Home›Forums›DESIS within the UK HE Landscape›The level of preparatory work/ preparation of briefs/ contextual information for students is an issue in desis projects… How much needs to be ready or how much should emerge via students direct engagement – what is the level of support that can also bring about a more coherent contribution?
Obviously there are many ways to deliver a DESIS project. The differences in delivery are in some part due to availability of resources and assets including; time, money, relationships (with communities/actors outside the HEI), experience and competencies of students, experience and competencies of tutors, aims and ambitions of the project (and actors involved), and expectations and experience of other actors e.g. local government partners and community collaborators.
The toolkit for DESIS projects of 2009, offered a structured methodology for students to identify promising initiatives where design could amplify their success/sustainability. This approach to the DESIS project clearly positions design students as facilitators of existing social innovations, seeking opportunities for design interventions to help existing social innovations to succeed and thrive.
There are other instances where communities approach designers to request assistance with existing social innovations. In these instances it is important that the design student is able to work with communities to conduct research to help articulate community needs and goals and devise some projects that respond to these needs and goals as briefs for design intervention, forming a design project from a social situation. It is important that designers are brought into this process early on so as to collaborate in the discovery and definition of needs and challenges and the creation of briefs for design intervention. In instances where the designer is not involved in the initial stages of projects there is a diminished learning experience for student designers and, in some instances, a lack of understanding amongst non-design actors about what design can do to facilitate social innovation. UAL DESIS Labs ‘Green Camden project’ includes examples of community initiated projects.
These projects involve the academic staff in creating opportunities for design students to collaborate with community groups and local government. When dealing with inexperienced students and projects with a limited (6 -12 week) time line it is useful for staff/HEI to have an existing and ongoing relationship with the collaborating group. This is so as to build trust and capacity for effective use of design within the collaborating organisation as well as to identify the most appropriate ways of engaging the student cohort in collaborative design processes. The social capital and social innovation capacity building, between/within the HEI and local collaborating organisations, is referred to by the Young Foundation as ‘slow prototyping’. Sheffield Live Projects is a great example of what can be achieved when an HEI makes an ongoing commitment to community collaboration projects over time.
In all cases the role of the designer and the community’s expectations of what the designer contributes to design led social innovation needs to be managed. There is a need to work with the community involved with the project to establish a frame of operation, to articulate how design; process methods and tools contributes – beyond common understanding of what a designer is and does. There is a need to clear limited perceptions that orientate around the delivery of objects and logos, products and graphics. Objects and logos might be appropriate but only as part of a larger system/ network of actors and outputs that work to address the complexity inherent in a societal problem at the local level.
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.