Review: ‘Designing for Social Change‘

by Andrew Wade

It is my hope that we are only in the infancy of the "social design" movement — a time when genuine social engagement remains a peripheral niche in the field of design. In "Designing for Social ChangeAndrew Shea confirms this hope by demonstrating the enormous potential for growth, professional satisfaction and transformative change that social design wields. In outlining 10 strategies for community engagement, and breathing life into them with two concise case studies apiece, the book inspires and teaches in equal measure.

Each case illustrates the design process from beginning to end, from the design challenge to the engagement and design strategy to outcomes and lessons learned. While clear and striking images of designed booklets, posters and signs abound, photos of communities interacting with and using these products is given priority. As such, this reads as a handbook for action that appeals specifically to graphic designers seeking to engage communities through their work. However, the strategies are broadly applicable to any designer looking to fully inform his or her product with a well-conceived and context-sensitive process.

One case study, which expands on the strategy of "utilizing local resources," involved raising awareness of Chicago’s water use. The flow of the Chicago River was reversed in 1900, and nearly 2.1 billion gallons of fresh water per day continue to be diverted from the Great Lakes Basin. Moving Design — a group of 16 designers, architects, street artists, educators and engineers — decided to tackle this issue.

Their project was designed to critique the unsustainable nature of such planning by designing a series of public murals throughout the city. Through a process of open-sourcing ideas as a team, they created a portfolio of intervention options: typographic water murals on concrete walls, data projects, fading messages written on sidewalks in ice cubes. With an arsenal of carefully considered, collaborative design interventions throughout the city, Moving Design was able to get many residents, including then-mayor Richard Daley, to speak openly about the possibility of reversing the flow of the river for more sustainable urban water management.

Shea concludes the book with a brief but essential chapter on "funding social design," which outlines various ways to receive compensation for design work. The chapter explores potential avenues to reserve copyright and crediting privileges for pro bono work, write grants or set up non-profit branches of design studios. After presenting inspirational examples of community-based graphic design, this final chapter makes it a convincing and feasible path for all designers. It serves as a subtle prompt to widen and integrate social design with the mainstream in practical terms.

A Moving Design participant paints a mural to raise awareness about water use in Chicago.

The book owes an acknowledged debt to the "Human-Centered Design Toolkit" and "Design for Social Impact: A How-To Guide" by IDEO, a design consultancy firm that has openly embraced design thinking to innovate for clients in both the private and public sectors. By amplifying this message, "Designing for Social Change" pushes forward design thinking as an avenue for enabling social change and poverty alleviation. This leads us to larger questions excavated by social design. How do we deal ethically with the inherently political nature of design as portrayed in this book? How do we continue the growth of "social design" so that it does not remain a niche, but is simply an assumed and integrated part of good design?

While the corporate sector cloaks itself in the mantra of sustainability, leveraging market research to promote profit and growth through the green economy, community work largely remains the realm of the "unprofessional" professionals — those shackled by their own capacity for empathy. At its best, this book reveals that inspired graphic design can emerge from deliberative community engagement, leaving behind not only deliverable design products, but also communities that feel empowered through clear communication, imagination and action.

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