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What Exactly Is Social Design and Whom Might It Serve?

“Social design” has gained prominence as a professional field in the past decade. It is not uncommon to see product designers, service designers, architects and user-interface and user-experience designers tagging their professional projects as social design undertakings. Efforts at instituting social design as an educational paradigm have also been underway. For instance, Maryland Institute College of Art initiated a master’s programme in social design in 2011. In India, Dr B.R. Ambedkar University, Delhi launched its master’s degree in social design in 2013. 

But what exactly is social design and whom might it serve? Why is social design thinking proliferating in professional settings? To respond to these questions one needs to recognise a longstanding demand for design to become more inclusive. Design practice, which entails processes of planning and producing a range of objects, products and services, faced criticism in the 1960s and 70s for focusing too narrowly on the needs of only a small segment of elite society.

In his 1971 tome Design for the Real World, for instance, Victor Papanek, the Austrian-born US-based product-designer and advocate of socially engaged design inveighed against design as “a luxury enjoyed by a small clique who formed the technological, moneyed and cultural elite of each nation.” Building on his own work in a number of settings internationally, Papanek drew attention to communities who had, on account of their impoverishment, never “been within breathing distance of [a] designer’s board or workbench.” If the profession was to be on the side of social good, it had to rise, in Papanek’s view, above its exclusivity and market focus, and manifest the interests of society more inclusively. It was time for designers to imagine and make products for large numbers of the underrepresented, underserved and underprivileged in society.

Papanek’s appeal for more inclusive design, however, came with a rider. Even as he pushed for products for the underprivileged, he also simultaneously sought to distinguish design as a unique kind of activity. Not everything that had pattern, order or beauty in the world came into existence on account of design. The process of design had very specific entailments. At the very least it encompassed, according to Papanek, a six-faceted “function complex” that comprised method, use, need, telesis, association and aesthetics. The vocation of design, therefore, involved engaging in the “dynamic actions and relationships that make up [this] function complex.” Design was special because it arose purely in a matrix of function-oriented associations between diverse elements. 

There is an irony in this articulation, however. No sooner does the design process become a distinctive mode of association, it also verges on becoming an imposition. While designers may work towards serving underprivileged communities, the very entry of those communities into the world of design is mediated by unequal power. The underprivileged, in essence, may not bring their own particular modes of association to the table but accede to the fiat of designers or design discourse coming in mostly from a White, Western, male perspective. 

It will not suffice for social designers then to draw on Papanek alone and promote design as the process of taking an already given, abstractly conceived “function complex” into the spaces of the underrepresented, underserved and underprivileged in society. On the contrary, social design, particularly in the way it is evolving in educational and professional settings today, is more akin to an attempt at rendering design vulnerable to the modes of association that it encounters among the people it serves. Which is to say that from a present-day social designer’s perspective, the design process is meaningful if and only if the designer uniquely recasts it in response to her own involvement with people. For instance, environmentally induced disasters annually cause considerable damage and destruction to houses in a variety of locations in the Indian subcontinent. In the face of such disasters, the task of disaster management experts, architects and designers, conventionally understood, is one of relocating people and rebuilding their houses and shelters. 

Vehicles on the waterlogged Outer Ring Road in Bellandur, September 7, 2022. Photo: PTI/Shailendra Bhojak

However, as social design students at Ambedkar University learnt through engagement with flooding and landslide-affected communities in a variety of settings during their studio work on housing and disaster resilience, the task of rebuilding the home is often distinct from that of rebuilding the house. Unlike the house which is an inert or dead container, the home is more of a dynamic network of relationships between people and scarce resources. The home comprises, among other things, the location of the house and its distance from workplaces, the work of repairing, maintaining and upgrading the house, the affinities and kinships of the householders, the service providers who cater to the upkeep and the needs of householders, and the divergent forms of tenure that would enable people to make savings over time. There is a whole spectrum of behaviours and modes of cultural association that underlie settlement activity in communities riven by inequalities centred around caste, class and gender. And it is this spectrum of in situ relationships, and not so much the relocation or the reconstruction of the house in the conventional sense, that the social designer is tasked with addressing. 

Students in the studios at Ambedkar University, for their part then, attempted to create in situ services for the people affected by disasters. One group, for instance, proposed Jibika, a transportation service for the Mising community in flood-affected Molaul Miri Village in Majuli, Assam. The blueprint for this service was designed to make it easier for people to access and use the existing healthcare services available at nearby PHCs and hospitals. There were other undertakings, such as a service-design initiative to help disaster-affected children through interim schooling in Puri, Odisha, an in-situ vernacular housing upgradation project in landslide-affected Uttarakhand, a policy proposal to stem power outages during cyclones in Rajkot, and a call, based on fieldwork in Kusheshwar Asthan Purbi, a block of 36 villages located in the Darbhanga district of north Bihar, for providing in-situ stilted housing in flood affected areas.

No examination of the category called social can proceed at a remove from an appreciation of the actual relationships people find themselves in. Indeed, if anything at all, the social designer’s tools, such as service-design blueprints, architectural plans, journey maps, community engagement cards, community murals, community collages, community photographs and participatory attempts at artefact making, are ways of expressing existing or emerging relationships between people. The social designer’s tools provide people with the material and aesthetic means to make themselves noticeable as communities. Equally, they empower people to think about themselves as a community centred around addressing commonly shared concerns. 

Social design, to put it succinctly then, is that craft which invests in creating an array of signs, symbols and artefacts that can help render a people’s desire for collective action visible and recognisable. There is, however, a clarification. Any attempt at making the community or “the social” itself into the principle guide and criterion for design activity must also contend with the power hierarchies that are latent within those categories in terms of class, caste, gender, ethnicity and other differences. We are, today, removed from the time the American pragmatist and philosopher John Dewey uncritically wrote about the social as an inclusive category in the late 1920s. Any reproduction of the category called social in the present cannot transpire without addressing the inequalities that are also simultaneously reproduced with it, and indeed as a part of it. 

Certainly, the social comes to life as people come together to envisage outcomes that improve their living conditions. Social designers have a critical role to play in addressing the inequalities inherent within existing design approaches. But they must also stay vigilant towards the inequalities that are inherent within the social, and be wary of reinforcing them, even as they work with communities. 

Venugopal Maddipati is an architectural historian who teaches at the School of Design, Ambedkar University, New Delhi. 

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