Design for society
The maturity of design coincides with the growth of Design’s sphere of activity. As our work increases its impact in people’s life and the environment so do our responsibilities and area of influence. This means that slowly but surely we’re becoming more and more involved in matters that are relevant to all of society (and more).
While Design’s ability to rise to these new challenges has coincided mostly with its adoption of a human centered approach it also corresponds to a broader shift from a positivist world-view to a more holistic frame of reference. This means that we’re moving away from a pure rational, quantitative and control focused way of understanding the world to one that takes into account emotion, quality and embraces complexity. Design as a practice is extremely well aligned with this shift making it well suited to take the new and complex challenges of our world.
Defining the scope
It’s relevant to notice that this domain is constantly expanding. It could eventually encompass not only society but also the environment and the whole planet as an ecosystem (and even beyond).
Still, the focus here is in the sphere of activity, it is about what design is concerned with, and while environmental concerns are of utmost importance we’re not yet mature, as a species, to have a planet centered approach, we’re still looking at environmental issues from an anthropocentric worldview, since we basically want to avoid our own extinction. A societal consideration lies at the edge of the anthropocentric frame.
Shifting boundaries is no easy task, it took many years of growth and maturation for design to put people at the center of it’s work and it took even more time for companies, organizations and other institutions to align themselves with designers on this front.
I believe that the current discussions around Design, the talk about ethics, responsibilities, systems thinking and circular economy means that we are getting closer and closer to a new shift, from user to a broader concern: society.
The intermediate step
Some of you might have noticed that there’s an important gap between user and society. Conceptually there is a huge leap between those instances, we go from immediate individual concerns to a massive group of people. A bit more on the practical side the leap is about expanding the notion of where the impact of our work lies. From that lens the middle step is irrelevant. A Society Centered Design should encompass all the lower levels of social hierarchies, from family, communities, States, blocks and the like.
Still, that intermediate step does exist and we could conceive it as a community or organization centered. Why the conceptual jump then? We could talk about two main reasons. Firstly, current design work has a broader impact than just the immediate community it is designed in or for. We are designing global platforms and systems that have consequences on a big part of society.
And the other reason is that an organization centered approach can be mistakenly thought of as what we’ve been doing for about the last 50 years, focusing on the organization and it’s business needs over the people it’s supposed to serve and the people that compose it. This is the antithesis of what a society centered approach aims to achieve: Ethical and social responsibility and working for the collective wellbeing of society and its members.
We’ve talked about Design as a field, but we also have the design disciplines to think about.
As Design grows it takes on new forms, incorporates more knowledge and new disciplines emerge in order to respond to these new challenges.
This is perfectly captured in Richard Buchanan’s model for the “four orders of design” that he presented in 1992 (almost 30 years ago).
This model presents the spheres of action of the different design disciplines in a scale of growing complexity. From a symbolic to a systemic level.
The value of this model for our purposes is that it allows us to clearly see how Design already operates in broader, more complex spheres and how the different levels interact. Being that the lower levels are actually contained within the superior ones, with the expertise and knowledge of the upper levels trickling down, changing the approach of the lower levels too. Society Centered Design is born out of necessity of the upper levels, a frame of working that they need to operate effectively, but it is still something that can trickle down to the lower levels. Much like Human Centered Design was born out of the needs of the new practices in the 3rd level (interactions) but it now also defines how to approach design for the lower levels (artifacts and signs).
The complexity axis is quite useful to understand the need for a broader approach. If we combine it with our other axis of the expansion of the domain we get a matrix that shows how these approaches are defined.
What this matrix shows is that there is a threshold where one approach is no longer able to cope with the complexity needed to effectively solve the problems involved, leading to the need of a new approach. Traditional design for example, works from a product centered approach and it can be used to design artifacts, but this product centered approach hits a limit when trying to design experiences. In that situation a user centered approach is needed.
As our approach broadens, so does our understanding of the problems, that’s the reason knowledge trickles down, so we can take a broader approach for a simpler problem, like a user centered approach to design artifacts (which is how we mostly work today).
For example, nowadays we have incorporated ethnographic methods of research into our processes, and this also informs how we design tools and other objects, we no longer just execute someone else’s idea (or at least we shouldn’t).
I must clarify that system level issues encompass both a Strategic Design approach and a society centered approach. This is because Strategic Design deals with systems and systemic issues but on a smaller scale than full-blown social issues.
Taking the step
In order to tackle more complex issues in the form of “Wicked problems”¹ designers need to grow out of User Centered Design into a new more holistic approach.
Still I wonder if we are yet ready to develop and adopt this new approach.
This stepped framework of adoption seems logical as it’s based on the assumption that this is an organic process and we will get there eventually, but there’s no structure to press it forward. I guess that I can only do what I’ve been trying to achieve here, to start a discussion around it.
On the next article I would like to explore how a society centered approach could even be described.
¹ This is a type of problem that’s not only ill defined but also largely interconnected to many other issues with lots of relevant stakeholders, often with conflicting interests.
Entries in the series
- Part 1: Design and society
- Part 2: Design for society (you are here)