Social design is the application of design methodologies in order to tackle complex human issues, placing the social issues as the priority. Historically social design has been mindful of the designer's role and responsibility in society, and of the use of design processes to bring about social change. Social design as a discipline has been practiced primarily in two different models, as either the application of the human-centered design methodology in the social sector or governmental sector, or sometimes is synonymously practiced by designers who venture into social entrepreneurship.
Stanford University's Hasso Plattner Institute of Design (d school) and IDEO collaboratively created interdisciplinary research in 1991 in order to improve the design process, and from that, Stanford's model of design thinking as a process emerged. The Stanford model has been applied to social design, where the goal is to develop both human and social capital with new products and processes that can be profitable, a goal that the anti-capitalist magazine In These Times called "naïve, at best".
Victor Margolin and Sylvia Margolin wrote in 2002 about the "social model" as a design practice and research methodology, primarily focused on social services but the ideas could be expanded in to educational systems, healthcare systems and for civic technology design. The social model involves a focus on human needs by taking inspiration from core social work literature and has an ecological perspective (that is less commonly seen in modes of design). Margolin suggests a multifaceted approach to solving problems, first accessing the situation by answering a few core questions, followed by survey research and interviews, content analysis of archival data, and/or participant observation.
The design firm, IDEO defines social design as a process that encourages community facilitation including the sharing of conversation and ideas, beliefs and rituals. The process should be supportive and empowering for those involved and offer an innovative and feasible process. The designer(s) should not try to change people's behavior and they draws on the differences in cultural traditions and cultural beliefs in order to frame the problems within society. Additionally there is importance of the wider influence including the environmental awareness of the design, since the environment effects everyone and is interconnected.
Within the design world, social design is defined as a design process that contributes to improving human well-being and livelihood.
The ideas behind social design has been inspired by Victor Papanek’s writings, he was one of the first to address issues of social design in the 1960s. He was focused on creating change within the design field and no longer tolerating misdesign, any design that does not account for the needs of all people and disregards its own environmental consequences. To be a positive force in society, design and designers need to be socially and morally responsible, designers carry a serious responsibility for the consequences their designs have on society. These consequences include environmental impact and designers can contribute to designing more considerate and ecological products by carefully selecting the materials they use. Papanek also remarks on designing for people's needs (rather than their wants) and designers have responsibility over the choices they make in design processes. Often design is detached from the real world and is focused on the commercial market by designing for luxury items or for just a few people based on aesthetics, or disposable items. Papanek emphasizes designers should have a keen eye for where the need is and often that is found by looking at marginalized populations.
Another author who contributes to the development of social design is Victor Margolin. He writes in the 2002 book, The Politics of the Artificial: Essays on Design and Design Studies the "designer's ability to envision and give form on material and immaterial products that can address human problems on broad scale and contribute to social well-being." This ideology is something that social design is built on. In this view social design is an activity that should not be framed with connotations of charity, aid donations, help, etc. It is not voluntary work, but it should be seen as professional contribution that plays a part in local economic development or livelihood. At the same time Social Design also challenges the conventional market model of designing. While traditionally, Design has been approached as a profession that remains strictly answerable to market forces, social design envisages the possibility of a more distributive conception of surpluses, by ensuring that the benefits of services and systems reach a wider range of user groups who may often fall outside the market system. Margolin writes, "The primary purpose of design for the market is creating products for sale. Conversely, the foremost intent of social design is the satisfaction of human needs."
Designer George Aye writes about the importance of acknowledging the role of power when designing for complex social sector issues, as one may do for social design projects. Depending on the project, designing for user engagement in a project can be more important than designing for solutions, and it encourages the use of human-centered design methodologies.
Engineer Chris Cox of Facebook used the term "social design" in 2010 and 2011 as, "[social design] defines the concept as improving how people build human-to-human, versus human-to-interface, connections online".
Outside the design world social design appears in a number of professional environments, there are many artists that use the term social design or social practice to describe their work, though the work is exhibited within the contexts of the art world and have a different dialog when compared to design.
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