Along with the emergence of self-consciously social design or design for social impact over the past decade has come a plethora of toolkits. I’m guilty of having contributed to this development and will acknowledge below the publications I have been involved in creating. The purpose of this post, however, is to step back from the toolkits and identify some of the issues and themes emerging when designing – the intentional, skilled, reflective work practices of people who think of their activities as designing – becomes materialised in the form of artefacts such as tools, kits, templates, and card decks. Although some of the most well-known social design toolkits will be highlighted, the intention is not to produce an exhaustive list. Rather, the aim is to prompt a critical and historically-informed conversation about the toolkit-as-device in contemporary social design practice.
There is a historical parallel with an earlier moment in design history. As an academic discipline, the study of design is about 50 years old. A summary of the history of what is called design research or design studies, often starts with the Design Methods Movement and some of its contributors’ attentiveness to the ways that designers do designing. Writers/designers such as John Chris Jones, author of the book Design Methods (1970, still in print), tried to capture what went on in designing. Although Jones and other collaborators later disavowed this effort because they thought it reduced design to mere procedure and missed the serendipitous discoveries of creative design practice, it is this body of research that was a forerunner of what we currently, and unfortunately, call design thinking.
There are other factors that shape the creation and dissemination of toolkits as a way of enacting a professional practice. In professions that have rigorous and legally-proscribed accreditation procedures such as law, accountancy, architecture and medicine, practices of certification and ongoing training and personal development include “practice notes” and toolkits. These are often published by awarding bodies and other institutions, rather than self-published by practitioners, as in design. Other influences include activities on the margins of contemporary professions, such as artist/musician Brian Eno and artist Peter Schmidt’s Oblique Strategies card deck. Originally published in an edition of 500 in 1975, this card deck stems from the dialogues between two artists, rather than being seen as a tool for designing. But it prefigures many of today’s design card decks as materialised way to engage people in doing and thinking differently.
What’s distinctive about the contemporary flourishing of social design methods, however, is that they mostly set out to be accessible to and taken up by people who do not think of themselves as designers. Located in an expanding field of professional design, these toolkits, typically distributed online or, if printed, often marketed and sold online, end up on servers and laptops, or stuck on bookshelves or on walls in organizations and project teams far beyond where their authors might have imagined they might end up. They disrupt the authority of the heroic individual designer, and aim to make available a designerly intention, or work practice and ways of going about things to change a current situation. It’s not clear, however, to what extent this is achieved in today’s social design toolkits, or whether indeed it is even possible.
Some of the issues and themes that emerge when reviewing the various artefacts associated with social design toolkits, their authors/publishers/funders, their intended uses, how use unfolds in practice leading to actual outcomes, and the networks in which they are caught up include:
- The extent to which those engaging with a toolkit are inside or outside an issue it aims to address (an emic v etic perspective).
- How difference, power relations, and conflict are acknowledged and handled.
- Claims of legitimacy and knowledge by experts v non-experts.
- How constructs such as behaviour, behaviour change, collaboration, participation and innovation are set up within the toolkit and how they unfold in its usage and in relation to wider conversations within policy, activism and politics.
- The boundary-creating practices and moves that render some participants as insiders and others as outsiders, or as experts, or as designers.
- The relationships between “tools” and modes of being and working in particular professional, activist and non-designer practices.
Here is a brief overview some of the most prominent toolkits (in the sense of easy-to-locate via Google or associated with influential organisations) that focus on social design or design for social impact. Presented in approximate chronological order by date of publication, these toolkits bring these issues into view in how these artefacts are presented and what they contain. (The descriptions below are edited versions taken from the resources’ own websites and any mistakes are mine.)
The Social Innovation Lab for Kent Method Deck (2007) (SILK) created by UK consultancy Engine as part of their work for Kent County Council was an early attempt to materalise and make more widely available to relevant professionals and local residents a design-based approach to designing public services. http://socialinnovation.typepad.com/silk/silk-method-deck.html
IDEO Design for Social Impact guide and workbook. Commissioned by The Rockefeller Foundation, this guide based on interviews with designers involved in social sector work in 2008 explores how design firms can work differently to bring a social impact perspective into their work. http://www.ideo.com/work/design-for-social-impact-workbook-and-toolkit
The IDEO Human Centred Design Toolkit (2009) commissioned by the Bill and Melina Gates Foundation is aimed at social enterprises and NGOs around the world. It is one of the most widely cited and linked social design resources. http://www.ideo.com/work/human-centered-design-toolkit/
Project H’s Design Revolution Toolkit (2009) is a teaching resource which offers a series of provocations and challenges aimed at students and teachers. http://impact.sva.edu/core/wp-content/uploads/2010/06/DesignRevolutionToolkit.pdf
The NHS Institute for Improvement and Innovation Experience-based Design (EBD) toolkit (2009) is a way to bring patients and staff together to share the role of improving care and re-designing healthcare services. http://www.institute.nhs.uk/quality_and_value/experienced_based_design/the_ebd_approach_(experience_based_design).html
The Design Against Crime research centre at Central Saint Martins, University of the Arts, London, describes its methodology for bringing a design-based approach to tackling crime with a focus on user/mis-user and abuser driven innovation (2010). http://www.designagainstcrime.com/methodology-resources/design-methodology/#list-and-description
The Design with Intent tookit (2010) developed by designer-researcher Dan Lockton focuses on behaviour change in relation to environmental impact. http://www.danlockton.com/dwi/Main_Page
Nesta’s Prototyping Framework (2011), developed by UK agency ThinkPublic, is a guide for people working in the design and delivery of public sector services, to help them prototype services more effectively. http://www.nesta.org.uk/news_and_features/assets/features/prototyping_framework
The Design Council’s Accident and Emergency (A&E) Toolkit (2011) is for NHS managers, clinicians and designer and healthcare planners who want to develop and deliver a better service in effective and inspiring environments. It aims to help people understand how to use design to develop integrated quality improvement plans and improve performance against A&E clinical quality indicators. http://www.designcouncil.org.uk/AEtoolkit/
The Danish Government’s cross-ministerial innovation unit MindLab has published its Methods Cards. It uses methodologies anchored in design-centred thinking, qualitative research and policy development, with the aim of including the reality experienced by both the public and businesses into the development of new public-sector solutions. http://www.mind-lab.dk/en/methods
The Australian Centre for Social Innovation (TACSI) published Co-designing Thriving Solutions: A prototype curriculum for social problem solving, summarizing the approach taken by its Radical Redesign Team (2011). http://www.tacsi.org.au/assets/Uploads/Co-designingThrivingSolutions.pdf
The Frog Collective Action Toolkit (2012). This is a package of resources and activities that enable groups of people anywhere to organize, build trust, and collaboratively create solutions for problems impacting their community. http://www.frogdesign.com/work/frog-collective-action-toolkit.html
The Social Design Methods Menu (2012) by Lucy Kimbell and Joe Julier summarises 11 methods used with both social entrepreneurs and MBA students, and suggests how to combine them into some recipes. http://www.lucykimbell.com/stuff/Fieldstudio_SocialDesignMethodsMenu.pdf
The Young Foundation Accelerator’s Social Business Model Canvas (2012), created by Stuart Thomas and Lucy Kimbell, reworks Alex Osterwalder’s Business Model Canvas and puts social impact at the centre.http://growingsocialventures.org/en/course-content/social-business-model-canvas
Nesta’s Open Workshop is a web resource for social innovators soft launched in 2012. It includes a version of the social innovation project development spiral previously associated with The Young Foundation. A topic on creative thinking tools and techniques in the generating ideas phase includes the Creative Design Tool. This “is a way to help groups to become aware of the ‘rules’ that govern their thinking and to prompt them to imagine new possibilities”. Here it is notable that “design” is associated with idea generation, rather than the whole of the service/project development arc as in many of the other toolkits. https://openworkshop.nesta.org.uk/content/topic-1-creative-thinking-tools-and-techniques-page-3
Laura Forlano and Anijo Mathew’s Designing Policy Toolkit (2013) is a place-based policy design toolkit funded by the Urban Communication Foundation. This resource illustrates the ways in which urban technologies are embedded with values, as well as how codesign methods enable diverse stakeholders to come together around the complex sociotechnical questions that are shaping everyday life in cities. http://designingpolicytoolkit.files.wordpress.com/2013/07/designing-policy-toolkit-final.pdf
UNIDIR and livework are developing an Evidence-based Programme Design resource. This is an approach to reintegration programming with the aim of improving local-level effectiveness in post-conflict stabilization and peacebuilding efforts. Not yet published, this work is supported by the Ministry for European Affairs and International Cooperation of the Netherlands and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Norway.http://www.unidir.org/research-and-development-on-evidence-based-programme-design-for-reintegration-phase-ii
For the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC)-commissioned study mapping social design research and practice that this blog is part of, some emerging research questions we will tackle are:
- What do these toolkits aim/claim to do? Who are they for? What do they hope to achieve?
- What actually happens with/through/despite them?
- How relevant, adaptable, and useable are these approaches, methods, concepts and tools for the purposes to which they are put by people using such toolkits?
- To what extent are such designerly approaches relevant and productive in the complex social worlds in which designing takes place?
- To what extent can designerly expertise/approaches/skills be embedded in toolkits outside of a learning process guided by someone with relevant knowledge and experience?
- If the use of different kinds of toolkits has been studied, what was learned?
- How do non-designers engage with the concepts and methods enacted in toolkits?
- How do designers engage productively with differences of worldview, power and experience when working with people who are constructed as users of public or social services especially those deemed vulnerable, or at risk?
- To what extent can a toolkit or other publication make available the approaches taken by people working within professional design culture (in the sense of design-school based design)?
- Given the lack of political, social and cultural knowledge within professional design (and most of its educational institutions), how are politics and power handled within the production and use of toolkits?
- How do toolkits relate to and intersect with other modes of action and learning such as digital communities, MOOCs, formal learning and professional development?
- How do the goals of particular funding agencies (eg Rockefeller, Gates, Nesta) construct social design in particular ways?
We’ll be answering some of these questions through our interviews, site visits, desk research and a forthcoming digital research initiative, which are part of the Mapping Social Design Practice and Research that this blog is part of. We’ll also be engaging with others exploring similar questions such as Change Observer’s reviews of this area, Nesta (see Geoff Mulgan’s discussion of what works) and the Design Council, and with perspectives outside of design.
The aim is to help the AHRC understand issues in this emerging field, to help shape future academic research. We welcome contributions, for example in the form of posting comments below, adding to our partial list of toolkits and resources, and helping others working in this area understand what a design-based approach brings to policy and social challenges and issues.