Social Design Rant 1 — Lorraine Gamman

As part of our Expert Workshop, we asked participants to each make a 4-minute rant on a designated topic.

We are blogging the text of some of them, with thanks to their contributors.

The first of these is by Lorraine Gamman, Professor of Product and Spatial Design at Central St Martins, University of the Arts London and Director of Design Against Crime.


I am not sure that there can be an easy definition of social design, or an easy policy about this, given that players in the field seem to me to deliver different types of social innovation as well as socially responsive design as part of existing design practice. Ezio Manzini’s concerns raised elsewhere are shared by me too. Designers are often generalists – and there are many actors in the design field and so differentiating social design from market-led design has always been annoying and needs to be clear about what expertise we believe we have linked to our holistic focus.  For example, Hartmut Esslinger of Frog Design was arguing in an expo that Adam Thorpe and I spoke at the MAK in Vienna in 2013, that his products are aimed at enhancing well-being constitute” social design”.  I disagree as I feel his is a simple market- led approach, with a bit of ‘well-being wash’ added, but this is a longer argument. My point is that clarity of definition still escapes this area. Maybe we need to lose the word ‘social’ altogether, but what to replace it with is not clear to me.

So to rant:

  1. Certainly in the UK we need to challenge the grasp of NESTA and TSB who act as almost conglomerates for techy start-ups and the third sector. They dominate because they hold the purse strings of what can be understood as social innovation or social design or even socially responsive design. What is design’s future role in this context needs to be better understood not least because a lot of community arts practice in prison, for instance, looks very much like design for social innovation, as does urban architecture and slippage between terms is clearly in need of further investigation.
  2. We have to make sure our Universities can accommodate part-time students who do not follow the normal career path, rather than end up as finishing school for students who can pay (which will make us fragile anyway). The nature of bottom-up social innovation or socially responsive design engagement and how it links courses to communities needs to be thought through from the point of view of the anti-fragile educational pathways as these will impact on the research agenda later.
  3. Whilst I feel it will be useful to have some sort of policy in place that gets government and research councils to support what many of us do – we have survived without that and need to be careful about policy fashions and so our definitions should include a very broad church of activity. I am keen however to see AHRC support more social design projects, and also to change how researchers can apply for such grant in strategic ways discussed at the workshop on 2nd June at V & A.
  4. The Design Against Crime Research Centre’s (DACRC) practice is diverse because it embraces different approaches. Consequently we have sought strength by coagulating towards the DESIS network which we have joined and which is in place in over 40 countries precisely because of its recognition of the emergence of the social innovation movement and ability to provide partners to make bids.  DESIS (from the point of view of a practioners working with social responsive design in the uk since 1999) for me leads this practice led approach at present. For me the main strength of DESIS is its recognition of diversity of design approaches to social design and so Design Against Crime intends to learn from partners in other countries, from their practice as much as their theory, and the fact that each is “ political” in a different way.
  5. We need to be clear what the politics is behind the policy or it may be the header on our tombstone: my point is that diversity has value in terms of challenging discursive power bases. Finally, I have always thought policy lags behind practice and so I want to make the case for practice-led social responsive design research experimentation with communities as to what works –and evidencing that. Socially responsive design, defined by Gamman and Thorpe elsewhere in depth, attempts to work with existing networks where they are in place, which may include government as well as market and business mechanisms.   In terms of the crime agenda we offer a specialist focus but the learning is transferable to other areas and the methods and the learning very diverse. Thing is, for example, our own DACRC practice embraces more than service design and the role of what are termed “boundary objects” of “ things” and so broad definition of social design remains significant for all of us as does the idea that a creative sensibility is not easy to imitate.

Lorraine Gamman. June 2014


Lorraine Gamman and Daniela Sangiorgi at the Expert Workshop, 2 June 2014, V&A

Lorraine Gamman and Daniela Sangiorgi at the Expert Workshop, 2 June 2014, V&A


This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s