Problematizing ‘Social Design’

Call me asocial, but I have had some problems with the word ‘social’ for already quite some time. But it is not a problem with the word itself, but on how it is coupled (or grouped) with other words as a ‘token’ that is supposed to legitimize a concept or practice, specially within art and design. I was critical to it when I started to work on (so-called) ‘social innovation’ projects in Colombia six years ago (2008); I was also critical to it when I decided to start a master in Social Design four years ago (2010) –and specially when I was studying the course (2011-13); and I am specially critical today, when I graduated from a Social Design master program and develop my own work and practice avoiding these easy definitions. I would never call myself a ‘social designer’.

Back in 2011 in Bogotá (Col), just before coming to Europe to start my master studies, I had a conversation with a friend, colleague and brilliant designer Cristiam Sabogal in a coffee-house in my neighborhood. We were speaking about my (by then) upcoming experience studying a program called social design and he made a comment that has kept resonating until now: “how ridiculous can our discipline (design) be, that we need to have a specific practice called social design”. And yes, this is a very blunt and raw statement, but it raises many questions; for instance, it forces you to ask yourself: “but wait, isn’t all design, ‘social’?” Think of the ‘Liberator Pistol’, an open-source, 3d Printed gun; we (some of us, at least) would agree that firearms are not the best for society, yet we know there is a lot of people in the world busy designing them, and now plans made available for (almost) anybody to make them. Isn’t this, as well, social design? I will clear out that with this post I do not pretend to present a ‘better definition’ of what social design is but, on the contrary, problematize the existing ones. Be it designing ‘the social’ (social innovation / social engineering), design ‘for the social’ (humanitarian design / design for the other 90%) or designing ‘socially’ (participatory design / co-design), I think we should be constantly challenging this attempts of fixed definitions.

Fast-forward, two years after, I had just graduated from the master and was living in Rotterdam. I applied to a public call of The New Institute called Social Design for Wicked Problems, which coupled designers and/or collectives with organizations or contexts that had (what they considered) a ‘wicked problem’. In the publication of the pre-selected designers and collectives, there was already an insight into some of the ‘problems’ and organizations: one of them, ING; their problem: loss of financial trust from customers. I was pre-selected for an interview and, when attending, I gave my opinion: “I do not think you can call ‘social design’ working for an institution that is partly responsible for our current crisis, and trying to fix one of the aspects that originally caused it”. We had an interesting discussion (one of the interviewers was a self-proclaimed ‘social designer’), but I might say I was happy not to be chosen to participate in a project that had such an affirmative and un-critical vision of the practice.

But even though I have been weary of the application of this word in design practices, I never thought it was so urgent of an issue to start a wider debate about what this meant; until now. Las week, during the Dutch Design Week 2014, there was a new book launch. It was not a new random book about star designers, or a new book on design research; it is a book that attempts to frame a series of practices of what could be called today ‘social design’ under a ‘world-changing-rhetoric’. The title of the book? “Looks good, feels good, is good. How social design changes our world”. Now, I have many problems with the title of the book, the tone of its writing and the approach, but I will try not to focus on the particularity of this case, but on what it represents in a wider context.

9789462260696_VRK      Book

I received a ‘flyer’ announcing the upcoming launching of the book a couple of months before. I was terrified by its title and what I understood as a pretentious discourse.  I did not want to have anything to do with a practice associated with it. But it also led me to start formulating a position towards it. I was invited to share some of my experiences of my first year after graduation to the master students at the Design Academy Eindhoven, as part of the Source program. Having received the flyer of the book a couple of weeks before, I decided to start problematizing the practice. The title of my talk was called “Social design before SOCIAL DESIGN. Some experiences on socially engaged practices from across the atlantic”. My arguments where basically two: (1)social design is the new buzzword to frame practices that have already existed for quite some time and (2) most of the times these have been developed by non-designers. These were the slides for that talk.

social design before Social Design from Pablo Salazar

There is two issues at stake here: the importance (danger) of discourse and rhetoric in framing a practice, and the agency of designers / practitioners in working within it. But it is not the first time that this is happening; a couple of years ago, also during the DDW, took place the launch of a book called “Sustainism is the new modernism”, proposing this new word as an ‘umbrella’ that would unify alternative practices within design, but would also inject with ‘ideology’ (thus the -ism) this ‘movement’. I wonder how much good is this bringing to the practice and, specially, to the people and communities its supposed to work with (you wonder if it is not just another legitimation strategy to make ourselves feel relevant). And there is the second issue, of the agency of the designer. In the book LGFGIG, each reference to a project is accompanied by a statement starting with the article “We” and followed with an action that is supposed to bring some benefit to society, like ‘“…save water”. This shows how the intention is to centre the attention in the people initiating the projects and how their intervention was crucial —if not necessary, to bring the change along. Now, by saying this I do not want to criticize nor limit the agency of designers, but I want to make the reflection that the effect of what is produced during our projects is consequence of a high number of aspects, actors and conditions, of which design is just a tiny part of. Echoing Alastair Fuad-Luke on a recent DESIS Philosophy talk, designers should go back to think and act as citizens instead of as designers. I share his position, in the extent that I think design practice is too contaminated by too many assumptions, and only by humbling-down to our position as citizens we will be able to play an important role.

Today I think we need to problematize social design, to avoid it being instrumentalised. Without looking critically at it, social design can be almost anything and nothing at the same time. Perhaps we have to start creating an agonistic (anti)manifesto for a social design practice, that sets some conditions for working with it. Here is a first idea: you should only work with/in/through/for social design if you are able to have a (self)critical view of your practice and constantly re-evaluate your position.


*Read this article/post as a provocation, a problematization, that all it wants to do is open up a debate that I think is missing. What is social design? Do we need to define it? Frame it? What kind of discourse should we build around it? So, please, feel free to comment on this post with your opinions/ideas/critiques, etc.


  1. Veronica wrote:

    “Branding” something is almost always senseless and it doesn’t bring anywhere. It just makes us feel safer within specific contexts. We brand people according to their religion or sexual orientation, and the same is happening with design.
    Instead of looking everyday for a better definition of what we do as designers and what is our role within the society, we should first define what are our responsibilities. We, as designers, often believe the world revolves around design and we assume that we can “solve” everything with our practice. But is this actually true? Or should we maybe make a step back in order to make new steps further? What DESIGN can actually afford?
    I totally agree with the idea of constantly re-evaluate our position being careful that this doesn’t mean to find a new attractive name for the design practice.

    • calderonp wrote:

      Definitely Veronica, I think you hit the nerve in your comment: it is about RESPONSIBILITIES. That is a very noble word, and it is what some designers (specially in ‘social design’) lack.

  2. Inês Veiga wrote:

    Glad you posted this! I’ve been reflecting upon my research so it helps to think in response…

    I’m now very critical about ‘social design’ too, but I’m still also and most of all critical about the established/conventional/hegemonic design practice. There is something about the so called ‘social’, ‘socially and politically engaged’ design practices that are indeed different and question the status-quo of (practicing and thinking about) design, in my view.

    The detachment from (everyday) reality and sustainment of a neutral/indifferent position (act) towards some kind of work (clients) was something I often struggled in/with my (everyday) work at the design studio I worked for five years (2008-2013), and still echoes. The worked ceased to be fun, rewarding or gratifying, as I constantly asked myself what was the purpose of it, its usefulness and relevance for whom, and why was I doing it. Perhaps it is important to mention that this (self)questioning was not done collaboratively, in the studio or even after a work was finished. We literally didn’t had time to other things besides work as we engaged in three to four, at least, projects at the same time so time for ‘critical reflection’ was not on the agenda. As the daughter of two economists, who participated in the 1974’s 25th April Revolution in Portugal, contributed to the SAAL initiative and always worked in the public sector (as part of their idealism), concern, awareness and constant questioning about the (political, social, economic) context we live in are part of who I am.

    So, I wanted (and it came to a point in which I needed) to change my practice and that is when I heard about ‘social design’. At the time it made total sense, as I looked at it (and still look) as a way of finding in your own professional practice a way to be more engaged with ‘your’ time, place, context, people and issues of everyday, local, individual, human, collective, public… concern. (If you are able then, as a designer, to actually change or transform a situation that is another important question raising many other questions.)
    In 2010, I applied to the “!mpact Design for Social Change” workshop at SVA and try other ways of practicing and finally “re-invent” my design practice, as Doina Petrescu from atelier d’architecture autogerée (Ericson and Mazé, 2011). But like Doina says, that is not an easy thing to do, and without having to go on details, I came back to the studio.

    One year later, I applied for a PhD research, as some friends thought it would be the best way to start what I wanted. And I’m very glad I did it! So far, I one of the things learned about social design is that it is a political and critical attitude/act towards what we do, as designers, and why we do it. It builds when we, design professionals from any specialty, start questioning our own practice reflecting upon its importance, impact and reason to whom, where, when, how and why in light of our current time, place and state of things/events. Ramia Mazé and Magnus Ericson in “Design Act” project, describe it as a “criticism from within – that is, how designers, through the materials, processes, operations, and products of their practice – can question, critique and change notions of what design is and what it can do […] which and whose interests it might serve (20–, pp. 283, 291-292).” And that is indeed, how and where I started.

    Yet, as you in the text say, too easy these ‘socially engaged design’ practices can be instrumentalised, absorbed and serve the interests of the few and same as always. So, yes it is urgent that we keep problematizing, questioning, framing and re-framing (social) design both in theory and in practice. As a Portuguese columnist Miguel Esteves Cardoso in a book called “As Minhas Aventuras na República Portuguesa” [My adventures in the Portuguese Republic] argues that is too easy to start, to create, to finish anything, but the hard part is to keep, preserve, maintain, continue it. He writes: “Starting from scratch, unlike what all the world’s revolutionaries ever wanted, is fortuitous. It makes studying, learning, respecting, absorbing, continuing, seem unnecessary. Creating is easy. Artworks are created like chickens. The hard part is to continue.” And design is a relatively young profession too often patronized by others, in my view, hence perhaps the need (and search) for relevancy and/or assertion, and the ‘arrogance of youth’ sometimes expressed in the discourses about changing the world…

    • calderonp wrote:

      Inês, thank you very much for your thorough and thoughtful comment. This is a great contribution to this debate.

      I came to ‘social design’ under similar circumstances as you… I did not find any ‘point’ on traditional (industrial) design practices, and found ‘social design’ to be an open and critical enough alternative to re-evaluate my position towards (and within) the practice.

      That is why my issue is not with ‘the practice’ itself (it would be ridiculous anyway to be upset at an abstract entity), but on how certain discourse/rhetoric has settled within it and how some people instrumentalise it.

      Great also to read about your ‘personal’ background, and how it makes you the kind of person who you are. I think that is a perfect illustration of thinking and acting as a ‘citizen’, before than as a designer…

  3. kim wrote:

    Dear Pablo,
    thank you for bringing this up so clearly.

    I write from the perspective of a semi-outsider, a graphic designer interested in social issues. I also studied for two years side by side with Social Design students.

    I generally agree with your article.
    Just some thoughts:

    – “I do not pretend to present a ‘better definition’ of what social design is but, on the contrary, problematize the existing ones.”

    Everybody looks comfortable in avoiding definitions, leaving concepts open to change, evolution and critique. But to critique something we need to know what it is. I believe that avoiding definitions could become the cause of design being everything and nothing. And therefore losing credibility and impact on reality. We need to take the risk to give definitions, acknowledging that they will be necessarily temporary. You can challenge a definition once is established, while doing it when it’s in progress could lead to words emptied of their meaning. In the first place we need to agree on how we use words, otherwise communication is impossible, especially in a field so heterogeneous as Social Design.

    – “(1) social design is the new buzzword to frame practices that have already existed for quite some time and (2) most of the times these have been developed by non-designers”

    I couldn’t agree more. The brand Social Design is just perfect: it makes engagement look cool again. Design appropriates, in a conscience-cleaning process, the practices brought on for decades by communities and social workers. While designers – people used to research, plan, connect, make, mediate – could play a central role in addressing contemporary social and economical problems, I think they have to be very aware of the specificity of their contribution. Because if they are not, then design could be not the best (efficient and relevant) way to address those problems. I refer here to “what is produced during our projects is consequence of a high number of aspects, actors and conditions, of which design is just a tiny part of” and to “designers should go back to think and act as citizens instead of as designers”.

    – About the design rhetoric:
    I feel that we (designers) are doing a lot of promises, and then when the promise is not completely fulfilled, we hide behind words like experimentation, questioning, reflecting, etc. I find this completely justified in an Academic context, where the aim is to learn and find your own way. But after that, why I experienced so many Social Design projects in galleries, websites and books and not in reality? Are we just talking among ourselves?

    Finally, to Jan Boelen. I believe that calling the Social Design students not students but designers generates at least two problems. First, in a education institute, people should not be expected to “deliver” like they were professionals: the context is different and the students need to know they are free to make mistakes, even huge mistakes, even total failures. Second, and more important, they are not payed for their work, and the economical aspect is maybe the weak point (and not discussed enough maybe?) of so-called Social Designers. Who is the client or the sponsor, of their project? Can we expect public grants and funding to pay for 30 new graduates every year?

    I hope my comment doesn’t sound to rough. I just wish this discussion to go on.

    • calderonp wrote:

      Thanks for your thoughtful answer Kim! It is indeed a great contribution to continue this discussion…

      I like what you say, of “taking the risk to give definitions, acknowledging that they will be necessarily temporary”. It reminds me of Paolo Lugari, who says he is in the “permanent search for temporary truths”.

      But I also think that ‘not giving A definition’ does not necessarily imply being ‘against definitions’. In my case, I do think it is important to frame, in order to be able to look at what’s being framed in a critical way. What I don’t think –and my main critique towards that book– is that I as a person can give A DEFINITION of what social design is.

      Perhaps we could work on temporary definitions, but they would have to be built on a dialogical and collaborative way? Under constant scrutiny and reformulation?

  4. Pablo, you are not usually too shy about shooting your opinions, why do you think your A definition wouldn’t be a relevant one? Isn’t every opinion a formulation and a definition of something, either for or against? Isn’t every individual definition as valuable (or useless) as collaborative ones? Don’t A definitions form a dialogue (from which all the parties can learn or develop their opinions/definitions and develop it/them further)? Isn’t a dialogue communication, an exchange of ideas and opinions?

    In general, a human being understands the world by categorizing things. If there is a will or a need to make other people understand what something is, we need to be able to frame and make definitions (can also be loose or temporary ones), and to tell what we do, not only why we do. Inside DAE I think it’s really good not to give the students (designers) a definition of what SD is or can be. People there work on the topic for two years and have time to formulate their idea of wtf they are doing.

    I totally agree with Kim on the communication aspect. Outside the academy, there needs to be a way of communicating what we do, otherwise the cause (or whatever we want to call it) will only stay in the fringes. We are talking about outside-the-commercial-shiny-objects design, but if we don’t even try to define what we do, it’s near-impossible for people outside the discussion of SD to understand it. Of course, if we only want to keep the other practices in the fringes and are happy to discuss with only a handful of more or less similar-minded people, then it might be ok not to make definitions. Along the process of communication, things have a tendency to become simplified, which, of course, is against what the intellectual minds want. The question is, do we want to communicate ideas or keep the discussion within a small group of similar-minded people? Have a look at the mechanism(s) of how phenomena or trends spread among people/society.

    I also don’t agree with the SD definition of the book and don’t call myself a social designer, but what bothers me is that I also don’t see alternative suggestions in the discussion. It’s easier to bark than come up with alternatives? The book is A definition of SD, I would maybe call it ‘traditional social design’ and I totally think that there is a need to move further from that definition. Suggestions? 😉

    • calderonp wrote:

      Heini… I do not think that my definition would not be relevant –and I think there is a big gap between giving an opinion and providing a definition, but my problem is with A DEFINITION (the ‘A’ is not a random letter, like if there was a B and a C, bu to emphasize how some people give definitions as ‘the-one-and-only-definition’).

      If you read finely, you realize that I actually give some kind of definition/framing myself within the post…

      “Be it designing ‘the social’ (social innovation / social engineering), design ‘for the social’ (humanitarian design / design for the other 90%) or designing ‘socially’ (participatory design / co-design)”

      So, again, it is not a problem of giving or not definitions, but to problematize them… and I think you, as well as Kim, are right in centering the attention on ‘communication’ (both within and with-out –with others).

  5. Moises wrote:

    Hi Pablo (from Caracas),
    I like your motivation for expanding design to every human endeavor, especially because you are a designer. I see that you have tried with preparing yourself, academically, in Social Design. Then you have found that design, somehow, has been social and that would mean sort of feeling like being cheated…

    I agree design doesn’t lack of social, but that wouldn’t be true the other way around: social do lack of design… What I see as the purpose for all these SD initiatives is to bring design to social, to integrate design thinking (hear/observe, create, deliver – being able to anticipate through imagination) into social processes.

    We, in Latin America, are urgently needing high doses of design (more certain countries like mine, than others).

    Warm regards!


    • calderonp wrote:

      Hi Moises,

      It’s great to read something from Latin America for, as you say it, it is an important debate –and practice– for our region.

      Lets say my ‘issue’ is more with the rhetoric built around social design, than about the practice itself.

      Interesting that you mention Latin America, for I consider it is a region where ‘social design-like’ practices have been happening for long, but never been called as such (nor had the intervention of designers). What is then an indigenous Minga? an afrocolombian Manocambiada? a peasants Trueque?

      But seeing this panorama should not blind us to act in the present, having a nostalgic-veil, but question our role and revaluate the way we can intervene.

      Perhaps what we are needing in LA is not ‘high doses of design’, but actually lower doses of (the traditional visions of) it. More than ever, we need to think back as citizens and change our immediate environment bit-by-bit… think of initiatives like 100en1dia

      Thanks for joining the debate!



  6. Mateo wrote:

    Hi Pablo,
    Im also an industrial designer from UJTL, and as you did, couldn’t find in the practice what I was looking for until I met Social Design. Im actually in Argentina starting my Masters degree in “Diseño Comunicacional” because I thought it would help me find answers to questions in my mind, and it wasn’t until a week ago that I found the answer of “why” did I thought this could work, and the article you wrote did nothing but reenforce my thoughts about it, “in a field that has nourish from other fields such as anthropology… I no longer find a way to define it or support it, with the speech of traditional design, its necessary, to look in other knowledge areas and speeches a way to define it.

    In this (short until now) journey of the Masters degree, Im also asking myself about whats understood for social design and if it is what I undestand or the term “social design” is not working correctly by asking myself what in this world isn’t social. (this is based on a semiotic aproach such as Eliseo Veron’s theory of social speeches)

    Im just starting this Masters so I have a lot of questions in my mind and articles like this make me think in things I haven’t thought about, so your point of view (And if so, many others) of mine’s should be very rich and interesting!


  7. FERNANDO wrote:

    I could not being more agree with you at all.As a matter of fact I’m working in a paper to problematizes social desig at the interior of the U. Caldas Phd. Best Regards

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