In reality everyone is a social designer. In our everyday life we take collective actions that shape how we work and live. A meeting between two friends is a social design, a meal with the family is a social design, shopping is a social design, large part of doing you job is a social design, you create, you meet, you coordinate, you produce, you network… you get it, yes. As digital tools become ever more liberated in our everyday life, what we previously did offline is extended, accelerated and supported by digital networked technology.
Social design is used interchangeably amongst different disciplines, some use it as design for a better and more sustainable world or for human well-being, others refer to a process where social design is rooted in a participatory or human-centered design processes.
We are inclined to say our work is informed by both directions, however working primarily with digital product and services development the social element to us, is radically built into the solution as a key component, not a goal in itself or a by-product. Social design is therefore applied where participation is the key to making things happen. So what separates social design from traditional design is that social design is dependent on the activity of social actors.
Traditional webpages can work without anyone using them (…however it would be a very poor success criteria for any website). But if we look at platforms designed for social action, there would be no service if no people where using it, or contributing and participating on the platform. There would be no Youtube, no Facebook, no Wikipedia and Google wouldn’t work if no one used it or took part in contributing to it. Social design is about enabling active creating, where traditional design is designing for use. Social design in the digital realm is solutions that becomes better the more people use them, contrary to many physical solutions. Like the highway.
So social design can be defined as the design of platforms and processes that leads to people participating and contributing in creating an output that is greater than the individual input. In that sense social design is designing for succesful participation. To us successful participation is when there is a clear and productive outcome of the interactions between the participants. This is defined by a clear “contract” between the participants. Many companies have jumped on the social media bandwagon and are inviting users to like or share their branded content, but many times companies don’t get the output they expect. The contract isn’t right.
Social design is design for disruptive action. with the emergence of digital platforms and formats it has become increasingly easy to be social. Digital platforms are fostering social revolutions, allowing people to collaboratively bypass existing institutionalized power structures – just think of the Arabic revolution, where simple social technologies like Twitter and Facebook was employed to undermine power structures.
We find social as new design for production, distribution and consumption in collaborative communities. Typically in an organizational setting social is a luxury outside the hierarchical command structure, designing for social in this setting means allowing for organizing through social collaboration, and also crossing the boundaries of what is internal and external by collaborating with customers and stakeholders outside the organization. Wikipedia is a social design that is based on a number of guiding principles that allow everyone to contribute and organise knowledge in a very productive way, while governed by very little organization.
We define social design by three interconnected elements.
People – Who are the people, what kind of networks are already in place, what is the behavior and the needs.
Process – what process do we want to support, extend or accelerate.
Platforms – what platforms do we create to cater for this.
When designing for new social business models these aspects are crucial. In traditional business models often the process is reversed: Create a platform, define a process and try to convince people to engage. Social designed products and business models needs to start with a people, or more likely: a participant-focused outset.