Design Crusades: A Critical Reflection on Social Design

By Vera Sacchetti

Sacchetti, V. Design Crusades: A Critical Reflection on Social Design, Unpublished MFA Thesis, School for Visual Arts, New York.

I’d like to finish this review with some excerpts from a design writer and critic, Vera Sacchetti, who has recently completed an MFA in Design Criticism at the School for Visual Arts in New York (www.schoolofvisualarts.edu), writing a thesis entitled “Design Crusades: A Critical Reflection on Social Design”.  Though the thesis is not yet in the public domain Vera has kindly given permission for some excerpts to be included in this review.

In the thesis Sacchetti explores the burgeoning area of ‘social design’ in the United States, with this being the title given to what has also been termed ‘humanitarian’ design, that is, design focused particularly on products and services that would help to improve the circumstances of the poorest members of society.  In the US design work is principally directed at projects in the Global South, in contexts of sometimes extreme economic poverty.   There have been a number of high-profile examples of late, including the ‘Design for the Other 90%’ exhibition series at the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum in New York, and the launch of IDEO’s non-profit arm, IDEO.org.

One of the key strengths of Sacchetti’s thesis lies in her analysis of how much of the work undertaken under the banner of ‘social design’ positions designers as ‘saviours’ who come in with what are framed as brilliant and hitherto unthought of ideas that they believe will change lives and circumstances.  Sacchetti is a design critic and with her critical eye and insightful analysis she takes readers on a (sometimes painful) journey exploring the evolution of this new design arena and highlighting its failures and pitfalls.  However, despite the many pitfalls she uncovers, Sacchetti never entirely gives up on the potential of social design.  Like a growing number of critics, Sacchetti believes that if social design is to realise this potential then designers need to move away from ‘hero’ status and toward immersing themselves in the reality and history of social change in all its complexity and messiness.

You may like to follow Vera Sacchetti’s blog, where she continues to write about social design and broader design issues – you can find it at:  verasacchetti.net/.  Vera Sacchetti is currently working at Domus, in Milan.

To further explore the growing interest and critique of social design readers may also wish to read Paula Antonelli’s recent article about Social Design in Domus (available for viewing at: www.domusweb.it/en/design/states-of-design-10-social-design/).

What follows is an extract from Vera Sacchetti’s MFA thesis entitled, ‘Design Crusades: A Critical Reflection on Social Design’, used with permission from the author:

“It is always more complex than what it seems”, offers Tim Brown, CEO of IDEO, referring to the major lesson he has learned from working for the social sector. “And therefore a willingness to dig into complexity, a willingness to embrace it and understand it, and then somehow cut through it and do something tangible on the other side, is a skill you need as a designer in the social sector.  If what you want is somebody to come and give you a simple brief that you can then go away with and create a wonderful design from and hand it back at the end, then you’ll be disappointed working in the social sector, because it won’t work out that way.”

The transition of the design industry towards the social sector will be painful and long.  Although the first social design projects in the early 2000s kept encountering the same barriers, practitioners working abroad today have made strides, constantly testing new models in a variety of places and scales, and making the most of a field where everything is still negotiable.  It is clear now that success is hard, and never certain.  However, good first steps include leaving your cultural bias behind you, working with the target community from the inception of the project, building on the expertise of local partners and starting small.  If designers really wish to embark on social design projects abroad, they must go beyond the enthusiasm and feel-good of their initial ideas: they must learn about development initiatives and business planning, about the context they’ll be working in, and must be willing to change and adapt their concepts, facing constraints that will inevitably exist.

It is wiser to start in your community than abroad.  Designers will naturally adapt to a context they already know; however, working locally doesn’t always translate to good results.  It also seems wrong to engage in a charity-like, pro-bono model.  I’m a firm believer in an exchange process, empowering and conveying ownership of ideas to the users designers work with, in the US or abroad.  If social design wants to become a sustainable, profitable field, then it must start with exchanges: of objects, ideas, money, to create interest and demand in the social sector.  Both the ideas of co-creation and of a holistic approach are beautiful to hear, but elusive and extremely difficult to implement.  Many designers working in the social sectors have talked of a metrics system to be universally adopted, but such an endeavour will only exist when there is sufficient consensus around the field.

Back in the West, the media fails miserably in telling the stories of these projects, finding its biggest difficulties in the simplistic vocabulary and images used to describe social design abroad, its users and outcomes.  Social designers in the field seem to be descending from their pedestals and bridging cultural divides, by shattering the figure of the designer-as-saviour.  But the media in the West reconstructs that figure as a pivotal part of the story.  Prototypes are bolstered to pass for finished projects, concepts that haven’t left the drawing board are heralded as excellent examples, and the user is constantly diminished, generalised and stereotyped in vocabulary and images.  “The way we talk and write about these issues is incredibly important…language shapes culture and cognition in a powerful way.  The very vocabulary we use in this debate is incredibly flawed.  We can’t even come up with a fair way of describing the communities in question”, argues writer Maria Popova.

These flawed stories feed the idealist student back home in the West, inspiring him to do what he comes to believe is noble, easy and imperative, leading to more mistakes and errors.  And social designers cannot afford to make big mistakes in the social sector.  As Tim Brown points out, “with many of these things where people don’t have choices and you’re maybe giving them the only choice they have, then there’s a responsibility to develop solutions that have the most possible impact”.  Designers will hardly be chastised for failing in the social sector, but they must do justice to themselves and to the people they are working with.

The transition is happening in the field, and it must now happen in education, museums, and the media, giving an opportunity to the audience to realise and interpret the complexity of the social sector and its issues.  To empower others we must disempower ourselves, and it is time to deconstruct and disempower the figure of the designer-as-saviour, bringing nuance to the simplistic debate, and allowing for the social design field to live up to its true potential.”

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