawar says:

    Reblogged this on Making-of Social Innovation and commented:
    A good list of Social Design tools. The tools are not as important as the intent in using them and how they are used. Design tools in essence need to be used to create and empathetic quality to the development process. And to a large extent should be about inclusions and co-creation of value.

  13. Pingback: Report: SDT 16, Designing Social Design Toolkits | Social Design Talks

  14. designdundee says:

    Reblogged this on master of design and commented:
    Lucy Kimbell on the use of toolkits, card decks and other methods

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