What is social design?

By | June 14, 2021

Social design is an emerging stream of design that is still finding its space and boundaries (Chen et al., 2016; Koskinen, 2016; Markussen, 2017). Markussen (2017) argues against Manzini’s (2015) depiction of the ‘social’ in social design implying that it only applies to situations where people are poor or marginalized or recovering from a natural disaster. He makes that point that social design, based on his analytical framework (Markussen, 2017), is relevant for people regardless of their class or economic circumstances, and that a natural disaster need not have to impact them in order for a small, humble design intention to attempt a decisive qualitative change in their circumstances.

Koskinen and Hush (2016) do not confine the bounds of social design to only the micro or meso level as explicitly as Markussen (2017) has done but approach the analysis of different types of social design from the scale of the way the design intention is scoped, eg. “Utopian”; “Molecular”; and “Sociological” social design. Here, Utopian describes the kinds of massive change visions of societal transformation that would be exemplified by projects such as Massive Change by Bruce Mau or the earlier era’s Fullerine visions. As an outcome of one of these grand social visions, the National Institute of Design whose emergence and design is based on a white paper by Charles and Ray Eames in the 1950s, I am making a note to myself here to come back one day and analyse where NID fits within these frameworks of social design.

“Molecular” design, as described by Koskinen and Hush (2016) best fits within Markussen’s (2017) analytical framework which in turn serves to help distinguish between social innovation, social entrepreneurship, and social design. I cannot disagree with his point that social design is best attempted at the molecular level, however, over time, the potential exists within the scope of social design outcomes for them to scale, albeit in a manner that diverges from how impact at scale is attempted in social innovation or by social entrepreneurs. For example, if one introduces a custom designed tool for planning expenses that meets the needs and constraints of a selected group of vegetable vendors in Nairobi’s slums, and they find it useful enough to share it with others in their social networks, then it has organically scaled as it demonstrated its value within that social milieu.

What also caught my attention was Koskinen’s (2016) point that the object (of social design) is the social – social structures, processes, and forms of action – rather than a social problem. From my own perspective of evolving and developing both research methodology and protocol as my own understanding of the target audience and their operating conditions increased over the years, Koskinen’s object of social design clearly describes an approach for design research that must inform design of interventions and programmes with social implications in complex societal systems.

That is, if the object of the social in social design is to address design aiming at the social structures, processes, and forms of action, even at the micro level for a confined group or community (Markussen, 2017), some amount of research is required beforehand for effective design. It cannot all be done in a participatory manner at all stages of knowledge generation and development but instead, as one’s point of view moves around the social system being documented one’s methodology changes in response to one’s distance or proximity to the system.

Taking the newly emergent definitions, both broadly scoped and open ended such as offered by Koskinen and Hush (2016) or more narrowly scoped, such as that which fits within Markussen’s (2017) framework, it seems as though this new social design is something I have already been a part of since its inception – mentioned by many as being a result of the financial crisis of 2008 – and must scope my space within its attempts to bound itself.

An easy answer, as always, is “social design for humanitarian purposes” but that is the problem which my own body of work has always addressed as the barrier to good design. Here, because I’m practicing my picky academic worldview, I’d define good design as which is able to lower the barriers to the adoption of its output, minimize the dropout rate if its a programme, and create value for the end-users or the adopters of the design, depending on who is the real end user here.

This post is less than 800 words long, and unlike any previous post I’ve written that’s been based analysing literature, I did not need to refer to any of the journal papers until looking up Koskinen’s (2016) specific words used to describe the object of social design. That’s because it had particularly caught my attention from the way it reflected the work I’ve been doing within informal economic ecosystems. I feel I’ve found my way to connect with my Core77 avatar of long ago.



Chen, D. S., Cheng, L. L., Hummels, C., & Koskinen, I. (2016). Social design: An introduction. International Journal of Design, 10(1), 1-5.

Koskinen, I., & Hush, G. (2016). Utopian, molecular and sociological social design. International Journal of Design, 10(1), 65-71.

Koskinen, I. (2016). The Aesthetics of Action in New Social Design. In Proceedings of DRS 2016 International Conference: Future-Focused Thinking.” Proceedings of DRS (Vol. 1).

Markussen, T. (2017). Disentangling ‘the social’ in social design’s engagement with the public realm. CoDesign, 13(3), 160-174.

Manzini, E. (2015). Design, when everybody designs: An introduction to design for social innovation. MIT Press

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