What Is Social Design and Why Is It Important?

Jack O'Donoghue Avatar



What Is Social Design?

Social Design is a way of using design to solve complex social problems in society.

It’s an approach to design that considers the social implications of things and designs to create positive social change. It builds new democratic relations between places, living beings, and things.

Social design is a way of using design to solve complex social problems in society.

Social Design engages multiple perspectives, knowledge, and disciplines: no single one has a privileged methodology for operating on the social. They work together to solve complex problems, and the approach shifts and changes depending on the context and environment.

There are two main models of social design: applying human-centered design in the social or governmental sectors or by designers who become social entrepreneurs.

What Makes Social Design Different From Other Design Methods?

Designers usually focus on making things like products, services, and communications.

The value of this kind of design is how much money it makes. The social design also considers how the product affects people and infrastructure. It designs to have a positive impact on society as a whole.

Social Design vs. Design Thinking vs. Human-Centered Design

Philosophies like social design, design thinking, and human-centered design theory share a similar purpose of creating solutions tailored to human needs.

This philosophy takes the traditional design process and applies it to societal needs.

A few critical elements of social design include understanding the identities in society, determining what makes a community work, and building something collective that helps fulfill an unmet need.

Social Design combines elements of Design Thinking and Human Centered Design and applies them to social problems

From there, the goal is to continue iterating based on user feedback until you have created something that efficiently meets their needs.

This approach often combines elements from other philosophies, such as design thinking and human-centered design, to find more rounded solutions for any problem.

In essence, social design is a way to bring together user insights and systemic thinking to make better products that serve those most sustainably affected by them.

How Can Social Design Benefit Business

Businesses and social innovation can form an effective partnership to drive sustainable growth.

Through the power of social design, these forces have a unique opportunity; not only does it provide businesses with valuable insights from those directly affected by their decisions, but it also encourages collaboration among community members to tackle problems head-on.

By working together, Social Designers and Businesses can create meaningful progress in our society.

In this way, business and society are both empowered for success – making sustainability a strategy that can drive businesses into the future and establish them as value creators in the community.

The 12 Principles of Social Design

Social Design is a way of solving complex problems that focuses on the human experience.

The approach encourages dialogue and collaboration between users to create positive social change. It helps people in struggling organizations by providing opportunities for creativity and inclusion.

  1. Connect with others: Social Design believes there is a unique way to connect with others through the things we use.

  2. Many Different Approaches: Social Design recognizes many different approaches to social situations.

  3. Human Needs and Technical Systems: Social Design is a type of design that includes both technical systems and human-centered design.

  4. Rearrange and Reconfigure: Social Design is a way to change things in the world around us. We do this by changing the way items are arranged and configured.

  5. Multiple Points of View: Social Design involves various points of view, disciplines, and knowledge. There are many ways to approach the social world.

  6. Fluid Approach: The design methodology, tools, and techniques of social design change depending on the context and environment of the social issue to be resolved.

  7. Make Things Better for People: Social Design is based on creating social change. It is done to make things better for people.

  8. Bring People Together: Social Design creates groups of people who share a common goal by working together and discussing their purposes, needs, values, and desired outcomes.

  9. Rebuild Relationships: Social Design is a way to build new relationships between places, living beings, and things in a democracy.

  10. Question the Status-Quo: Social Design questions how professional design has been done in the past and its Eurocentric assumptions.

  11. Design Responsibly: Social Design is a type of design that helps prevent adverse outcomes from the design process.

  12. Social Awareness: Social Design is aware of its political, systemic, institutional, and environmental surroundings.

Why Is Social Design Important

Social Design is an innovative way of designing that puts people first. 

It centers around creating designs intended to create a more equitable, diverse, and inclusive world by solving complex problems for businesses across industries.

Social Design aims to have a positive impact on everyone involved. 

This concept encourages companies to work with individuals from all walks of life to share ideas on how best to reach their goals while also promoting environmental responsibility – ultimately making the world a better place one project at a time.

How to Practice Social Design

Social design is a practice that involves consciously considering how our designs will benefit communities, both local and global.

To be more conscious and considerate of the communities we are designing for, designers must understand the culture and context of these communities to create compelling designs.

To practice Social Design, find ways to create value for everyone involved.

It is also essential to consider how a design can impact the environment; this requires being mindful of materials used, energy efficiency, sustainability, and other factors.

  1. Design with the community, not for them
  2. Involve them throughout the social design process
  3. Consult with related organs and community groups
  4. Take a systems view of complex issues
  5. Include technical and human-centered SMEs
  6. Test prototypes and pilots in the wild

Including communities in the social design process is crucial as well as engaging stakeholders and incorporating their perspectives.

By following these considerations during the development process, social designers have the opportunity to create meaningful designs which have a positive impact on society.

What Are The Challenges with Social Design

Working together through social design is a challenging feat, as potential challenges can hamper collaboration.

Different disciplines often use other terms to describe similar concepts, or the exact words for disparate ideas, resulting in misunderstandings and difficulty in communication between groups.

This makes it hard for scientists, designers, healthcare workers, NGOs, funders, and local communities to come together and progress collectively.

There seems to be a need for a unified language encompassing the broad scope of social design practices that could bridge the divide between disciplines and promote successful collaboration.

Social design isn’t a new concept, it’s been around for a while, but as global environmental issues take the headlines, the practice is emerging as a relatively new concept that could help to solve some of these issues.

Because it’s relatively new, working within an organization’s culture can be challenging, as expectations might conflict with how a design practice and principles are typically implemented.

Organizations must learn to balance business goals and stakeholder needs when designing for social impact with desired change objectives.

In addition, creating a compelling narrative that resonates with target audiences can be tricky in a divided opinion space.

Finally, scaling successful designs can be challenging due to unpredictable external factors. 

Social Design Project Case Study Examples

Liter of Light: Illac Diaz, a Filipino social entrepreneur, has devised an excellent solution to provide lighting for the millions of people living in places without access to daylight. In addition, he’s also developed creative tactics that allow his idea’s reach and impact many communities.

MASS Design Group: Founded by Michael Murphy and Alan Ricks of the Harvard Graduate School of Design – MASS Design Group – is a prime example of architects using their skills to impact lives. Their work at Butaro Hospital in Rwanda with Partners In Health (formed by Paul Farmer) showcases an incredible fusion between function and design aesthetics while being mindful of construction costs- resulting in top-notch hospital care that surpasses many more expensive alternatives.

Jeanne van Heeswijk: Through her work as an artist, Jeanne van Heeswijk uses the tools of social impact design to open up conversations and bridge divides within local communities. Her engaging approach helps bring people together in meaningful dialogues about creating vibrant public spaces that reflect their collective vision for a better future. A video captures her remarkable ability to foster connection and participation in these projects on many levels.

The History of Social Design

Social design—or the practice of using design principles for social good—has a long history.

It developed as an ethos out of 1960s counterculture when many sought to reject the status quo in favor of progressive causes.

Since then, it has evolved with changing technologies and shifting public attitudes.

One of its most notable figures is Victor Papanek, an Austrian-American designer, author, and teacher who advocated socially conscious design practices.

Through his influential book Design for the Real World and his activism within the design community, Papanek influenced an entire generation of designers to think more deeply about how their work can positively affect people’s lives.

He pushed forward discussions on sustainability, accessibility, and ethical labor practices that remain relevant decades later.

Thanks mainly to the influence of Papanek, a new breed of designer is emerging who is seeing it less as just a profession and more as a way to make fundamental changes that can benefit society at large.

Key Takeaways

  • Social design is a way of using design to solve complex social problems in society.
  • Social Design engages multiple perspectives, knowledge, and disciplines: no single one has a privileged methodology for operating on the social.
  • What makes social design different from other design methods is that it considers how the product affects people and infrastructure and designs to have a positive impact on society as a whole.


  • https://conference2021nordes.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/04/1_WS_12_principles_of_Social_Design_NORDES_2021_preliminary_description.pdf
  • https://designthinking.ideo.com/blog/5-inspiring-social-design-pioneers
Jack O'Donoghue Avatar