Design and social responsibility

There has been a growing recognition of the ethical and social responsibilities designers face, particularly within the design research community. Many of our current PhD students choose to grapple with problems or questions that affect society more generally, most notably sustainable production or sustainable living, as well as issues of representation, equality, justice and democratisation.

In researching these issues, designers often see their role as that of being a creative facilitator that helps raise questions and critically challenge the way these issues are currently viewed or approached.

This links to a perception of design (and design research) as being more about problem-setting and meaning-making rather than problem solving. The current rise of speculative design research and practice is characteristic of this thinking. This post, published on NESTA’s (National Endowment for Science Technology and the Arts) blog in 2016, offers an interesting exposition of speculative design and its potential to influence the future by challenging assumptions:

Other researchers draw more on empowerment, focussing on creating processes and infrastructures that enable people to find solutions to their own problems. Many projects in the DESIS network ( emphasise the notion of co-design as a vehicle for achieving democratic solutions.

Last January, I facilitated a workshop at the Open University for PhD students who are currently funded by the AHRC Design Star Centre for Doctoral Training ( The workshop aimed to help them explore how they can bring their different skills and methods together to address social issues.

Students were given the following speculative brief: “An indigenous tribe was discovered recently in South America. They have their own language and use their own writing system as well as drawing and a complex set of gestures to communicate. The tribe are currently facing difficulties due to the increasing destruction of their natural habitat, flooding and lack of some of their sources of food. They haven’t been in contact with global civilisation and so there are also health risks involved in interacting with others (i.e. due to lack of immunisation in some common diseases).  Define a research project to help understand, communicate with and support this tribe to continue to live sustainably.” The response of the students was overwhelmingly in favour of a hands-off approach. The majority of students, working in groups, challenged the brief, chose not to interact with the imaginary tribe and to try to protect them from interaction with ‘civilisation’. Students talked about research projects that will help define new ethics of dealing with such a situation; understand and challenge the politics of intervention; and develop processes and legislation to protect the tribe.

By a tragic coincidence, newspapers reported in September the alleged slaughter of indigenous people from an isolated tribe in the Amazon:

This alerted me to the fact that as designers we cannot remain agnostic to the problems and questions posed to us and have a responsibility to both challenge existing practice but also develop actionable propositions. Developing socially responsible design practices is an absolute priority for designers and design researchers.


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