Where is the social in social design?


Universidad de Buenos Aires, Faculty of Philosophy and Letters, Community Action Centre

University of Buenos Aires, Faculty of Philosophy and Letters, Innovation and Development Centre for Community Action


The concept of the social is hotly contested to the point that most sociologists these days accept that any singular definition is impossible. Add this to design, which is in a constant state of re-invention and fragmentation, and we have mayhem.

But it is precisely the trickiness of the concept of the social that is making things so difficult for design. In this blog post, I want to ask if social design really is grappling with the social? Or is it just getting distracted by other things?

Dolwick (2009) identifies three understandings of what the social means. Summarizing his summary, these are:

  • association — anything and everything that co-exists, which can include humans, plants, animals and material artefacts;
  • human aggregates — when people come together and meanings and representations are passed from person to person;
  • social structures and facts — what is left over when we cut out ‘individual’, ‘psychical’, ‘natural’ and ‘material’.

Thus, in social theory, the social is already multiple in how it can be identified and described. It can exist in various scales and locations. It follows, pertinently to social design, that the objects of analysis change according to different conceptions of the social as well. The emphasis laid on material artefacts will differ too.

Each of these also involves appraisal. In order to work with any of these definitions, we have to decide, by their respective approaches, how social is it? For instance, how strong and dense are the associations that make up a system of co-existence? In human aggregates, are the meanings and representations that are passed between people collectively or variously understood? What are the levels of agency and resistance between the macro- of social structures (laws, the workplace etc.) and the individual?

These kinds of (quite abstract) questions are large, but may provide sets of sub-questions through which we might interrogate and practice social design. In the meantime, it seems to me that conceptual engagement between social design and the social in all its manifestations is limited. Here are two reasons why.

Firstly, social design (and, indeed, design per se), has fixated mostly on ‘the micro-social users’ experiences’ as Lucy Kimbell has recently put it. The whittling down of the object of analysis to observing individuals or small groups in part comes from an ergonomics and human-centred product design tradition that has moved into service and interaction design. Extending into focus groups, users’ observation or ethnography such methods run the risk of missing the a priori issue of how these groups are constituted in the first place. What makes them social? And within that, what material things are really functioning to make the social and vice versa?

This question takes us to the possibility that design can actually produce publics. So-called ‘communities of interest’ may coalesce around an issue, that issue itself being brought to the fore through design intervention. Design can provoke reactions that bring people together. But this notion of producing publics has recently come under scrutiny (e.g. see V&A Design Culture Salon 5). It is as well to remember that these ‘publics’ may be ephemeral or fake. They may be entirely self-referential in being about design without reference to issues such as health or the environment. Reflecting on the possibility of design and branding in producing ‘communities’,  Scott Lash (1994: 163) once wrote that communities are, in fact, formed through routine and habit, adding that ‘even the emotional relationship of high-density semantics is hardly a community’. In addition, publics or communities are still subjected to hierarchies of power and regulation that add further layers to how they are presented.

The second reason for this gap between social design and the social stems from the traditional scales and timeframes of design coupled with the macro-scales of political economy and public policy. This presents, in my view, an even more vexing challenge.

Design is mostly a project-based activity. If we extend to social design, the risk is that its practices are embedded into series of discreet and fragmented problem-solving exercises that don’t actually add up to any particular picture of what the social or society could be. This is not the fault of designers, however. For there part such bigger ambitions faded with the closure of the Bauhaus in 1933 in any case.

But we could blame the paymasters for this. Public sector delivery has been subjected to repeated waves of outsourcing to NGOs, charities, large corporations, small businesses, arms length management organisations and other such bodies. This ‘agentification’ has seen to the increasing atomisation and specialisation of service delivery. In turn, neither the deliverers constitute strong social entities in themselves nor, necessarily, are they  motivated by a larger idea of or enthusiasm for the social. Design follows suit in this context.

More recently in many countries, there has been a turn toward ‘outcome-based budgeting’ (OBB) or, otherwise, ‘outcome-based commissioning’ for the delivery of public services. This does what it says on the tin. Instead of thinking organisationally and financially in terms of the operations of a service structure, OBB looks to what one wants to achieve at the delivery end. Space doesn’t allow me to enlarge on the various fors and againsts of this way of thinking here. Suffice to say that with OBB come possibilities for rethinking and redesigning the ways that traditional public services are delivered.

OBB might add to this process of fragmentation of the social in social design as projects concentrate even more on the micro of what is delivered. Or it may open up opportunities for new co-existences of social practices. Designers may find new tools and methods for understanding how social groups are constituted. They can exploit correspondences or meeting points between them that in turn produce further social capital. A very well-known example of this would be FutureGov‘s Casserole Club.

Ethnography has become a common tool in the social designer’s box — a way of getting into a deeper understanding the functionings of social groups. But what other roles are there for the social sciences in social design? How might the social sciences bring more of the social into it?

I’d like to finish this post by drawing on a conversation I had with Pelle Ehn and Anders Emilson at the Medea Research Centre, Malmö University in November 2013. We circled around ideas of where the real possibilities for a more sociologically inflected design practice may take place.

In conversation with Anders Emilson and Pelle Ehn, MEDEA, Malmo University

In conversation with Anders Emilson and Pelle Ehn, MEDEA, Malmo University


First, sociology itself may be undertaken in a more performative and designerly way. Thus its research tools, processes and outcomes may be made more explicit to both its insiders and outsiders. This might place design more transparently in rather than for the social. This is, to extend from Bruno Latour, how things are really made public. The social sciences actually become active in the formation of the social, a knowing and visible participant.

Second, we might practice what Anders beautifully calls ‘dark pragmatism’. The pragmatism is in engaging with problems through design. The dark part is that through this, we really understand how they are socially constituted. This may sound like, straightforwardly, what designers just do. But I think the intention here is that design allows a privileged intimacy with a situation while at the same time, a sociologically-informed critical understanding of it that gives perspective and insights on the forces that shape it.

Third, following on from Donna Haraway, there are multiple accountabilities in any situation. If the social requires co-existence, then this is hybrid in that there are layers of interests and motivations at play. And, to repeat, publics are subjected to hierarchies of power and regulation. Social design might look to long-term infrastructuring that facilitates and ameliorates these accountabilities. Beyond the discreet project, social design can be embedded into long-term dynamics, brokering relationships and providing on-going points of contact between varying interests.

This probably sounds a bit heady and we could do worse than come back to the question of what kind of social design we are talking about.

The guest blog post by Joe Julier (yes, relation) suggested that we should begin to pick apart different ways of doing social design. Specifically, he suggested that it could be an ethos (design within already-established modes, defined by ethical values) or a sub-discipline (as a specifically new mode of practice, still getting consolidated).

Each of these has their problems, but the second feels more emergent and challenging in terms of where this might take research and practice. Following the idea of ‘dark pragmatism’, however, we might still ask what social design could be a sub-discipline of? Of the social sciences rather than design?



Dolwick, Jim S. (2009) ”The Social’ and Beyond:  Introducing Actor-Network Theory’, Journal of Maritime Archaeology, 4:21-49.

Lash, Scott (1994) ‘Reflexivity and its Doubles:  Structure, Aesthetics, Community’ in Beck, U., Giddens, A. and Lash, S. Reflexive Modernization:  Politics, Tradition and Aesthetics in the Modern Social Order Cambridge: Polity.

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One Response to Where is the social in social design?

  1. Aditya Pawar says:

    Reblogged this on Making-of Social Innovation.

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