Is Design for Social Change Undemocratic?

Design for social change/social impact/social justice, democratic design, whatever you want to call it, operates under the idea that for too long design has been a top-down approach where products and services have been designed by those in the top tier for those in the lower classes or political structures. Design needs to be put into the hands of the end user, and designers should turn their role from directors to facilitators. But within the same breath, design for social change/impact/justice’s chief purpose is to influence behavioral change through design. Isn’t this hypocritical?

If the goal is to democratize design, then designers should design whatever a certain user group needs or wants. If that means that a group wants plastic grocery bags, coal burning power plants, and disposable razors then so be it. This would be democracy in action.

If the goal is behavioral change, then it turns from democratic design to authoritarian. For the same group, we would instead design hemp bags, electricity usage limiters, and razor blade sharpening stones with a massive “We Know Better Than You” marketing campaign. (Kind of like we’ve been doing for years, according to the theory).

It seems that democratic design is used interchangeably with design for social change, but in many cases it appears that they are two very different systems of both thought and action.

I think all of this “design for social change” BS is just trying to philosophize what we do. If one observes how people work, live and play and tries to develop tools to help them succeed in their goals, that is design pure and simple.

Perhaps people just feel guilty about all of the fashionable bits of design in the west. I certainly understand that, but it’s no reason to start inventing new terms for what is basically good established principles.

Completely agree- I try not to criticize designers who are genuinely trying to do good, but these projects always have a whiff of cultural superiority combined with cultural cluelessness. The portfolio of designers for social change is also indicative- nothing ever sticks. It seems to me that if a designer genuinely cared about people they would be spending time in the region. teaching people there long-term and not looking to bunny hop to the next project that will get an IDEA award or featured on core :laughing: Even terms like “the other 90%” is patronizing. China and India dont need your left-over design work just as Americans would be offended if Chinese designers started to design for socially changing the size of American butts and their excessive individuality.

I used to get annoyed about short term missionaries (Christian in this case) to developing countries. I shook my head at the cost of the tickets to get to the various countries and questioned the efficacy of the work. However the people who come back from these missions are changed and have a better understanding- so perhaps it is a good investment for the individual rather than the ones served because the people returning have a greater sense of empathy. Same thing might apply to designers as well.

Great points here MB. You’ve hit the core of the issue here: Cultural superiority.

I think the Peace Corps and some nonprofits do a great job in this area. The problem with a lot of design for social change is that it often lacks real understanding of problems or useful metrics to gauge success. Rainer Arnhold Fellows address this in their work:

Yes. But you constructed the argument based on your definitions. Does anyone else share these definitions? If yes, please site some examples.

Seems like a simplistic approach. What about the manufacturer’s capabilities? What about the competitive offering? It is never as simple as “give them what they want” if you can’t make a plastic bag and there are 50 other companies making plastic bags. And why can’t the hemp bag maker market their bags? The plastic bag maker is allowed to market the convenience of their bags but the hemp bag maker isn’t allowed to market the reusability of their bag? Wouldn’t that make you a hypocrite?

Also, when ever has the end user designed anything? They don’t know they want a plastic bag, coal plants or disposable razors. They want a convenient way to carry groceries, electric power and a shaved face or legs. What about their other needs? Like not having litter in their yard or having clean air to breathe or something that won’t rip your face off after 3 shaves? Limiting yourself to narrow “needs” will make you a poor designer. Designers should see possibilities, not limitations.

Sounds like organized religion.

But are you saying the manufacturers of one product don’t have the right to say their competition sucks and the end user should use their product instead? Do you see the irony of your use of the word authoritarian?

Again, can you site some examples?

iab: You remind me of hearing that solar panels have had a hard time gaining market in Africa. The article I read said they cost 4 times more than the initial purchase price of batteries. The problem was that batteries already cost a week’s wage, so a month’s wage is a huge risk for these people. Personally, I think our foreign aid should just subsidize some basic infrastructure and tools for people in the developing world.

I agree with iab. Design is about science in the first place, not about politics. To participate, to ever be able to understand the concepts behind design, you have to be educated in that field. It definitely can’t be done the “me, too” way.
Recently, I had a discussion in a German newsgroup about “Open Source Design”. My point was that the experts don’t need it and the others (the patronized 90% :laughing: ) don’t have a use for it, not being able to estimate the quality of concepts or being able to manufacture goods themselves. In my opinion, most of the open Source designs are even more ‘patronizing’ than finished products in a “that’s good enough/cheap enough for you” way and selling kits, semi-finished products and handtools isn’t more democratic than selling complete devices. I don’t underestimate the educational aspect (leearning by doing) of assembling these kits. But that point wasn’t in the focus of open source designers and I presume some of these people just want spread their stuff for self-portrayal (vimeo :laughing: ) reasons, garnished with some humanitarian good karma.

I think there needs to be a definition of terms here. I got the impression that the OP was referring to organizations like Project H (who seem to be at least trying to address the issue raised with their “with, not for” motto - you can (are) judge their success), organizations that are attempting to use a design skill set to create positive social change & solve problems in society. However, I get the impression that iab took the OP’s statements as a criticism of company’s like Method, who are striving to sell socially responsible products to consumers. Citing some examples would be really helpful.

If this is a criticism of companies like Method, then I think it’s quite baseless. Why shouldn’t a company offer a product to consumers that they believe to be good for society?

If this is a criticism of Project H, etc. then there’s an interesting debate, relating to anyone in the missionary/charity realm. I think it really depends on whether the organization is empowering a group of people to solve their own problems, at least eventually (good), or whether the organization is encouraging dependence & imposing a different culture on the group (bad). Of course there are times when people just need a handout (food after a natural disaster, etc.) and that’s still good, but I don’t think that’s what we’re talking about. I think the idea of “with, not for” is a good one, but that’s easier said than done and there’s also the issue of how one decides that a certain group needs help (which can often involve feelings of superiority, but sometimes people really need help).


My comments were not political. It had to do that a plastic bag maker has every right to market their bag in which they see fit, as does the hemp bag maker. If the hemp bag maker wants to use the social construct of “a better world” by using reusables instead of disposables, they have every right to do so. If they say plastic bags suck because they use more energy or create more waste, more power to them. Plastic bag maker can say hemp bags suck because they incubate harmful bacteria and are often forgot before you go to the market.

I’m for a free exchange of information, plastic or hemp. I do agree with you putting a label on the information is assinine.

First, you are correct with my slant on the OP. And you have shown to me another interesting take.

Behavior change is an s.o.b. And in general, I would agree empowering a group to solve their own problems is good and creating dependence & imposing a different culture is bad. But it is not as nearly as black and white as that.

What if their culture is horrible and they refuse to change? For example, hand hygiene. It has been known for 150 years that hand washing prevents infections. 10 years ago, a large study was completed showing 100,000 people in the US hospitals alone die every year from preventable infections. The majority of which happened because of poor hand hygiene.

A few months ago, a follow-up study came out and it shows nothing has changed. 100,000 people still die annually from something that can be stopped. They tried putting wall-mount dispensers everywhere and infinate education programs. Nothing has worked for 150 years within the healthcare culture.

Now the government has stepped in. CMS (Center for Medicare/Medicaid Services) has said they will not reimburse the hospital to treat an infection that could have been prevented. Some insurance companies have followed suit. The electronic monitoring of hand hygiene is now a big business as it costs less than treating a patient with an infection. Thta electronic monitoring will change the culture of poor hand hygiene becasue it is capable of being a carrot and a stick on the individual level. As CMS pushed on hospital administration, hospital administration can now push on the caregiver.

I’d say in that case imposing a culture change was good.

For the " development aid" context, I’d break it down like this:
(design) education = “with, not for”
pre-made stuff (products, designs, milk powder) = counterproductive

For the “developed country” context, I’d break it down like this:
If you want to design society, become a professional designer or engineer, get yourself a job in real economy and stop bullshittin’ people with self-portrayal pseudo-democratic open source nonsense.

iab wrote: “Does anyone else share these definitions? If yes, please site some examples.”

From Design With Intent (, a website that promotes design for social change:

"I still think my favourite ‘Design with Intent’-related quote is this one from Buckminster Fuller. It has an attractive blend of humility and confidence, seeing people not as the problem but as part of the solution.

‘I made up my mind . . . that I would never try to reform man—that’s much too difficult. What I would do was to try to modify the environment in such a way as to get man moving in preferred directions.’

“That’s what this research is all about. Design as trimtab, perhaps, with all the debate, decisions, multidisciplinarity and implementation issues that implies.” ~ Dan Lockton of Design With Intent.

Mr. Lockton’s website is replete with this philosophy of changing behavior through design. My question to him and Buckminster Fuller is “Who gets to decide what the ‘preferred direction’ is?” Fuller is essentially promoting the building of a cattle corral.

Persuasion Design is discussed at length in this article by Robert Fabricant where the question is asked: “If paying teens with babies $1 a day not to get pregnant again proves to be effective (as is being shown in studies in Greensboro, N.C.), then is this bad design?”

I can think of a number of reasons why this is bad design, not least of which is the establishment of ‘entitlement derangement syndrome’ and the creation of a system where the prospect of financial reward overrides moral values and personal responsibility. But the article goes on to say how universities like Delft are evaluating students at the end of every semester on their ability to design social behavioral changes.

In the context of design for social change, the articles states: “While [user centered design] has served the design community well, its neutral stance is being increasingly questioned. Issues of sustainability and social change are forcing designers to reconsider their detached role. Many are adopting new modes of direct engagement and influence.”

This is where I see the separation between democratic (user centered) design and design for social change.


iab wrote: "And why can’t the hemp bag maker market their bags? The plastic bag maker is allowed to market the convenience of their bags but the hemp bag maker isn’t allowed to market the reusability of their bag? Wouldn’t that make you a hypocrite?

Also, when ever has the end user designed anything? They don’t know they want a plastic bag, coal plants or disposable razors. They want a convenient way to carry groceries, electric power and a shaved face or legs. What about their other needs? Like not having litter in their yard or having clean air to breathe or something that won’t rip your face off after 3 shaves? Limiting yourself to narrow “needs” will make you a poor designer. Designers should see possibilities, not limitations."

Substitute plastic bags, coal powerplants and disposable razors if you want. They’re just fillers. But needs go further than what you’re implying as well. They don’t just want electric power, they want it cheap, and solar panels are not cheap. They don’t just want to shave, they want to do it conveniently, and they don’t have time to sharpen the blades. They don’t just want bags to carry their groceries, they want it for free. I’m not saying that those counter-products can’t be designed or promoted. In certain markets, those items serve the needs and wants of the local population. The hypocrisy comes from the top-down cattle herding approach of changing personal behavior under the guise of user centered design.

iab wrote: “But are you saying the manufacturers of one product don’t have the right to say their competition sucks and the end user should use their product instead? Do you see the irony of your use of the word authoritarian?”

This is not what I’m saying at all. In a truly democratic design process, anyone would be able to design/produce/promote whatever kind of product they want, free to fail or succeed on their own merits. I think you and I agree on this approach. Under design for social change, the designer determines what I want or need.

Seurban gets to one side of what I’m talking about. It is the imposition of a change in culture, local, regional and national. Some of the articles I’ve read on this subject point out the necessity of political action or activism to achieve the desired change. Others say that design and politics are inseparable because of the implications of the design - which means that virtually anything and everything is political. I’m talking about more than just politics, I’m talking about ethics and morals and who decides. Is it really up to designers to decide what is best for those we serve, and is design turning from a service oriented profession to one where we essentially become moral dictators, prodding our subjects in order “to get man to moving in [our] preferred direction”?

I won’t express it in a negative way. It’s up to those to decide, who care and who take over responsibility. In a democratic political system, in economy, everywhere.

Good example. I think it was actually an unneeded intervention, though. 150 years ago, the US population was 31,443,321, according to Wikipedia. In 2010 it was over 308,000,000. With the population nearly 10x what it was, the death rate for preventable diseases fell from .3% to .03%. That tells me that the campaign worked. Had the percent remained the same, preventable diseases would have resulted in about 924,000 deaths.

Good example, and certainly my short answer did not do a complex issue like this justice. Your example made me think of Jamie Oliver’s show, Food Revolution (I think that’s the name, only saw a few episodes) where he goes into a community and basically tries to get them to eat better, and particular tries to get healthy food into school lunches. I definitely support his cause, but there are some he encounters in the community who are quite resistant, I think largely because he is trying to impose (without any authority, not that authority would make anyone happier) a culture change. Now I see this as a positive cultural change, and may venture to say it could even be objectively positive. Even still, there’s certainly some gray area (can we never eat oreos?).

So what happens when we move away from issues of health, which are more cut & dry (healthier = good)? I’d venture that there are still good cultural changes (even besides bigger issues like racism) to be made, but it becomes harder to objectively declare that something is good or bad. My take on this is that if you can address an issue the community already sees as a problem, or relate it back to one of their higher principles you are much better off. Of course even then it doesn’t mean they’ll like your solution, or even that your solution is good.

I’m offended that people criticize user-centered design. Good design takes into account all the stakeholders: users and the population in general. I have never met a designer or even someone in manufacturing that didn’t want to keep the environment clean and pay their employees a decent wage. However, market forces and inertia holds back some positive change. All of these hippy programs will do less good than a handful of good, driven, dedicated designers (or any decisionmakers) at Fortune 500 companies.

Just to be clear, I am not criticizing user centered design. I’m leery of those who take user centered design to another level, from research and testing to an activist role of telling someone they’re ‘doing it wrong’. But how do you overcome these ‘hippy’ trends in education? If a practical approach consistently wins out over idealistic theory, why does it always take a back seat?

Which part of the mission to get people to increase personal hygiene is design? Not all good things are the result of design, other people do good things too :wink: In this case it seems to be public and private policy based on medical research. Certainly there are elements within the broader strategy that involve design, but it is based on medical research, not design research. I’m OK with not having everything under the sun be design.

I saw someone list their title as a “business designer” the other day, I looked into what his definition was… it is pretty much the same as marketing… which is nebulous as it is. Do we run the risk of everyone who is not a qualified, capable designer being called an “xyz” designer based on their true area of expertise? Do design schools have an ethical obligation to tell these students to get a degree in public policy or marketing vs design? What does this expansion of design do for the definition of the profession? Does it increase our value by showing how design can effect everything, or decrease our value by saying it can be anything?