The Importance of Social Design
I read widely to challenge and expand my thinking. In The Intergalactic Design Guide: Harnessing the Creative Potential of Social Design, Cheryl Heller presents a system for putting social design into action. This takes creative abilities and puts them into practice. It’s different.
Cheryl Heller is the founding chair of the first MFA program in Design for Social Innovation at the School of Visual Arts in Manhattan.
What is social design?
Social Design is the design of the invisible dynamics and relationships that affect society and the future. It’s the creation of new social conditions intended to increase human agency, creativity, equity, resilience, and our connection to nature.
It is essentially the same process used to develop innovative products and services, but applied at a larger scale. Instead of a small team of expert designers being responsible for the creative output or product, however, social design is done by cross-disciplinary teams, including both people inside the company and in external stakeholder communities. The goal, in addition to breakthrough products and services, is breakthrough interactions between people that lead to ongoing innovation. Because the process is participatory, everyone learns to do it. Because learning to do it instills a greater sense of agency and possibilities, everyone who participates is transformed.
“Social designers are resourceful, observant, open minded and able to live and work with ambiguity.” -Cheryl Heller
Social Design versus Traditional Design
How is it different from traditional design?
Social Design differs from traditional approaches in several important ways:
‣ It looks far beyond design thinking, which has made significant inroads in business, education and social organizations in recent years. It is an iterative process for developing alternative ideas and strategies based on understanding a “user” and a specific problem. Social design’s purview is whole communities or societies.
‣ The design process isn’t relegated to a team of designers, or isolated in a specific phase of the research and development process. Cross-departmental teams, some of whom are designers, are formed around a particular goal or outcome, and everyone participates in the entire process. What are typically sequential activities, performed by a series of experts, like research, problem framing, synthesis, ideation, testing and the like, are collapsed into a series of fluid stages in which everyone’s perspectives are integrated. This not only surfaces opportunities and challenges early, but also gives everyone access to insights that make them smarter, regardless of which stage they are accountable for.
‣ Social design relies on observation and inquiry rather than formal strategies and fixed plans. Preconceived ideas, however brilliant they sound, are to be avoided. Research is undertaken not to prove a theory, but to understand context and reframe questions. Answers are not determined in advance. The ultimate outcome may be fixed and inviolate, but not the step-by-step path to getting there. Observation of patterns, of unexpected reactions, whether in team members or customers, become the source of inspiration and invention—the real-time feedback that makes the idea, when it is developed, far more likely to work and succeed.
‣ Social design employs “making to learn.” That means giving ideas form to which others can react and help refine in collaborative fashion. Instead of waiting to get an idea “perfect” before showing it to its intended audience, users respond to versions in unfinished stages, and that input is incorporated into the design. Making-to-learn relies on iteration, and requires the freedom to pivot along the way, sometimes abandoning an idea, but always long before a big investment has been made. Giving form to ideas makes those ideas more appropriate to the people for whom they’re intended and makes them accessible to more people, and more diverse perspectives, as they’re developed.
‣ The outputs aren’t PowerPoint slides and Excel spreadsheets. Instead, they are maps and sketches and images and pictures underpinned with data that bring to life the entire ecosystem of stakeholders and forces in play. These visual outputs help make sure diverse people are seeing the same thing and can uncover otherwise hidden dynamics.
“Social design relies on observation and inquiry rather than formal strategies and fixed plans.” -Cheryl Heller
How is the role of the designer changing today?