The different faces of social design?


November 6, 2013 by Liat

After having started to think, in our first lesson, what does it mean to be a designer today and what are our social responsibilities as designers we are now trying to understand what is Social Design, or better, what are the different faces of social design.

First we start from the single words:

DESIGN. What is design? There are so many different definitions from various moments of history that it is difficult to say which is the right one. Let us see some of the most famous:

Munari, in his book Design as Art from 1966:

“ The designer of today re-establishes the long-lost contact between art and the public, between living people and art as a living thing. … There should be no such thing as art divorced from life, with beautiful things to look at and hideous things to use. If what we use every day is made with art, and not thrown together by chance or caprice, then we shall have nothing to hide”

Le Corbusier once said:

“Good design is intelligence made visible”.

According to Papanek in 1971 “design for the real world”:

“All men are designers. All that we do, almost all the time, is design, for design is basic to all human activity. The planning and patterning of any act towards a desired, foreseeable end constitutes the design process. Any attempt to separate design, to make it a thing-by-itself, works counter to the inherent value, of design as the primary underlying matrix of life. Design is composing an epic poem, executing a mural, painting a masterpiece, writing a concerto. But design is also cleaning and reorganizing a desk drawer, pulling an impacted tooth, baking an apple pie, choosing sides for a back-lot baseball game, and educating a child. Design is the conscious effort to impose meaningful order”

ICSID, the most authoritative international design organization defined in 2005 design as:

“Design is a creative activity whose aim is to establish the multi-faceted qualities of objects, processes, services and their systems in whole life-cycles”

From the different definitions we can see that the issue of using creativity to solve our everyday life problems, or to answer a need is transparent. Designers make creative choices in order to influence life around us. To bring new order, beauty, pleasure, function, to everyone. Creativity is another BIG word to define. Munari dedicates a book Fantasia to explain the meaning of innovation, imagination, fantasy and creativity. he says:

“Creativity, uses fantasy and innovation to produce something new that is feasible and functional”

The idea of improving our everyday life, in particular in cities, is explores in the book “the creative city”  and in “the rise of the creative class”.

What about SOCIAL?

Social brings to mind different meanings and connotation: the society, sociability, social networking, family, social events, social problems, social skills and more. Let us see some of the opportunities of design to be social:

We can begin from

SOCIAL as Humanitarian (people in need, developing countries)
SOCIAL as for us and the people around us
SOCIAL as collaboration and networking

These areas are not to be seen as separate, many projects take more then one aspect in.

To explain better the various faces of social design we go through them with examples:

Social design as humanitarian includes projects such as One Laptop per Child,

Chulha low tech , low smoke stove and hippo roller.

Interesting article that talk generally about social design and with a point of criticism on the need of western designers to work on developing countries can be read HERE.

Social as for us and the people around us with examples such as: Safe glass against rape drugs,


Robohand or the redesign of the MRI machine as a Pirat-ship.

In all these examples we begin with something that is strictly related to our life and our surroundings and then develop solution that can be applicable to other people and contexts. We use EMPATHY, We also hear about empowering people and encouraging them in being creative. GREAT talk here about creative confidence. 

Social as collaboration and networking has everything to do with the social and the sharing economy. Both can be read about and seen in the HERE and HERE. It is a key innovation to social design as it adds the dimension of networking and opening up solutions to large communities through ICTs. Here are examples like Airbnb, not only for vacation but also for emergencies. Like LocLoc, Circle and many others.


To improve the understanding of social design the students are asked to collect other case studies, they will all be slowly presented in the best practices section of this blog.

To end, one cannot ignore the relation that social design has with social innovation. Social innovation and its process are described very well in “the open book of social innovation”. If you look at the process of social innovation

scaling SI

you can see how similar it is to a design process as proposed by the same Munari we began with.


In our course we will develop project going through the first thee phases: prompts, proposals and prototyping. The students will go through the phases themselves involving in first person people that might be influenced from their project. They will be asked to tackle social issues using creativity. They will be asked to be social designers, or maybe, simply, designers.


2 thoughts on “The different faces of social design?

  1. […] is design, as we have seen,  is all about people: with and for people. In order to come closer to understanding the […]

  2. […] || Trovare un caso studio di un progetto di design sociale ESISTENTE e descriverlo come nel esempio […]

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This course is held at NABA: Nuova Accademia di belle arti by Chiara Gambarana and Liat Rogel

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