Design for social…?

We are living through a transition in how economies and markets operate, and how societies function. The global economic crisis, collapses of corporate giants and shifting expectations by consumer and ordinary people are just some of the drivers of the new reality facing design and business. If we think about the future creation of value in our society, we will encounter many important environmental and social challenges over the next several years. All these changes will create risks as well as opportunities in the search for responsible growth.

Design and the social agenda

In fact, in today’s society we are already faced with problems such as poverty, housing, illness or exclusion that seem to be without a solution because they are not part of the “social agenda” – they are “weak problems”. Traditionally, social change has been the almost exclusive domain of not-for-profit organizations and governments. Perhaps as a result of this traditional economical approach and mindset, some professionals still perceive these challenges as problems outside the normal market. Thus, they are charitable in nature.

Meanwhile, the urgent need to solve these problems is challenging other professionals to think creatively in order to generate new solutions; providing homes, care, education, food, etc. for people who are victims of this “social divide”. As a matter of fact, it’s because of the existence of these weak problems that there is a growing interest for designers to work on the domain of “Social design”.

Social design or responsible design…?

Social design, however, is changing: in the past, while using a traditional approach, the designer would have been told to design a product or service that makes sense for people confronted by such weak problems. That, in turn, would have led to a new request; to help those people to collaborate on the co-creation of the solution. Here, the designer would have taken the role as a facilitator. But I don’t think this is not enough. A designer has to consider playing a transformative role; to design while “making sense”, which means to educate people and stakeholders – to be and act “responsible”.

I believe that we need to shift our approach to make design and designers play a transformative role. I shared these thoughts with the participants of the “Society” panel at Design Week 2015 (Barcelona) which was hosted by BCD ( In our conclusion, we agreed about some key issues:

  • the progress in social innovation is not limited to the activities of social enterprises such as NGOs, charities and “social designers”, but can also be highly relevant to the business community.
  • the positive power of design and business can drive the social innovation (greater equity, productivity and resilience) needed to solve growing social and environmental challenges.
  • it’s important to consider design and social innovation as powerful opportunities to concurrently drive social impact and growth.
  • we need to think, shape and deal with “the social” that’s embedded in the core strategy.

“Shared value”

Finally, the panel also agreed that there’s a need for a “shift” in the current mindset. Reflecting on what many companies, organizations, designers and professionals have yet to notice; responsible design of the future is not a company that cares about social impact, neither the single heroic designer. It is a movement that needs to use “creative intelligence” and businesses to empower and embrace others to build a better world. It is time to break down the traditional mindsets, strategies and business models for the 21st century. We need to leverage market forces to create positive impact; “shared value”.

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