Thursday, June 23, 2011

Five things people designing solutions to social problems should know

Designers are now working in a range of contexts that are quite different to what many of them were educated for. Some are designing public services, others work on humanitarian or development projects, others are creating social enterprises. Common to all these is an interest in social problems and the belief that designers’ ways of working – in particular “Design Thinking” – has special ways to solve them. We think designers have much to contribute to different kinds of community, but we suggest there are some important things they need to know.

1 Social problems don’t just exist “out there” waiting for socially-minded designers or social entrepreneurs to trip over. On the contrary, they are constructed by the interplay of individuals, organisations, things and what brings them all together. Designers should focus their attention as much on how they and others construct social problems rather than just working towards solving them.

2 Objects too can intentionally or otherwise spark a social problem into existence. Designers who have got busy designing “intangible” services rather than mundane things should be aware that their special knowledge about how to make stuff is of immense potential value in constructing problems as social problems.

3 Design Thinking and its optimistic process pushes designers ever onward in pursuit of a solution based on responding to stories of personal troubles. This might not be right for messy, intractable social issues. Designers should attend to the nuances of the social worlds they work in and consider what they are driving themselves towards, and who and what is shaping this and why.

4 Like any other actor in a social world, designers are able to interpret the world around them, and come up with ideas to change it. Those who look, uncritically, towards Design Thinking to answer the world¹s most wicked social problems are missing some important resources. We¹d encourage designers to draw on ideas and concepts from the social sciences - not just borrowing ethnography as a methodology but going deeper into understanding how social problems are constructed. For example concepts such as reflexivity can help designers become aware of how their own commitments shape how they understand what is going on and what they think they can change.

5 Unlike architects, engineers and many other professionals, designers do not have clear disciplinary boundaries, strong institutions or professional codes of ethics. Designers with ambitions to design solutions to social problems are working in dangerous territory and should develop credible tools to reflect on the nature of their work and its possible and actual impacts.

The provocations are drawn from “Design Thinking and the Big Society: From Solving Personal Troubles to Designing Social Problems” by Simon Blyth (Actant) and Lucy Kimbell (Taylor Haig).

Thanks to Cassie and Alex for pointing out the missing no.4.