So What is Social Design? by Ingrid Burkett

January 21, 2016By Ingrid Burkett

When we think of ‘design’ we often think of high-end products: buildings, household goods, cars, or fashion. But ‘design’ is about more than products and it’s certainly about more than fashion or the latest styles.

At the heart of good design is a search for ways to create a better world. Design is about finding solutions, practical innovations, and making improvements that enhance people’s lives, address problems or open up possibilities for a better life. When you think about design like this, ‘social design’ is about applying general design principles to our social realities and ‘designing’ ways to address social issues (such as poverty or social isolation), and ultimately creating a more just and sustainable society.

Social design can point to a particular outcome of a design process: that is, design for a social purpose. So social design can focus on the design of products that benefit people (for example, the design of water purifiers for people living without potable water); or services (for example, designing more inclusive financial services); or processes (for example, designing participatory decision-making processes inside organisations).

Social design isn’t about reinventing the wheel

Importantly, social design does not have to involve the creation of something new. It can help us to focus on how things can be improved, or how we can design greater effectiveness into existing systems. Improving service delivery for a particular group of people could be just as challenging as developing designing new technology systems to service excluded communities.

By the people, for the people

Social design can also point to the process of design itself. Considerations can include: who participates in the design process, who informs it, who benefits from it? So the design process can be social in that it engages people to design their own futures.

Social design is not necessarily about a professional designer designing things for people. It can also involve working with people to co-design and co-create products or services. The end-users of a product or service may be integrally involved in the whole design process.

Social design can also recognise and build on things that people have designed by themselves, using their own ingenuity and locally available resources. One great example is the work of Jane Fulton Suri and the IDEO team.

Design approaches & Design thinking

Social design gives us a framework through which we can open up our thinking about social issues. It allows us to challenge the assumptions that are imbedded in the way we’ve designed responses to date, and helps us to create responses that may be more effective, generate greater impact or lead to better outcomes for people.

A great deal of attention has recently been given to ‘design thinking’. Design Thinking is a practical methodology of problem-solving that incorporates processes such as:

Step 1: Defining problems;

Step 2: Researching or analysing these problems;

Step 3: Ideating potential solutions;

Step 4: Prototyping possible solutions;

Step 5: Reviewing the objectives;

Step 6: Implementing solutions; and

Step 7: Learning or reflecting on how well these solutions addressed the problem

These ‘steps’ were developed by Stanford’sD. School, based on an original process developed in Soft Systems Methodology. I prefer to talk about ‘design approaches’ rather than ‘design thinking’ as I believe that design is about more than thinking.

Good design needs to incorporate thinking, research, action, values, and a capacity for learning and reflection. In other words: it requires our heads, but also our hands and hearts.

Design approaches encompass a range of different processes, methods and techniques that help us to understand what the problem or the opportunity is, and then to intentionally and purposefully test out and implement what could be. It helps us find solutions or improvements.

Design approaches are more than a set of tools. Such approaches require an orientation to create possibilities where others may see only probabilities. They also require a capacity to bring together different disciplines and ideas that may otherwise be seen to have little to do with the social sector.

There’s nothing inherently magical about bringing a design framework to bear on addressing social issues. It’s not about ‘add design and stir’ for miraculous solution to all our woes. However, I believe that adding design approaches to our repertoire can help us to open up possibilities, bring different disciplines and new frameworks to our understanding of issues. It can help us utilise methodologies that can not only identify new solutions but understand and reframe what we see as the ‘problems’.

To me, the ‘social’ in social design is just as important as the ‘design’ component. What interests me is what creative possibilities lie at the intersection of social impact and design, where design is informed by – but not constrained by – learning from the past, and where professionals and citizens alike are able to free themselves enough to really examine different possibilities for addressing complex or wicked social issues.

I also think that design approaches need to be blended with people-centred process skills such as community development in order to really harness their potential for making significant differences in people’s lives.

Where it’s at

There has been a great deal of interest recently in the potential role that design can play in addressing some our seemingly intractable social and environment issues.

CSI has seen the development of a range of design initiatives:

  • Design approaches are being used to reinvent and re-imagine public sector activities: In Australia, The Australian Centre for Social Innovation (TACSI) is using design thinking to rethink key public services such as support for vulnerable families. In the UK NESTA has established a Public Services Lab, which is trialing innovative ways to deliver public services. In Denmark, MindLab is a cross-departmental public sector innovation agency that also involves citizens and businesses in redesigning public services.
  • Design Agencies are focussing more on addressing social issues: For example,, a non-profit arm of the design agency IDEO has launched with a mission to examine how human-centred design can help to innovate solutions to poverty-related challenges. In Australia, innovative design agencies such as CoDesign Studio are undertaking community-based design projects and linking community development to design practice.
  • Design schools are developing courses that link design and social innovation: There are now courses in ‘Design for Social Innovation’. An example is the School for Visual Arts in New York.

All these initiatives are building the foundations of social design, and people are beginning to explore how social design could change not only the way we approach social issues, but how we see the process of design itself.


There are many potential applications of social design. Design approaches could be used to explore:

  • How to enhance the viability and sustainability of community organizations
  • How we could increase the impact of programs
  • How we could co-design solutions to some intractable issues with users or clients of services

As the Social Design Fellow at CSI I’ll be exploring these applications of design at our Design for Social Innovation conference. I’m also very interested in how others are exploring the application of design approaches to addressing social issues and challenges.

I’d love to hear from you about what you’re doing in this space.


This article was originally published on the Centre for Social Impact website.

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