Design Thinking for Social Change

March 5, 2010 Leave a comment

In a recent conversation with professors and students at Savannah College of Art and Design’s Design Management program, I was asked to share what we at IISC mean when we use the phrase  “design thinking” in social change initiatives. Talking with vocational designers  about designing for  social change was a very different conversation from conversations with change agents and activists on the same topic.  I subsequently came across this insightful blog entry by interaction designer Dan Saffer, “Thinking about Design Thinking”, and although he does not apply a social change agenda to his thinking here, he helps lay out distinctive features of  what designers mean by the term “design thinking” as follows (we can apply the social change lens on our own):

  • A Focus on Customers/Users. It’s not about the company and how your business is structured. The customer doesn’t care about that. They care about doing their tasks and achieving their goals within their limits. Design thinking begins with those.
  • Finding Alternatives. Designing isn’t about choosing between multiple options, it’s about creating those options. Brenda Laurel speaks of her love of James T. Kirk’s “third option” instead of two undesirable choices. It’s this finding of multiple solutions to problems that sets designers apart.
  • Ideation and Prototyping. The way we find those solutions is through brainstorming and then, importantly, building models to test the solutions out. Now, I know that scientists and architects and even accountants model things, and possibly in a similar way, but there’s a significant difference: our prototypes aren’t fixed. One doesn’t necessarily represent the solution, only a solution. It’s not uncommon for several prototypes to be combined into a single product.
  • Wicked Problems. The problems designers are used to taking on are those without a clear solution, with multiple stakeholders, fuzzy boundaries, and where the outcome is never known and usually unexpected. Being able to deal with the complexity of these “wicked” problems is one of the hallmarks of design thinking.
  • A Wide Range of Influences. Because design touches on so many subject areas (psychology, ergonomics, economics, engineering, architecture, art, etc.), designers should bring to the table a broad, multi-disciplinary spectrum of ideas from which to draw inspiration and solutions.
  • Emotion. In analytical thinking, emotion is seen as an impediment to logic and making the right choices. In design, decisions without an emotional component are lifeless and do not connect with people.

Given these combination of features which together make for “design thinking” (and any others you think apply), how do you understand what it means to employ “design thinking for social change”?  What are some successful examples of designing for social change that you’ve observed?

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  • Cynthia Silva Parker says:

    Thanks for some details of what goes on inside the “designer’s mind.” Also, thanks for the links to the Design Studio for Social Innovation.

    Kenny makes two points on a clip there that resonate with me.
    *Pay attention to the gesture you are making. Make is something powerful enough to overshadow the gestures that deny the importance of what you’re doing.
    *Create “magic circle” experiences–experiences with enough fantasy and play that people will want to step into the world you’re creating and they’ll want to stay (borrowed from game design).

  • Curtis says:

    Thanks, Melinda. Something I’ve been considering are the different dimensions of social space we must keep in mind when designing for social change. I am working with these three dimensions: autonomy, community, and divinity. Stay tuned for my next blog post for more about this and ways to leverage the dimensions. Good stuff!

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