Social Design: new discipline or ethos?

Guest blog by Joe Julier, researcher at FutureGov and research assistant at the University of the Arts London DESIS Lab.

The term ‘social design’ continues to gain momentum across academia, industry and government. With this growing popularity, the need to consider more carefully what the term means to those using it also becomes more pressing. Some of this work is being done through traditional academic channels such as through the DESIS Lab and this AHRC funded Mapping Social Design project. However, the discussion is also taking place informally, as a talking point for commercial designers, policy wonks and design students on lunch breaks and train journeys.

With one foot in both camps, I’d like to offer an observation, which, although obvious and quite banal, is one I’ve yet to come across as a subject of deliberate exploration. The question I want to ask is: does social design refer to a new form of practice, or the adoption of values which can inform any sector of design?

Should we consider social design as a new sub-discipline within design (similar to graphic design or product design, but with ‘the social’ as the designer’s material), or do we see ‘social design’ as a way of describing a set of ethical values applied to already-established design disciplines? Currently the term seems to be used to describe both situations interchangeably, and simultaneously. This is problematic as it leads to confusion about where to focus energy in future research, education and practice.

Before arguing why making this distinction is worthwhile, here is some very light supporting evidence in the form of a table. This shows how the division is currently playing out within design.

Social Design as Sub-discipline Social Design as Ethos
Cabinet Office Design Lab Government Digital Service
Uscreates and STBY Futerra
Livework, Innovation Unit FutureGov, Sidekick
DESIS case studies: Metadesigning, Green Camden, Ageing Well LCC DESIS case studies: Re-branding the Branded, YMCA
Design ethnography courses (e.g. University of Dundee) SustainRCA, Helen Hamlyn Research Centre

Admittedly this division is simplistic, skimming over the complexities and nuances of differences in practices. However, when you focus on the variation in output, I would argue that the distinction is strong enough to be worth calling out. Whilst those working in social design as a sub-discipline are likely to produce insight reports, videos, boundary objects and policy recommendations, those adopting a social ethos, within an already established sub-discipline, will produce more traditionally recognisable design things: branding guidelines, websites, products and so on.

What’s more, as important as the examples above are, in a field that is as undefined and sprawling as social design, the utility of the observation as a heuristic is equally, if not more important. So, why is cleaving social design in two worthwhile? Because it allows us to ask more precise questions about the way we evaluate, teach and research ‘social design’.

Social Design as a sub-discipline
By considering social design as a new sub-discipline, we can ask the following questions.

  • How does social design differentiate itself from community engagement, community art, management consultancy, social research and ‘nudge’?

  • Given its focus on the social, why is social design’s engagement with already established methodological and epistemological debates generally so underdeveloped?

  • What is the impact/outcome of social design?  Is it a transformative process which can only benefit direct participants, or can it scale? If it can scale how does this work and how do we prove it?

  • What is the place of craft within social design? As other sub-disciplines have Adobe creative suite, lathes, drawing and pattern cutting, does social design have an equivalent. Is it design methods and ethnography?

  • What are the tacit competencies and sensitivities that social design courses should look for? If there is a social design tribe, what does it look like?

  • How do we articulate the relationship between social innovation and social design?

Social Design as an ethos
Alternatively, if we envision social design as an ethos that can underpin a diverse range of practices, what questions should we ask? Perhaps the following.

  • What are the political and ethical values (ideology) that underpin social design projects? Are they liberal projects, Stalinist projects, post-colonial projects? Do they need to be homogenous?

  • What are the criteria that enable a design activity to qualify as social design? Does it need to be for non-profit organisations, or just for social good? If the latter, what actually constitutes ‘social good’?

  • What is the state of the client-agency relationship in this work? What needs to be done to improve or alter this, both in terms of procurement mechanisms and knowledge/receptiveness?

  • How can HEIs contribute to developing this work, and encouraging students to focus in this area? Student projects with real clients etc.?

  • At what point does user-centred product/communication design transition into social design? Should we be encouraging a disciplinary division like this at all?

And finally, if we divide social design up in this way, we should also ask how these two approaches intersect with one another.

Follow Joe on twitter here: @JoeJulier

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3 Responses to Social Design: new discipline or ethos?

  1. Pingback: Social Design: new discipline or ethos? | Fred Zimny's Serve4impact

  2. Pingback: Where is the social in social design? | Mapping Social Design Research & Practice

  3. keerthanajay says:

    Brilliant Post, Thought provoking questions

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