Introduction to Social Design

Emilie Schaefer
8 min readDec 18, 2020


Design is still too often seen as simply making things more “aesthetically pleasing” or “sellable”. But once these clichés overcome, and its full potential expressed, it has much more to offer to the world! At a time where crises are deeply anchored to societal problems, Design’s ability to bring systemic change is very much needed. Here’s a short intro to Social Design, a discipline that is not so new, but still very niche, and only waits to be developed…

Poster for the Victor Papanek: The Politics of Design exhibition at the Vitra Design Museum, Germany (2018–2019) © Daniel Streat, 2018

When in the 19th century, industrialization and series production allowed Design to spread into people’s everyday life in the image of Thonet’s bistro chair and democratized affordable comfort. But more than a century has passed, social inequalities are still strong and Design is globally more profitable to the market than to the user. From this observation, we can consider a more social Design as a relevant alternative. But what is Social Design? And how does it imbed in our current society? Let us draw a definition of Social Design, through its ideologies as well as through its processes.

A humanist approach to Design

Social Design, as an ideology, aims to solve social issues through Design practices. Although designers have been caring for human well-being far before, it is in the 1970s that this concept became broadly acknowledged thanks to Victor Papanek’s works. In order to understand the pioneer designer’s motivations, we will dissect this concept.

First, why would Design need to focus on the social?

“Recent Design satisfies only evanescent wants and desires, while the genuine needs of man have often been neglected” (Papanek, 1984)

Because current Design tends to sharpen social inequalities and create useless products, costing more to the environment than offering to humans. Papanek’s lifework of “designing for many instead of designing for money” raises the question:

Who is Social Design aimed for?

Design was mostly targeting and accessible to a social elite or other designers, forgetting about the elderly, overweight persons, pregnant women, mentally and physically disabled persons, people living in precarious conditions… Minorities are indeed key users of Social Design but inequalities are everywhere, even in the middle and upper class (Manzini, 2015). Gender discrimination, for example, is very much anchored in a multitude of objects, services, and environments that are products of Design, from the iPhone X which is too big to be held by an average female hand (have a read through this article), to the cars that are more dangerous for female drivers than male ones (Criado Perez, 2019). To illustrate this, we can examine the work of the architect Le Corbusier, who designed a series of social housings called “Cités Radieuses” in the 1950s, helping France to reconstruct after World War 2. The dimensions of these buildings follow the architect’s measuring system, the Modulor, which uses the golden ratio to define a standardized human size which is slightly taller than the average man and 20cm taller than the average woman. Therefore, although this work was on the way to Social Design, it is far from being female-inclusive.

The Modulor, by Le Corbusier

When we talk about Social Design’s quest to reduce inequalities, it is important to highlight its need for sustainability, as equity must be intergenerational as well, allowing one generation to benefit from the facilities, resources, and freedom than the past generation could have. This is why social issues are entangled with environmental issues and why Social Design should not deprive future generations of the Earth’s resources while solving social problems. In this perspective, we can imagine a way to design with a less anthropocentric approach, not only for humans but also for the environment.

Secondly, why would Design be helpful to solve these social problems?

Many are the social initiatives that already attempt to solve these issues: on a local or global scale, led by organizations, governments, companies, or simply by neighborhood communities… But as many are the limits of these initiatives. For instance, when in 2009, Brazil launched a public housing scheme, the former favelas inhabitants’ way of living and needs were not taken into account while their new flats were designed. Maybe relocating these people allowed Rio de Janeiro to erase some of its favelas, but these communities were dismantled in impersonal and individualist buildings, with flats that did not fit their family models (Criado Perez, 2019). Of course, Design should not be a substitute for these initiatives, but it could help them to be more adequate to local contexts as well as helping them to broaden up to other contexts.

Birth control pills for illiterate people, by Pirkko Sotamaa

As Manzini writes, “traditionally, design experts were asked to recognize technological innovation and translate it into socially acceptable products and services”, now they need to “use their skills and competences to recognize existing social innovations and transform them into more effective, attractive, lasting and potentially replicable solutions’’ (Manzini, 2015, p.58). For example, in the case of promoting the use of contraception in areas of poverty, NGOs’ and governments’ initiatives have limited efficiency, as providing women with unintuitive birth control treatments can be challenging. In response to that, a package for birth control pills usable by illiterate people was designed by Pirkko Sotamaa (Papanek, 1984, p.66), enabling anyone to benefit from contraception, which can lead to reducing poverty.

“Design has the ability to “transform man’s environment and tools and, by extension, man himself” (Papanek, 1984, p.66)

Now that we have defined the objectives of Social Design, we need to recognize that Social Design is not only a humanist ideology but also a powerful process. One would argue that Social Design is not a new domain (Manzini, 2015) and only reschedules Design’s agenda towards more social practices, but perhaps these practices do need new tools, methodologies, and actors to achieve this agenda.

In this case, how does a Social Design process work?

Social design in practice

Using Design methodologies and tools as its root (Design Thinking, user-centered processes…) Social Design also has a deeply deconstructivist approach to the designer’s classical role: distribution of resources is reshaped and the designer gives up his/her monopoly over the creative power.

Although Social Design can be found and is needed in any Design domain, from Product Design and Service Design to Information Design, it takes an active interest in Systems Design. Not only this approach enables considerable and deep social innovations and systemic change, but it can also present an important economy of energy, time, and money. Indeed, an optimized rearrangement of existing human resources (skills, knowledge, energy, and time) and material resources (structures, space…) can benefit all. Of course, it can involve massive changes in lifestyles and overcoming prejudices, but these efforts are necessary to make more equal systems.

Photo by Mariia Chalaya on Unsplash

This is how the Circles initiative, developed by Participle Ltd in 2009 in the UK, provided care and integration to the elderly people by systemizing “the different motivations and resources’’ of a neighborhood’s inhabitants (Manzini 2015, p.56) and basing these exchanges on relationship welfare instead of professional. Designers created a digital platform and a set of services, as well as co-design and co-production support tools, making this system “more accessible to the people concerned” and “more efficiently replicable” (ibid). Unfortunately, some of the Circles had to close when public funding stopped, challenging the sustainability of this system. Even if it saved a lot of money to local authorities, it failed to embed in “the wider eco-system of public services” (Hilary Cottam in The Guardian 2012). Therefore, while rearranging resources to build social systems, Social Design should cautiously focus on its sustainability and capacity to embed (or even replacing) into wider existent systems.

“Consider the elderly not only as a problem but also as possible agents for its solution; support their capabilities and their will to be actively involved.” (Manzini 2015, p.13)

Human relationships are powerful inputs for these systems. Consequently, involving the system’s users in the system’s design will nourish this precious motivation and make sure that it is adequately designed for the users. This questions the designer’s responsibility, opening up the Design practice to a collaborative one.

By whom is Social Design performed?

Co-design workshop, by the Asian Coalition for Housing Rights

Manzini divides Design into two different practices: “expert design”, exercised by designers, and “diffuse design”, which is anyone’s capability to use their creativity, critical and practical sense to solve problems. As an example, we can mention the Asian Coalition for Housing Rights gathering Asian professionals and organizations creating housing solutions for the poor (ACHR, 2013). Its main strategy is to empower the communities themselves by enabling them to take part in the design process and building their own housings following their own needs thanks to co-design tools and methodologies. By doing so, the coalition goes beyond designing with the user (based on accurate user data raising and analysis) but directly enables the user to be his/her own designer. Of course, experts are still essential to this co-process, and thus, in many different domains of expertise. Papanek suggests that a multidisciplinary minimal Design team should include an expert in design, anthropology, engineering, and among many others, a “member of the real client group”.

Minimal Design team, by Papanek

So, why is Social Design still not a common approach in Design?

Actually, “one reason why there is not more support for social design services is the lack of research to demonstrate what a designer can contribute to human welfare” (Margolin 2002, p.24). It is therefore urgent that a new (social) Design knowledge makes its way to the mainstream Design discussions. In the extension of a co-design process, we could imagine that Social Design would thrive through an open-design system that could distribute new knowledge of the Social Design culture from local scales to global ones and provide this culture with fast-growing efficient inputs.


In order to conclude, we can say that Social Design is a powerful tool for building a more equal society, thanks to its humanist ideology and innovative processes. By truly considering minorities while addressing social issues with a systemic and highly collaborative approach it can doubtlessly contribute to all humans’ welfare. Yet, it is essential to recognize the complexity of the met challenges, because the solutions’ sustainability depends on and affects the social dimension but also the environmental and economical dimensions.


Asian Coalition for Housing Rights, 2013, About us, viewed 19 October 2020, <>

Cesal, E. and Gandolfi, E., 2017, Growth, Equity & Asian Cities, podcast, Social Design Insights, viewed 16 October 2020, <>

Criado Perez, C., 2019, Invisible Women: Exposing Data Bias in a World Designed for Men, Chatto & Windus, London

Manzini, E., 2015, Design, when everybody designs: an introduction to design for social innovation, The MIT Press, Massachusetts

Margolin, V. and Margolin, S., 2002, A “social model” of design: issues of practice and research, design issues, vol. 18, no. 4, pp. 24–30, The MIT Press [18 October 2020]

Papanek, V. J., 1984, Design for the real world, 2nd ed., Thames and Hudson, London

The Guardian, 2012, Circle: a low-cost model for 21st-century adult social care?, viewed 19 October 2020 <>