A certain kind of pop academic study invokes my most cynical Reader Hat, and I kept the hat on for the entire duration of Designing for Social Change by Andrew Shae. Though my critiques came frequently—mostly in the form of snarky margin comments—the collection as a whole is a smart and worthwhile examination of how designers should (and should not) approach projects that work for positive social change.
And yes, it’s more accurate to say that the book examines “projects that attempt to create positive social change,” rather than the lofty “designing for social change.” I’m critical of how many case studies were initiated in academic classes or relied on grant dollars. The grant/academic financial model promotes small-scale, singular projects and is incapable of creating widespread social change.
All the projects included in the book work within existing systems of capitalism and academia—and to be fair, they offer smart, often impressive, strategies for designing in that context. The question which is not covered is how artists, designers and other creative people can work to challenge or re-design the systems themselves.
Pro Bono won’t get you into Heaven
William Drenttel’s foreword impressed me early on by questioning abstractions such as community-based design and social change. He distinguishes the scope of this book from what most designers consider “designing for social change,” which is essentially “designing for nonprofit work”— a kind of aesthetic charity. To my great pleasure, he also questioned the oft-cited “working with not for” approach: what does “designing with” actually look like on the ground? When a designer possesses a skill set or expertise, how does she design “with” a community, neighborhood, or client?
To answer that question the book examines twenty “community-based” design projects grouped under a variety of strategies. While strategies such as “Immerse Yourself” and “Confront Controversy” are a bit problematic, others such as “Identify the Community’s Strengths” and “Utilize Local Resources” will be particularly useful to designers who come from a typically charitable background.
Frustrated with the case studies that relied on classrooms and grants, I surveyed the projects which did not rely on those funding streams and examined their methods and models. A few projects were initiated by conventional or nonprofit design firms, but design collectives and public coalitions carried out the majority of non-classroom, non-grant projects. These included:
- Design Trust for Public Space — a nonprofit that assembles unique groups stakeholders and creative teams for each individual project
- Moving Design — a group of designers, architects, street artists, educators and engineers
- Society of Design — a design collective dedicated to design education and community service
- Center for Urban Pedagogy — a nonprofit that brings together art and design professionals with community advocates and researchers to improve civic engagement and demystify policy issues.
I hesitate to say that the classroom and grant-based projects were overall less effective than the collective/public ones, but they suffer from the preexisting limits of semesters and foundation budgets. The most effective of these alternative models did not attempt isolated, self-limiting design projects, but instead sought to create connections between existing entities or strengthen existing resources. One paired architecture firms with nonprofits in need of design and planning (something that my father’s firm specializes in), while another collected New York City’s complex vendor laws for a large, multi-lingual population of street vendors.
Case studies stood out from the rest when they prioritized the effectiveness of the project over design ideals and funding restrictions. I was especially impressed by UCLA students creating a homeless services resource guide called ProjectOPEN who had their city funding pulled when they decided to include information about legal rights on the back of the map. (Public officials want homeless people to know where food and showers are, but not their own rights). Instead of changing the design, the map went unprinted until the students secured funding four years later from within the university.
Branding as Political Power
The most surprising case studies made me rethink design concepts (such as branding) in a political context. Made in Midtown is at its core an identity/branding project for the Garment District in Manhattan, but it was initiated in response to proposed changes in zoning regulations. By creating a more cohesive public identity—one which is consistent with the informal identity shared by workers and manufacturers—the project gave the community more political power. Eventually, the city withdrew its proposal to rezone the area.
A final section on funding social design outlines the variety of methods used by the projects in the book. The small overview of self-initiated funding—in which designers created “microeconomies” through crowdsourcing or other creative means is a subject that I’d like to see expanded into a more radical book. (But that’s another project entirely).
I frequently forgot while reading that case studies are precisely that—cases to be evaluated and not necessarily emulated. Several projects embodied a superficial ideological rebranding or a naive attempt at community-building; of these, only some recognized their mistakes or identified where they went wrong. But the projects which are superficial or ineffective offer tools too, and Designing for Social Change provides a strong strategic framework for readers and designers.
The range of case studies prove that designers are privileged and esoteric at their worst—and scrappy and inventive at their best. We’re a good bunch, I think.