A travel guide to social design

Dutch author Anne van der Zwaag hopes her new book will help businesses and governments see the power of design to address key challenges facing the world.

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Recently, Anne van der Zwaag heard someone say that social design was on its return. “I totally disagree with this,” says the Dutch author. “It implies that we’re talking about a trend, something temporary. This is not a trend, it's a shift in the mentality of designers, architects, artists, who are increasingly becoming less product driven, and more human and society driven.”

Van der Zwaag, who works across the cultural and business spectrum of art and design in the Netherlands, pinpoints people’s growing urge to make a positive change, not only in the design world but also in business and government.

“There are some serious issues in the world that we can't ignore anymore. Creative people are challenged to think about these issues and feel obliged to do something about them,” she says. “At the same time they're wondering, if there are already so many chairs, tables, lamps etc. what can I really add to this world?”

Van der Zwaag hopes that her new book, Looks Good Feels Good Is Good: How Social Design Changes Our World (Lecturis), will broaden the application and impact of social design – not only among designers, but to a wider audience of corporations, governments and institutions.

It's an area that Van der Zwaag first dived into three years ago during her research for DOEN Foundation, which supports social impact projects around the world, and in which she's engaged in her work as an educator, curator, board member, initiator and director.

The book presents recent best practices and interviews with social designers organised into five internationally relevant issues that need urgent restructuring – water, energy, food, waste, wellbeing. The diverse projects featured in the book illustrate the scope of social design, spanning conceptual to pragmatic solutions, micro and macro scales for varying cultures and socio-economic groups across the globe. Readers will recognise higher profile projects such as Christien Meindertsma’s PIG 05049, Levi's Water<Less jeans, the 3D-Printed Canal House and LifeStraw but will also discover emerging initiatives such as the Pedal-Powered Cassava Peeling Machine, Floating Quay and Conflict Kitchen.

One of the challenges facing social design today, according to Van der Zwaag, lies in the term itself.

The term social design is rather misleading because it implies only society and design but it's much more than that, she elaborates.

“It's equally about economics and environment – so people, planet and profit together. The design element implies only designing a product or solution but it could be something conceptual or artistic.”

In the end, she says, it's less about design and more about a mentality and a movement to view and do things differently. “It's a mentality of being creative in a broad sense: engaging, curious, seeing the urge and having the will to make a change.”

A multidisciplinary approach is integral, she says. Take for example Dutch artist Joep van Lieshout, whose controversial artworks deal with self-supporting systems where human bodies can be recycled for organs, as food and into biogas. “Joep Van Lieshout is an artist, but it's his mind that creates the ideas, not his discipline. He offers alternative systems that are sometimes terrifying and confronting. Joep doesn't believe in revolting again the system gently!” says Van der Zwaag with a laugh. “The problem with any terminology is that it tends to become shallow, but I do think we need it as a starting point for the conversation to engage a wider audience.”

Beyond redefinition, social design must expand outside the design world to make a greater impact. And while social design is nothing new – or as Indian design thinker Jogi Panghaal (who's interviewed in the book) rightly put it, 'Social design is an old tradition with a new profession' – it's also about spreading awareness of the possibilities of the profession.

“That's why we wanted to make an accessible, visual book about this topic. Think of it as a travel guide to social design! There are already quite some theoretical books about social design. But the people who need to embrace this movement – companies, governments and influencers, for example – not only need to read about social design but also see what it's about,” she says.

Creative minds, government bodies and businesses have to collaborate. Designers can be the pioneers and innovators but a wider slice of society needs to work with and implement their designs. “That's where companies, governments and influencers can make a difference," she says.

It's about mobilising these important players in the social, economic and environmental infrastructure and creating awareness of what you can do together.

But these touchpoints have to be set up – something that can be facilitated by the growing number of events dedicated to social design. “I've always worked on both sides, and seen how much they both need each other. Designers need commercial knowledge and the commercial world needs creative visions to keep innovating. One obstacle, however, is that a big part of society is economic driven and the issue of paying off will always return. The challenge will be acquainting commerce with creativity to create a happy marriage. That's why intermediaries and entrepreneurs will be so important for social design – people who understand both worlds.”

Throughout the process of writing the book, Van der Zwaag saw again and again that projects initiated locally from the bottom up have the most impact.

“That's why Eco-Fuel Africa is so successful,” she says. Eco-Fuel Africa's green charcoal briquettes made from renewable biomass waste provide a clean alternative to wood-fuel and save trees, while catering to traditional cooking methods and generating income for local communities through its production and distribution.

“It originated with a specific problem in an area that Sanga Moses [Eco-Fuel Africa's Ugandan founder] knew – it was his problem and the problem of his society. That's why he knew how important it was to tackle it and he knew how to do it.”

The main message Van der Zwaag aims to convey is that anyone can make a change, and that small actions done bit by bit lead to big changes.

Any advice for emerging social designers? “Start small, start local, begin with what you know, engage local partners and always involve the end user. There's a lot of hard work to be done but we need to do it together – in this way, we could learn from a colony of industrious ants! Like a student in one of my classes asked recently, ‘We can't sit back and do nothing, can we?’”


Jeanne Tan is a freelance architecture and design journalist from Australia/Malaysia based in Amsterdam. She loves cycling on her 'omafiets', misses Australian beaches and often craves Malaysian laksa.

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