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Q&A: How Social Design Is Creating New Markets, More Engaged Cultures

Image credit: rawpixel/Unsplash

This is one of a series of interviews by students and alumni from the Minneapolis College of Art and Design (MCAD) with practitioners from the Sustainable Brands community, on a variety of ways organizations can, and are, Redesigning the Good Life.

Social design is the application of design methodology to the creation of new markets and more creative, engaged organizational cultures. In the words of author Cheryl Heller, Founding Chair of the first MFA program in Design for Social Innovation at New York City’s School of Visual Arts and president of the design lab, CommonWise, “design for social innovation” is the “interaction between people that takes responsibility for positive, systemic impact … [that] inevitably begins with the invisible dynamics and forces that drive human behavior. It takes place within the communities and systems it’s working with, not outside them.”

I sat down with Heller to learn more about social design and why it could be a critical component for organizations looking to implement the Good Life.

On the main stage at SB’18 Vancouver this summer, you discussed the power of “social design” to make businesses more creative and resilient. The application of design methodologies to culture is a relatively new concept but has begun to spread across industries. How is social design different from the traditional types of design that companies have relied upon for new products and services?

Cheryl Heller: Social design is the design of the relationships between things, instead of only the things themselves. It changes humans’ relationships to each other, to technology, and to the planet. In other words, it changes us — making people more resourceful and engaged.

One of the principals is that ideas come from inside the communities affected by change, and not the top; social design engages all employees to think about ideas together. This can be a big change for a very top-down, hierarchical organization.

Cheryl Heller, onstage at SB'18 Vancouver | Image credit: Sustainable Brands

The second thing is that social design progresses on evidence gained by experimenting and prototyping. It’s not a matter of trying to make decisions in advance based on prediction, but through real-time feedback loops with end users. So, you can decide what’s next based on results. For organizations accustomed to five-year plans, that can be uncomfortable.

You assert that social design leads to more creative, engaged cultures. How does that relate to Meaningful Connections, one of the key elements of the Good Life?

CH: Social design is inclusive. It has no bystanders, only people who are committed to the outcome. Because it is co-creativity, by definition, it engages people in the process. It works at a systems level, strengthening the connections that lead to stronger relationships and greater commitment. You get a “return on engagement,” instead of only a return on investment. And instead of a one-time result, companies benefit from greater long-term resourcefulness and creativity.

What does redesigning for 'the Good Life' mean to you, as a practitioner?

CH: The Good Life is one in which everyone has a sense of agency — where people have the principles, skills and tools to reframe problems, define a shared vision and then create it together. That is a new kind of creative leadership that comes from the top and spreads throughout the organization. It helps companies win. The Good Life is one in which everyone contributes — where they are able to see hope and possibilities.

Most of all, what do you want people to know about Social Design?

I want them to know that this is a new way of thinking that can’t be outsourced to an expert. It is something that companies can decide to do rather than sit and wait. This is a way to have everything they want: a culture of innovation; a culture of engaged, excited individuals. I want [them] to be excited by the creative potential of social design and to just begin.

Based in Minneapolis, Minnesota, Megan is a recent graduate from the Minneapolis College of Art and Design with an M.A. in Sustainable Design. Megan is currently preparing for the International Society of Sustainability Professionals (ISSP) certification test and… [Read more about Megan Graham]

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