An Eight-Step Pedagogy for Teaching Social Design

An Eight-Step Pedagogy for Teaching Social Design
Neeta Verma
Visual Communication Design
University of Notre Dame



This paper outlines a pedagogy for introducing students to the design process specifically in the area of Social Design. In a fast paced world where the established paradigm of defining a designers’ role is evolving rapidly, this paper elucidates the need for and presents a theoretical framework for a pedagogy that has been developed to help emerging designers understand the role they play in design practice today. The extended idea of design education is meant to shape the mindset of young designers as they prepare for the professional world outside. The pedagogy for Social Design helps students understand their role, define their engagement, and pre-meditate the role they wish to play as designers and catalysts in shaping a future towards a better societal equilibrium. It is within this context that the relationship between making and thinking–two deeply integral parts of a design process–is developed. While these two parts are quite distinct, they are intrinsically tied together to form the two ends of the continuum of the design process that each and every designer uses as a tool in their quest for a solution. The thesis presented here also demonstrates how this unique pedagogy helps students develop an understanding of civic engagement, and contrasts it with the idea of design as service. From a position of “designing for,” it helps students understand their new role of “designing with” their constituencies (as opposed to audiences).



In a world that is becoming more global, economies are traversing many boundaries, distances are shrinking, cultures are converging and as a result many socio economic challenges are becoming a shared predicament that we as humans face today in a ceaseless effort to humanize the dehumanized. How then does the role of the designer get impacted by these paradigmatic shifts?

It 1984, Victor Papanek, an industrial designer, questioned the role of design and therefore the designer. The subtitle of his book, “…Human Ecology and Social Change,” reveals his concern with the discipline and its practice which, at that point of time, had become self-absorbed and driven by indulgence. Papanek clearly laid out a new vision for the profession. In this new vision, he saw design as having great potential of becoming a force of change in transforming the way it serves societies and the human condition. This was in deep contrast to what the role of design has become: a discipline serving a few by satisfying individual wants and desires in a consumer driven economy. Papanek’s redefinition of design eventually inspired the discipline to reexamine itself and redefine its relevance by starting to address societal problems on a larger scale–namely, problems confronted by populations, rather than just individuals. Intrinsically by definition, design is “a plan or drawing produced to show the look and function or workings of a building, garment, or other object before it is made.” By that definition, design becomes ubiquitous to every discipline and is an integral part of each and every human endeavor. Therefore, as designers we have the choice to make the realm of our influence as narrow or as broad as we choose. Social Design is an emerging area where design is seen as having a wider impact by becoming a problem solving tool for social innovation and change. If the role of design/designer is to move from serving a “want” to addressing a “problem”, it is imperative that the education of these aspiring designers needs to be tailored to prepare them for that role. Emerging design curricula needs to arm these designers with the right tools and train them with skills that will make them capable of handling complexities that social problems inherently pose. It is through this argument that the following paper proposes a definition of Social Design and presents a unique pedagogy that can be used for teaching Social Design and making sure that the designers of tomorrow are thinkers, makers, collaborators and innovators.        



In outlining pedagogy, it is important to understand the historical context of the emerging concept of Social Design. The first proponent of this idea was Victor Papanek who in 1984 wrote, “…design has become the most powerful tool with which man shapes his tools and environments (and, by extension, society and himself).” In 2002, Victor Margolin and Sylvia Margolin introduced the concept of “…design for populations in need rather than for the market alone…” and introduced the Agenda for Social Design where their description is presented in the form of questions, such as, “…what role can a designer play in a collaborative process of social intervention?” This was followed in 2015 by Ezio Manzini, who states, “… (social initiatives) emerge from the creative recombination of existing assets (from social capital to historical heritage, from traditional craftsmanship to accessible advanced technology), which aim to achieve socially recognized goals in a new way. This common trait also gives us a first definition of what social innovation is and why it appears.” But Manzini is not talking about the designer; rather, he is addressing a design phenomenon where the consumer/subject/audience serves as the designer. He defines the designer’s role more within the context of Social Innovation and uses Robin Murry’s definition to qualify it, “We define social innovations as new ideas (products, services and models) that simultaneously meet social needs and create new social relationships or collaborations. In other words, they are innovations that are both good for society and enhance society’s capacity to act”.

The definition that is proposed in this paper given the historical context is, “Social design is a design methodology used to facilitate and promote social innovation through a collaborative process.” It is important to emphasize three concepts that will help define and distinguish the term “social design” from traditional “service design” design roles that designers have played: collaboration, co-creation, and participatory design. While “collaboration” describes the nature of engagement, the terms “co-creation” and “participatory” describe the process. The idea of reciprocity is central to the teaching of Social Design, since the area the designer is working in, uses a human centric approach in instrumenting social innovation. The major shift, therefore, is from “consumption” to “collaboration”. From tangible end-results, the designer comes to focus on the problem through an entire design process where solutions are implemented through sustained collaboration.

The term “social design” is used when there is a societal imbalance, a social disconnect, a discrepancy or a yawning fissure in the social fabric. It distinguishes itself by its ‘demand for a greater investment on part of a designer to understand the context within the purview of their influence. In this area, beyond pure design, designers learn to question and ascertain their own roles within a faction of people who are equally vested in the cause and share the stakes in the outcome. Designers learn the value of partnering/ facilitation/ thinking/ promoting/ serving as catalysts and advocates. The process of solution finding begins when the designer is asked to stand outside of themselves to understand the larger system within which they will be operating not merely as designers, but as an integral part of a group that is equally invested (stakeholders) in the outcomes of the problem posed. Social design begins with an awareness and understanding of the relevance with which a designer will engage. It is a solution finding process where the designer aims, not only to seek a resolution but also to understand in great depth the context where solutions will find congruity. It requires at once the breadth of understanding and the depth of social competency of the frame of reference within which the solutions offered will finally function.

The design process therefore is the weaving of the designer into the fabric of the conversation that currently exists in the community or is proactively generated by the designer within a desired constituency. The solution seeking journey explores the idea of activism from defining the initiative to surmounting the challenges and proposing a solution through deep understanding and wide collaboration with the stakeholders. The design process concludes with the development and implementation of solutions through innovation and exploration of unique ways of addressing that challenge.

By their very nature, the areas covered in this course address social concerns and societal imbalances. The course looks at learning goals and methods to assess their attainment through the following eight-step process and evaluation at each of these steps. This is a pedagogical approach that has been specifically developed for this course to understand the process and the approach that enables evaluation at the end of the experience. The eight steps are:


I: Initiatives: Research and Initial exploration:

1-    Empathy (what do we understand?)
to develop understanding and psychological identification
The first step for the designer is to be able to stand in someone else’s shoes and view the problem through the eyes of another, understanding the cultural predispositions and how they influence and shape perceptions­, convictions, and, above all, beliefs. It is important to mention that this step requires an active shedding of pre-conceived notions on part of the designer that might cloud the way in which the circumstances are viewed or interpreted. It is a step towards evaluating the situation objectively and a conscious act of casting off one’s individual percepts. Research includes observations and initiation of dialogue with constituents in an attempt to understand beliefs, prevailing perceptions, cultural mind set, barriers and what influences or shapes them. 

2-    Immersion (what do we see?)
to be engaged, involved or absorbed
Driven by research and active participation, this step is an exercise in “understanding.”  It encourages designers to surround and imbue themselves in the context in which they will be operating so that they can observe the various cultural, sociological, anthropological, psychological, and economic factors through sustained interaction. The aim of research at this step is to help reveal interconnections and interdependencies between these factors in order to provide greater insight into the societal ecology within which the designer and their team will function.

3-    Awareness (what do we observe?)
to be cognizant, informed, knowledgeable
This step requires deeper exploration of the interconnectedness of the various parts (cultural, sociological, anthropological, psychological, and economic) and making sense of the ecological balance and symbiotic interdependence that they possess in relation to one another. Effective information gathering fuels an understanding and comprehension of the inter-relationships of these variables that in turn define and reveal the complexities of the problem. Research includes understanding the roles that various stakeholders play, and their vestments and contributions to the problem and/or solution.


II: Challenges: Project Assessment:

4-    Problem definition/analysis (how do we set parameters?)
to determine or fix the boundaries or extent of the problem
This step deals with the definition of the realm of engagement and therefore the influence of the designer and the team. Every engagement at a societal level has a domino effect. And while social problems do not have defined edges, because the social ecology is a continuum and not segregated parts, a change in one area has the potential of consequentially affecting other areas. This step is an exercise in helping understand the edges of the problem to make sure that the problem is addressed, but also to make sure that solutions proposed do not impact other outlying areas in an adverse manner. This is an important step, as it helps define the extent of the designers reach and the edges of the problem being considered. It becomes even more critical because the definition of such boundaries impacts the evaluation and measurement of the outcomes.

5-    Engagement (how do we partner?)
to occupy the efforts of individual, group or organization
This is by far the most important step, as this is where designers learn to set up conversations and dialogues that will determine and help define the stakeholders and the synergetic relationship among the them. This step provides a ground work for the collaboration among all those involved in the solution finding process. The interactions and the input of these stakeholders allow outcomes to facilitate the “indigenization” of the solution. Those affected by the problem in most cases are most likely able to inform the solutions as “insiders” and not “outsiders”. As opposed to being artificially imported and then applied superficially to the problem, solutions become rooted in the inherent ecology of the social problem.

6-    Strategy (how do we plan?)
to make a plan to achieve a goal
This step allows the team to understand and use resources in an efficient, competent, and effective manner in order to reach the desired end goal or solution. Once again, the key is using resources that are local or “indigenous” to the extent of the problem being considered. The aim is to create innovative connections between the identified problem and the resources/systems already in place. 


III: Innovation: Solution-finding/design:

7-    Design (how do we make?)
to create, make, execute, or construct according to plan

Here is where we get into the phase of creating: a process that involves working and making “with” others and not “for” others. This is the actual manifestation of a designed program, artifact, or system.

8-    Integration (how do we bridge?)
to bring together or incorporate [parts] into a whole

This is the concluding step, where solutions are integrated with the systems surrounding the new solution and interconnected with the larger context within which it will function. It allows for an examination of how the solution meets the needs of the problem that was defined in step 4. The surmounting question is not whether the solution is a viable one but, more importantly, if it is a sustainable one.


The Role of Scale

In a world that is becoming more interconnected and interdependent in multitudinal ways, the role of the designer is constantly being redefined and growing more complex. How then, does one prepare students to understand the larger scale within which they will be implementing their skills and expertise? Increasingly, designers are confronted with problems that challenge the society as a whole. Whether these problems are local or global, at every scale, it is imperative for the designer to be able to understand and define the realm of their influence. There are problems that may seem local, but the interconnectedness of societies compounds these problems and adds complexities that require a greater breadth of understanding on part of the designer. Cultural differences add their own challenges and often times create barriers. Sometimes, these barriers are recognized, while at others they remain obscure. Such factors sometimes make it difficult for designers to see things within multiple contexts or a larger scale. The ramifications of solutions in one sphere has a domino effect on many others. Design has to therefore become a balancing act in which it is increasingly important for designers to be cognizant of the fact that a solution in one area does not create a problem in another. To optimize design efficacy, it is therefore imperative for the designer to work in teams not just of experts, but also stake holders. The idea of collaborative design finds its value within this context because knowledge that can be elusive to a newcomer will be furnished by the stakeholders, as they are imbued in the environment that the designer is trying to enter and have deep insights that are crucial for the design process and the ultimate solution.

Understanding the concept of scale (local vs. global) is deeply relevant for designers. Working locally, there are many givens; familiarity with culture and socio-economic constructs allow designers to move forward with an inbuilt understanding of the system within which they are functioning. As the scale grows from local to global, the complexities compound, and cultural pre-dispositions create barriers. These barriers could be cultural, sociological, anthropological, psychological, or economic in nature. The designers’ need for an understanding of the new norms within which they will function is pivotal to the way they approach the problem. It is here that these four steps outlined in the pedagogy above–empathy, immersion, awareness, and engagement–become crucial in the success of the solution. The importance of stakeholders becoming a part of the team and the process takes on a more significant role as they (the stakeholders) are able to drive the local knowledge of resources and provide deeper understanding of pre-existing ways in which systems have worked and therefore can inform a process that takes into account historical precedents to the same problem – this is where collaboration becomes crucial to the team.  

The following case study demonstrates the way the project below used the idea of collaboration to help an organization, The Poona School and Home for Blind Girls to make their environment more conducive for its visually impaired residents to negotiate their environment by designing a signage system that helped them navigate the spaces within the school.

inSIGHTS: Instrumenting conducive environments for the visually impaired
Poona School and Home for Blind Girls, India

The project was a three-week intensive design initiative that I undertook at the Poona School and Home for Blind Girls in India.

The aim of the project was to address the problem of accessibility and navigation within the school in an effort to make the immediate environment more advantageous for those that the institution was primarily built to serve — the visually impaired girls (students and residents) of the institution. The project was a collaborative effort where, as a designer, I partnered closely with the community at the school in creating a signage system that would work for the visually impaired and the sighted constituencies of the school. The signs were tactile pieces of art created by the visually impaired students with information added to the signs. Initial workshops were conducted where students created drawing to represent their classrooms. Having the art of the students on these signage pieces created a sense of ownership for students, not only those whose artwork was included in the project, but also those who participated in the workshops of creating the art. These signs were produced by the teachers and myself after researching local materials that would sustain over time and create a long lasting system. The teachers were involved in the process to ensure that after I left the project could be continued and expanded if necessary. Working with the teachers, I was able to research and discover inexpensive material for the fabrication of these signs. All of the signs were manufactured locally using low inexpensive, accessible materials and manufacturing methods.

Initial research focused on pure observation and a daily ritual of following students around as they moved from their living spaces to the dining halls, the school class rooms and the playground in an effort to understand ways in which these visually impaired students navigated their spaces. Touch and sound seemed to be their primary mode of communication. Touch allowed them to experience the built environment around them as well as use other humans to lead them or guide them. The same was true for sound. When lost, the students would look for clues of where they were by leaning to one side and listening to the sounds that would help them locate themselves within the school. Based on these initial observations, interested students were invited to participate in helping create drawings which then could be used as motifs for the signage system. The uniqueness of this approach lay in bringing together teachers, art and music instructors, the visually impaired students, and a highly supportive administration to become a part of this collaboration that culminated in a way-finding system that worked at many levels; primarily for the visually impaired but also for those that engaged with the school; the sighted teachers, staff, administration, and the visitors. This collaboration and community involvement created a sense of ownership, pride, and shared joy of creation.  

Through my initial research and engagement, this design challenge allowed me go deeper into the organization, in exploring and analyzing ways of shaping the environment that could assist, enable, and facilitate its primary residents. The deepest challenge came from working with limited fiscal resources and understanding ways of delivering solutions that were not only innovative, but also indigenous and sustainable, and those that would function within the constraints of the environment for which they were created. Working closely with the teachers of the school and using indigenous materials, techniques, and local manufacturing methods, a way-finding system was created that would help students navigate their surroundings and find their way around the institution with greater ease, agility, and confidence.

Once installed, the highly tactile (for the blind) and brightly colored (for the partially impaired and the sighted) way-finding system created an empowered, enabled and accessible environment that was kinder and more conducive for the residents of this institution. It allowed easy navigation for the visually impaired and aesthetically appealing to for the sighted.     

From the case study above, it is clear that the solutions that would work for the visually impaired in India would not work for the visually impaired in the United States. Solutions cannot be transplanted from one context to another. What changes then is the reference to context within which solutions function. No solution stands alone; each solution functions within a complex and highly interconnected microenvironment. For a solution to be truly successful, it has to be able to not only provide a solution to the problem but also to have that solution work within the larger macro environment. The two projects, one in India and the other in the United States cannot have the same outcome and it is simply because each approach needs to fit in its unique context. It is here that the stakeholders come in to help direct and steer the project in directions that allows the solution to become more indigenous and therefore more relevant to its particular micro-environment.


Contribution to the field and implications for theory and practice

The paper provides a clear, succinct definition and guide for Social Design and helps contextualize its place within a design curriculum. The pedagogy outlined breaks down the complicated process into comprehendible parts. But above all, this helps students and designers define their roles in an evolving discipline. At no point is there an assumption that design for service is obsolete or redundant. Social Design provides a window to designers to be able to see their roles in effecting meaningful change within a larger context, where collaboration and engagement define both the process and the outcomes of a design exercise.This pedagogy helps them reevaluate the designers’ role and recognize how it has expanded from one of being a creative maker to one of additionally serving as a thinker, facilitator, catalyst or a stakeholder (through engagement, collaboration) where social transformation is driven by this eight step design process. For the designer, the emphasis shifts from prescription to collaboration and leads to the democratization of design.



1-    Chen, D.S., et al. Social Design: An Introduction. International Journal of Design 10 (1), 1-5, 2015

2-    Manzini, Ezio, and Rachel Coad. Design, When Everybody Designs: An Introduction to Design for Social Innovation. The MIT Press, 2015

3-    Margolin, Victor and Sylvia Margolin. A “Social Model” of Design: Issues of Practice and Research. Design Issues: Volume 18, Number 4, Autumn 2004

4-    Murray, Robin, et al. The Open Book of Social Innovation. Young Foundation/NESTA, 2010

5-    Papanek, Victor. Design for the Real World: Human Ecology and Social Change, Second edition. Academy Chicago Publishers, 2000  

6-    Selloni, Daniela, and Ezio Manzini. “Policy constellations as eco-systems of design actions: Exploring three cases of social innovation policy in Italy”. Strategic Design Research Journal 9 (2) 128-136, May-August 2016