Cheryl Heller, the founding Chair of the first MFA program in Design for Social Innovation at SVA NYC and President of the design lab CommonWise, was recently awarded a Rockefeller Bellagio Fellowship, and is a recipient of the AIGA Medal for Lifetime Achievement for her contribution to the field of design. A committed social activist, she has written an important book for the “new” designer who practices design as a holistic field, developing strategies for societal change. The book is a must read and this interview is a guide to Heller’s The Intergalactic Design Guide: Harnessing The Creative Potential of Social Design.
Design to make the world a better place, was a Modernist ideal, but with few exceptions, I don’t think the designers who identified as “moderns” were thinking of what you are describing. So, what do you mean by “Social Design”?
The defining difference between social design and the Modernist ideal is that the latter was a vision for a world made better by conformity to a standard established by an elite group of designers. Social design is a collaborative process in which the people affected are included in defining a vision and implementation. It is not one person’s – or one profession’s aesthetic or effort.
As for a definition, social design is the design of the invisible dynamics and relationships that affect society and future. It’s the creation of new social conditions intended to increase human agency, creativity, equity, resilience, and our connection to nature.
It is essentially the same process used to develop innovative products and services, but applied at a larger scale, However, instead of a small team of expert designers being responsible for the creative output or product, social design is done by cross-disciplinary teams, including both people inside the company, and in external stakeholder communities. The goal, in addition to breakthrough products and services, is breakthrough interactions between people that lead to ongoing innovation. Because the process is participatory, everyone learns to do it. Because learning to do it instills a greater sense of agency and possibilities, everyone who participates is transformed.
This doesn’t at all mean that traditional artifacts of design are omitted from social design, it’s that they are conceived and implemented with the larger context in mind, and with a goal to create social and environmental as well as financial value.
The other point that’s critical is that social design is not just for nonprofits and governments. It’s relevant to every business looking to create a more engaged, creative culture. It’s what IBM is doing in their almost decade-long shift from an engineering culture to a design-led one.
I recall in the years when the Peace Corps was actively recruiting, there was a big push on improving the living conditions of others. Have you thought about what “social design” would have added to that process? Instead of NGOs taking the lead, This was government doing its job.
Both these models — of NGOs leading and government doing its job, are top down approaches. Someone at HQ, wherever that was, was making decisions about what people in other parts of the world should have, then defining and codifying a process for delivering it, usually in a way that prioritized efficiency for the NGO or government instead of the recipient. The notion of being human-centered, a principle of social design, means you consider the users needs, and their agency, first. Two examples of this are the current federal and New York City government. Social designers are working to make government services accessible and relevant to veterans and vulnerable populations; putting themselves in the shoes of a veteran trying to navigate the hairball of regulations and agencies and forms, or of a single mother in New York trying to get help with no way to know which agencies offer relevant services. They’re doing this by designing with the people who use the services. That’s a big shift, and it’s an example of some of the work our alums at Design for Social Innovation at SVA are doing inside the Fed and the Office of Economic Opportunity in New York City.
Construction of the Butaro District Hospital engaged local workers, and utilized traditional methods and materials. (MASS Design)
You write about the way to find solutions to complex issues is “to use inquiry as a guide.” This is not simply a design methodology but it is key to social design. What does a designer do to make this a valuable outcome?
I think to a certain extent, this is the sweet spot for designers — our comfort with ambiguity, with not having the answer, and living with that condition of not knowing. And designers are naturally curious. What’s critical in social design, though, is that we don’t impose our own ideas on people and systems. Preconceived ideas, however brilliant they sound, are to be avoided. Research is undertaken not to prove a theory, but to understand context and reframe questions. Answers are not determined in advance. The ultimate, moon shot vision may be fixed and inviolate, but not the step by step path to getting there. Observation of patterns, of unexpected reactions, whether in team members or customers, become the source of inspiration and invention—the real-time feedback that makes the idea, when it is developed, far more likely to succeed.
Built for Zero helps communities learn to work collaboratively and solve problems. Rather than dictating a single solution for ending homelessness, each community is guided through a process that they can adapt and apply themselves.
Your book is literally a “guide,” so where are designers going? And who are the designers who define the social design discipline?
I just gave a talk called “What does it mean to be a Designer when everybody’s designing?” This is a pivotal moment because we have to redefine what it means to be a professional. Design thinking is everywhere, and at a very superficial level, a portion of what professionals offer is being co-opted by everybody with access to post it notes and colored markers. This is a trend that will continue, because there is growing appetite for design as a way to build creative capacity within businesses and other institutions. So it’s up to designers to decide whether to try to protect the old turf or jump in and lead the change.
Lynda Gratton wrote an article for the MIT Sloan Management Review, about how soft skills are
the ones that can’t be automated, and therefore are the skills of the future jobs. The thing that isn’t obvious to everyone quite yet is that the soft skills are design skills. It’s up to us to make that case.
You provide some inspiring case studies yet how does the average, service-oriented designer find the project that needs the designer’s work?
The difference is that you don’t start with a project. You start with the issue you feel compelled to do something about — with the vision you want to create. Then you look for the people who are most affected by the issue and the people who are working to do something about it. Next you put yourself in the middle of that and get to work. Social design has a very specific set of skills, and requires a great deal of rigor and discipline. It’s not a weekend workshop or a tool kit. This is not the kind of design work where you hope someone will give you an exciting assignment, it’s what you decide to stand up and do.
Interface NetWorks has built both social and environmental value into their global supply chain. Residents of Bantayan Island in the Philippines clean discarded crab fishing nets. (Interface/ZSL)
You write a lot about prototyping. How long before you do this before creating a working result?
Making to learn is continual prototyping, beginning with very rough, lo res representations, that can sometimes be as simple as a conversation with the people you want to engage. Because design is done in real time with people on the ground, prototyping is research, and becomes a real time feedback loop in the development of the program.
Traditional processes are sequential. They move from one stage to the next, with different teams of experts, and often different leaders, for each one. It’s a relay race, and the baton that gets passed is the knowledge or idea.
In the social design process, the stages are collapsed, and happen concurrently. The same, cross disciplinary team works together to develop and prototype ideas, using that as research. Instead of learning and then making, it’s making to learn and refine. The plan emerges step by step, driven by the vision or end goal.
On Bantayan Island residents learn about the finished carpet tiles that will be made from fishing nets. (Interface/ZSL)
What are the three most encouraging projects that support your position on social design?
Interface, the biggest carpet tile manufacturer in the world and a public company, is building social value as well as environmental value into their supply chain by creating economies in vulnerable marine villages in the Philippines and Cameroon. They pay people to collect the discarded fishing nets that destroy marine life, connect them to a global manufacturing process and turn them into completely recycled carpet tiles.
It’s everywhere. There’s an organization called Built for Zero that is getting to zero chronic and veteran’s homelessness. They do it by teaching cross-disciplinary teams in communities across the country to reframe and solve problems, map, facilitate and prototype.
The architect Michael Murphy, co-founder of MASS Design Group, integrates social design into an architectural practice to create value for the whole community. They create jobs, revive traditional crafts, and even improve health outcomes by thinking about the social systems within their built environments.
Is social design dependent on designers? Or can non-designers be integral to social design?
Social design is absolutely dependent on designers, but the designers who step up to do it will come from many unexpected professions and places. It’s truly one of the most exciting opportunities to create the future, to get involved in the most important issues of our time, and to have what I have heard designers asking for for as long as I’ve been a designer: a seat at the table. But the time to step up and lead the way is now.