The term “social design” was first coined by Victor Papanek in his Design for the Real World published in 1963. He believed that the sources of design ideas should be switched from past “objects” to “lifestyles” and “people”.
After half a century, how do contemporary experts define social design?
When sociology meets design, finding out the origins of problems and solving them
“In the social design mentioned in sociology, your approach will change and differentiate according to who you are faced with and what type of problems you are dealing with. Even though you can still think like a designer, you do not strictly follow design procedure.” Chen Dung-sheng, professor at the Department of Sociology at National Taiwan University, believes that finding the origin of social problems and a way to solve them is highly emphasised in sociology, providing another angle for designers. After a change of perspective, generic design can become “social design”.
He cites the idea of Japanese designer Ryo Yamazaki, saying “Social design is something that can be implemented by a group of any number of people, be it one person, ten people, a hundred people or a thousand. When sociologists contemplate the world, they never believe that people are solitary and separated from each other.”
It is not only designers that are able to join a design project. Sociology expert Chen Dung-sheng points out, “We can think about how to start projects based on our position in society, who our projects can connect with, what kind of influence we can have on society and what we aim to achieve.” He took this idea to his university department in starting a course called “The Innovation and Design of Social Economic Organisations”. In this course, he teaches students how to make observations and produce corresponding solutions via field research and hands-on practice. To date, he and his students have created at least five social enterprises.
Social design’s cause is simple: allowing everyone in our society to have a decent life.
Chen Dung-sheng believes that design should be centred on people, and shares one of his students’ projects: 9Floor Apt.
For many people of the younger generation, renting a place in Taipei is a heavy financial burden. Jerry Wang, one of Chen Dung-sheng’s students, has tried to turn this around by renovating five old apartments into a house-sharing enterprise called 9Floor Apt. He has adopted the approach of sharing expensive rents among people with different needs, making short-term tenants pay a higher rate and long-term tenants pay a lower-than-market- price rent for a beautifully designed room. People who have special skills, such as painting, can hang their artworks on the walls of public spaces and have their rent reduced. 9Floor Apt. also provides free office spaces for charitable organisations or social enterprises. In the kitchen, food sharing events are held on an irregular basis to promote exchange between tenants.
Chen Dung-sheng says, “9Floor Apt. not only focuses on the housing issue, but also allows tenants to interact with each other.” In addition to encouraging exchanges between different people and strengthening weak interpersonal networks between urban office workers, 9Floor Apt. has also invited cooperating landlords to stay in the houses. By mixing people of different ages together, young tenants can have the opportunity to interact with landlords of older generations. 9Floor Apt. hopes not only to mitigate the housing problem in the capital of Taiwan, but also to promote inter- generational conversations.
Chen Dung-sheng also points out, “Social design has to take social mechanisms into account. Space can be used as a platform to connect other people and teams who are concerned with this social issue.” Promoting the idea of social design to the wider population is more feasible if space is used in this way.
Not just pursuing aesthetic experience: World Design Capital Taipei brings design closer to the demands of citizens
It is not just social enterprises that can use the concept of social design; a whole city can also become a field of practice. Social design was one of the focuses of World Design Capital (WDC) Taipei, which hoped design would not be limited to the beautification of physical objects, and that everyone would think about the possibility of changing a city through design. During the event, WDC Taipei organisers worked with designer Aaron Nieh and social enterprise Do You A Flavor in redesigning the package of bubble gum to be later peddled by street sellers. This is one of the examples of bringing design into the lives of the masses.
The executive officer of the project office of WDC Taipei, Han Wu, believes that social design should be rooted deeply into the realm of civic life, as well as emphasize the cultural and historic features of a city. An example he gives is Kyoto’s convenience stores, the exterior design of which is in line with the general tone of the city. “This shows an attitude in how a society deals with issues of cultural and natural conservation, and it is this attitude that is more important than aesthetic experience,” said Han Wu.
In addition to highlighting a city’s style, social design can also help certain people find meaning in their lives. “Taipei WDC hopes to increase the social influence of its long-term projects, rather than simply make things more beautiful,” said Han Wu.
In a public survey, he showed people designs of street sweeper uniforms in two pictures, one using fluorescent colours and the other earthy ones. It turned out that most people believed brightly coloured uniforms could improve the safety of workers but that if they were street sweepers themselves, they would choose earthy colours, preferring not to be identified by other people. From this survey, it is clear that a design must respond to the requirements of end-users.
Interdisciplinary confluence sparks new creative flame for social design
Different professions can contribute different perspectives to design, enriching its definition. In his class, Chen Dung-sheng motivates students to make observations about social issues and put forward corresponding solutions, which may give birth to new social enterprises. Han Wu brings design closer to civic life; while changing the physical landscape of streets, he is also deeply concerned with people’s requirements. He believes that the confluence of different professions can spark more creative flames for social design, and that this is the direction in which new generation designers must strive.