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Design and the Social Sector: An Annotated Bibliography

Design thinking, user-centered design, service design, transformation design. These practices are not identical but their origin is similar: a definition of design that extends the profession beyond products. The rise of service economies in the developed world contributed to this movement toward design experiences, services and interactions between users and products. The literature about design thinking and contemporary ideas reveals common elements and themes, many of which are borrowed from product design processes. They include abduction, empathy, interdisciplinary teams, co-creation, iteration through prototyping, preservation of complexity and an evolving brief.

The implications of the rise of design thinking are twofold. First, corporate and organizational leaders concerned with innovative prowess are recognizing design thinking as a tool for developing new competitive advantages. Design thinking considers consumers’ latent desires and thus has the potential to change markets rather than simply make incremental improvements in the status quo. Second, many organizations have encountered significant barriers to practicing design thinking internally. In some ways, design thinking runs counter to the very structure of a corporation — it is intended to break paradigms, which may mean questioning power relationships, traditions and incentive structure, and it may require a corporation to overhaul its business model and cannibalize its success. Additionally, many corporate leaders treat design thinking in a linear manner, a process that compromises the critical elements of conflict and circularity. In many instances, designers have failed to sufficiently translate and articulate their process, and businesses tend to favor past trends over the promise of new discovery.

With corporations struggling to use design thinking effectively, where does that leave the social sector? The organizational challenges facing corporations do not necessarily transfer to nonprofit organizations: more complex systems, higher stakes for failure, limited resources and intangible evaluation metrics. Designers may be attracted to greater complexity and more wicked problems in the social sector, but they need to be prepared to adapt their process and attitudes to create positive change. Perhaps the most significant adaptation designers need to make is in their role. Where product design connotes a sense of authorship, social design demands that designers be facilitators and educators of their processes. Further, they need to recognize they may not be well equipped to solve problems, but can identify problems and co-create with local leaders and beneficiaries.

The value of co-creation is a predominant theme in the literature surveyed here, particularly for Western designers contributing to foreign communities. Another critical factor is continual presence within projects, or better, a longer-term, sustained involvement. Authors speak of the importance of evaluation and metrics to gauge success, but find many projects lacking, perhaps for the same reasons the social sector as a whole struggles with impact measurement. Scaling, adaptation and replication are buzzwords that pervade the social sector, but are particularly difficult for the product of a design process. Because the process is founded on a deep understanding of a particular user group’s needs, the solution for one community likely does not translate directly to another. However, authors suggest that it is the design process that is scalable and should be taught to local leaders. Failed projects support this assertion; benefits flow through the process of a project as well as the end-product, which further advocates for co-creation. Finally, the literature leave us with an unsettling question: Is breakthrough innovation possible in the social sector? Most veterans in this field suggest the answer is no — they recommend that designers start small and introduce incremental change because the complexity of the systems and problems they face will demand it. However, this finding does not negate the potential value of the designer. The social sector needs designers to identify problems, imagine possibilities for a better future and facilitate problem-solving processes.

— Courtney Drake

Read more about this on changeobserver

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