In Egypt approximately 4,500 years ago, men sought to design a tomb worthy of their king on his final voyage to meet his gods. After 80 years of work with the backbreaking labor of an estimated 20 to 30 thousand men, the pyramids of Giza were erected. At the time, the structures were a masterpiece of design. Form and function were one, constructed to last while aesthetically leading the souls of the dead to heaven.
Now, designers are asking whether an abstract concept like a society could be designed like the pyramids. Entrepreneurs and scholars in a new, emerging field known as social design ask whether the design process, of which form and function are only two parts of many, can be applied to solve sociological issues. To accomplish this, they combine techniques used in product design with the intangible theories of social sciences such as psychology and sociology.
Since the field of social design is still relatively young and undefined, there are different ideas for what its scope should be. According to Pete Kercher, a founding member of the European Institute for Design and Disability, design needs to meet the needs of each unique human being. Therefore, social design should “call on industry and all other users of design services,” he says in a Social Innovation website post, “… to achieve inclusion for everyone in society …”
Another conceptual role of social design comes from Filip Lau, a partner at ReD Associates, a social design firm. “You are not taught design thinking at university, and you are not taught social science in design school, so the designer and the social scientist need each other to come up with good results,” said Lau in an interview with the New York Times. “Designers are taught to create, and social scientists to criticize what already exists. When we need to go from ‘insight’ to ‘solution,’ designers are indispensable.”
Regardless of its specific application, professionals agree that the end goal of social design should be to improve the quality of life for the individual. In his book “Design for the Real World”, Victor Papanek, one of the founders of social design, writes, “Design must become an innovative, highly creative, cross-disciplinary tool responsive to the true needs of men.” But controversies are beginning to surround how and why these designs are implemented.
A NEW FRONTIER
If done effectively and with honorable intentions, social design can help build communities and encourage action. The benefits of this emerging profession can be seen in theory and in practice around the world.
In Copenhagen, Demark, city officials hired consultant firm ReD Associates to staunch the loss of working days due to sick leave by civic employees, which was costing the city roughly $140 million per year. According to the New York Times, the city had tried to establish training programs for those often sick or provide research tools to help managers track patterns. A typical firm might try to analyze the data and interview managers for solutions.
However, the social design firm took a different approach. By immersing themselves in the social institutions and the lives of the workers, the firm found the reason for sick leave was, instead of health or physical concerns, often due to psychological issues such as low morale.
Managers were reluctant to ask for reasons of leave. Meanwhile the pressure would be placed on coworkers, who would then be overworked and leave, forming a cycle. The firm’s solution encouraged managers to speak openly with their staff and, after a month of leave, speak with the employee about relocating to a new environment. This, at its core, is effective social design.
Kercher believes that while good design is often invisible to the user, there are more apparent benefits that include wasting less social and financial resources compensating for bad design in everyday life.
To save people money when planning a city, designers can use the concepts of social design to strategically place necessary stores and institutions close to where residents live. This encourages shopping at certain places. By combining cultural patterns of living, usually defined by social scientists, and the design of a city that is easy to navigate, social designers can give people the choice to become more independent of costly resources, free up time or start a healthier lifestyle.
Even after being presented better opportunities, some people need a little push. To help people embrace change and start choosing to improve their lives, designers use a psychological concept called nudging.
Nudging is ideally about helping people make better choices. But unlike most other psychological influences, it does not influence people’s decisions through punishment, incentives, or information. RIT professor of philosophy Evan Selinger wrote in an article for the Atlantic, “Nudges work by subtly tweaking the contexts within which we make choices so that, on average, we will tend to make good ones.”
A nudge encourages an automatic decision rather than a decision where pros and cons must be deliberated. For example, suppose someone has a plastic bottle in hand with only a trash bin nearby. He or she must consider whether to hold onto the bottle until finding a recycling bin, or throw it in the trash bin.
Now suppose someone places a recycling bin next to the trash bin. That takes a load off a person’s cognitive processes. One would recycle the bottle without hesitation, thanks to the nudge from the presence of the recycle bin. The bins certainly do not punish the individual when he or she does not recycle, and there is no gain for the individual from recycling. Nor do the bins need to have a poster above them summarizing the benefits of recycling. Just having the bin there is a nudge imposed by the university, and an example of social design.
Social designers also work to reduce wasted resources by eliminating time spent dealing with poor design and inconsistencies. This is done by working with mental models, an individual’s set beliefs about the real world based not on facts but on experiences, which are applied across similar systems. For example, it is ingrained in people that red means stop, from traffic lights and stop signs. Taking this into account, software designers use red for close buttons on windows and applications, to effectively utilize people’s mental model of the color red.
When used correctly, social designers can use mental models to establish a level of consistency that makes life situations easier and more approachable. From using the term ”shopping cart” across websites, to using handles on doors to indicate one should pull, mental models are essential for designers to make their social changes accessible.
Using mental models, designers and social scientists can help people who have never interacted with technology operate the internet, help the inexperienced safely navigate the crowded streets of a city or simply help people move about their lives with a universal consistency.
A DANGEROUS LANDSCAPE
Sometimes, the same tools that make social design useful are what that makes it difficult to implement.
With shifting cultural values, in times of change even the basic institutional designs need to be reinvented and this is no easy task. Nutrition labels are an excellent example. According to a blog entry by John Emerson, founder of Backspace and Social Design Notes, the 1991 design of the nutrition label required 30 variations before a proper design was decided upon.
The redesign came about for social reasons; previously, food labels focused on vitamins and minerals, because the country had experienced years of wars, famine and malnutrition. However, with the new age of peace and prosperity, the Food and Drug Administration wanted to change the focus to combating obesity.
Therefore, the new label needed to focus on fats and cholesterol as well. Once the government and scientists agreed on what should go into the label, the designers had the task of making the label understandable to both the literate and illiterate.
Since social designs are custom-tailored solutions, not all designs are universal fits. Collectible achievements, such as Xbox Live achievements, are a form of social design that encourages competition through rewards whose values are determined by the community. This competition drives certain people away, but also encourages others to buy and play games simply for the achievements, even though the game might not fit their interests otherwise.
Unfortunately, many forum designers see the success of platforms like Xbox Live and do not take into account how competitive they want their forum to be. They use standings and rankings when their forum should be encouraging people to help one another, not promote cutthroat competition. This does not mean the design failed, but rather that it was applied improperly. In 2008, the Yahoo! Developer Network published a model of “reputation systems”, designed to help administrators avoid such mismatches.
However, sometimes the design does fail initially, because each designer sees the world differently. In other words, designers often have different mental models than the people they are designing for. A road or a website that is difficult to navigate may be so not because of sloppy design, but simply because the designer had a more complex view of how the infrastructure worked. A user may not find the infrastructure as intuitive. Social designers may not be able to execute whatever they dream up because it does not fit into people’s pre-existing mental models. To some extent, this can be a hindrance to innovation.
Selinger and his co-author, Kyle White, point out some ethical dilemmas with the use of social design in their article “Is There a Right Way to Nudge? The Practice and Ethics of Choice Architecture.” Imagine the government, assuming that its people are incapable of making correct choices, intrudes through nudging. The knowledge of social science plus the manipulative power of design makes for an unsettling combination in the wrong hands.
Another philosophical issue with nudging was brought up by Susan Barnes, Associate Director of the Lab for Social Computing. She asks, who decides which choice is the right one to make? Given that the purpose of nudging is to help people make better decisions, who should be held responsible to decide what is the best outcome?
For some choices, such as those involving safety or health, the good choice to make is often fairly clear. However there is significant concern among experts when advertisers and media use nudging. “The media is so influential and pervasive as it is. Adding a dimension like [nudging] onto it is like ‘1984’ where everybody’s behavior is regulated and monitored,” says Barnes. Time will tell if this issue becomes a serious concern in business ethics.
A critical debate on the issue of nudging is whether it should, as Selinger describes it, “follow an ethic of ‘libertarian paternalism’ and be easy to opt-out of.” Experts have to ask if possible censorship is worth the civility it would bring and if the goal of nudging should be to control or help people.
From a cost-benefit analysis, Barnes agrees. “It’s trying to influence decision-making in human behavior, which I don’t think is good,” she says.
Social design is a collaborative field, by nature. It links the problem-identifying skills of social scientists with the problem-solving skills of designers to achieve a better world.
As Kercher says, “Without design, without that channeled human ingenuity, it is hard to understand how there can be any innovation at all: as a matter of fact, I believe very firmly that, when properly understood, design is indeed the major driving force of social innovation.”
Design is not just about form, function, and marketability. It is about responsibility. As Papanek explains, the designer must make a judgment based on his or her own moral code and life experiences, long before the process begins, as to whether the design or redesign will merit attention and whether it will “be on the side of social good or not.”
Looking back at all the masterpieces of design, which have stood firm for decades, centuries, or millennia, there is one that is ever flowing and ever changing. It is society, whose design may prove to be one of the greatest and most essential challenges of the modern era.