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  • Joe Julier

    One element within the design for social innovation and sustainability case studies presented at the first workshop, or even more broadly within social design, service design and co-design practices as I’ve experienced them, is a lack of clarity around the role of briefs.

    Yet, I would argue the level and type of preparatory work and contextual information needed for a DESIS project hinges quite significantly on the brief, and that, in fact, there are only two types of brief for DESIS projects. There is a ‘traditional’ model where a tight, well defined design brief is given at the beginning of the project, such as in the case of the Rebranding the Branded case study, and there is a more open-ended and exploratory option where forming brief is an aim of the project.

    For exploratory projects I think there is a strong case for teaching students about specific tools, methods and analytical frameworks which will help them engage with communities to produce insightful and careful interventions. It’s on these projects where it seems to make most sense to deploy specific methods, such as mapping drivers of change, or user journeys, and explore social research approaches (ethnography, narrative interview etc.).

    These projects don’t necessarily produce a straightforward, quantifiable movement from an ‘existing situation’ to a ‘preferred one’, or claim to, but instead delivers a deeper understanding of a problem, and a reframing which can help a community or organisation radically change their approach in the longer term. Or to put it another way, the project delivers a brief.
    This is more than enough for a project, but I think sometimes designers feel under pressure to deliver more and tack on some recognisable design work, or make overambitious claims about what their work will deliver, which leads to confusion in the long run.

    On the flip side of this, DESIS projects can also start with a well defined brief which anchors students work throughout a project. In this situation the need to teach specific tools and methods is less pressing, instead projects might require more upfront work by course leaders to define a brief with a partner organisation beforehand.

    At the risk of oversimplifying it seems like these projects bare a much closer resemblance to a ‘typical’ design brief tutors might set, but with the addition of an external clients whose requirements may be more complex than normal. I understand Matt’s point that designers don’t want to get hemmed in to designing leaflets, logos and products without a wider recognition of the ecosystem these fit into, however I do think there is a case for a simpler version of DESIS projects. A more straightforward design brief allows students to learn soft skills involved in engaging with clients and communities without simultaneously having to deal with the added uncertainty of emergent and difficult design methods. Applying design skills to pressing social problems can also challenge students to engage in these issues in a way watching a lecture, or a tv programme never will. Finally this approach is likely to deliver outcomes which are more easily understood as beneficial from the point of view of the partner, laying the foundation for more complex and challenging design input at a later date.

    It seems like we are on a trajectory with DESIS projects, where the two approaches I’ve outlined above will eventually converge and begin to inform one another in one satisfying and harmonious iterative loop. However, there is still a lot of work to do in articulating the value of ‘social design’ and understanding how it can mesh with traditional design competencies. Until this work is further progressed by design academics and professionals, asking students to hold both the uncertainty of emergent design methods and community engagement, whilst delivering a positive change is too much.

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