An interview with Andrew Shea on Designing for Social Change

by Jenny Venn on February 22, 2013

in 2D, Editor's Picks, Writing

Identified as a “place to start” by renowned designer and social entrepreneur, William Drenttel, Designing for Social Change by Andrew Shea, is an insightful guidebook and designer’s co-pilot containing a compilation of case studies that illustrate project concepts, funding resources, processes, strategies, and outcomes. It is a go-to resource for any designer interested or engaged in community-based work. A first-of-its-kind, Designing for Social Change is marked by ten strategies, an action plan of sorts, that pave the way towards project completion, and with any hope, success.

DRoB Contributors

This January, driven by strategy #1 (Immerse Yourself), Andrew, who has reviewed books for DRoB in the past, and I stepped out into the streets of TriBeCa to discuss his recent publication and the often bumpy, yet rewarding ride of designing for social change.

Jenny Venn: Designing for Social Change was inspired by a failed design project that you oversaw. Through your research did you find failure and a quest for aid/correction/redemption as a strong motivator for these designers passionate about social change? 

Andrew Shea: For me this was true, but not for the projects in the book. I looked for a wide range of projects in order to capture a snapshot of the social design field. The designers featured in the book had different motivations because they approached their own, unique design challenge from different stages in their career (half were from students and half were from professional designers), they had different goals for the projects (some of the projects focused on producing strategies or training rather than products or visuals). Also, while some of the projects were initiated by their clients, others were self-initiated.

JV: Did you find the designers interviewed for the book to have a hard-wired passion for social change, innovation, and activism or was it something they happened to stumble upon?

AS: I think all of them became motivated by a sense of sympathy or empathy with their partners and the challenge at hand, but unfortunately I didn’t have time to get into that level of detail. I probably would have posed that question if each project had been carried out by just one designer but each project was carried out by a team. That said, I’m pretty confident that all of the designers in the book became passionate about their projects and about designing for social change because of the people they met and the stories they heard. All of the projects had important human dimensions which motivated them after the they began their research.

DRoB Contributors

JV: The book showcases social change success stories along side failed attempts. Is there a standout project that seemed to have the most impact? Is there a failed attempt that a designer can learn the most from?

AS: I like this question because it gives me a chance to mention that each project became my favorite when I was process of researching it. I think that’s why I selected each. While I looked for specific criteria for the projects (the kind of community/client, the form that the design took, geographic location, from design students/professionals, etc), unique stories behind the projects motivated me to select each. I learned pretty quickly that “success” and “failure” can be tricky to define and that even the projects that “failed” have some positive outcomes. “Made In Midtown” and “Keys To The City” are two projects that come to mind as “successful,” because their outcomes are easy to measure. For “Made in Midtown,” the city’s plan to re-zone midtown Manhattan was altered as a result of the project. “Keys To The City” resulted in scholarship money for music education, revitalized business in downtown Lancaster, PA, and people became more interested in music awareness because they played one of the many pianos that sat on the streets of Lancaster.

JV: Your initial goal in writing Designing for Social Change was to fill an informational void. Did you also hope to bring more people into the design and social change conversation? Have you noticed the book motivating more designers to design for social change? 

AS: Yeah, I definitely wanted to broaden the social change conversation. Many of us social designers mask what we do behind the jargon of our discipline (just think of all of the different names we use for “designing for social change”) which confuses both designers and non-designers from understanding the relevance of what we do. I worked hard to make the text of each project and the design of the book as open and transparent as possible so that it could reach designers from different design disciplines and in all age groups, as well as non-designers who might not know why design should be important to them. My hope is that readers are inspired by at least one project in the book and I’ve been happy to learn about the variety of people who have been using it. I’ve heard about a high school class in Massachusetts that is using the book, college classes around the country reference it as they work on projects in their classes, and I’ve even received some emails from MBA and policy students who are using the book on projects where they engage stakeholders. I love hearing these stories about how the book is being used!

DRoB Contributors

JV: Some case-studies have very clear outcome metrics while others are more ambiguous. Were there any trends on how designers value metrics and what role they play within the process?  

AS: I started the book knowing that a lot of designers want to learn how they can measure the results of their projects but that wasn’t my goal for this book. While I definitely think this is an essential consideration, I wanted to focus on our process of engaging communities because, as I see it, a good process will lead to good outcomes. So while I understand the importance of using metrics to guide projects, I wanted to focus on how to navigate tricky designer-client/community relationships. That said, the book includes traditional awareness campaigns and examples of designers devising a strategy that an organization can use, both of which can be inherently difficult to measure. Also, as I mentioned above, projects like Keys to the City or Made in Midtown are clear examples of design having a measurable impact.

JV: What did you learn about the design for social change community that you didn’t know before? 

AS: I met lots of educators who have been teaching community-based partnership classes and designers who have been working pro bono for decades. It shows that there are many designers whose experiences and insights can add a lot to this conversation.

JV: If this book happened 5 years earlier or 5 years later what would be different about the content? 

AS: If it happened five years later, I probably would have been flooded with submissions since this kind of work has quickly grown in popularity. If it happened five years earlier, there may not have been a hungry audience to welcome it.

JV: What were the biggest challenges, surprises, or unexpected gifts you encountered while writing Designing for Social Change

AS: One surprise was realizing the importance of good follow up questions. Many of the projects became really interesting after I asked for clarifications about specific details or follow up questions about aspects of a project. My biggest challenge was trying to get such detailed information from contributors, which gives me a chance to say how great it was to work with the amazing people who submitted projects. Of course they were already so busy working on other projects, teaching classes, and running companies. I asked them to fill out a long questionnaire and to have a dialogue with me about their projects, and they were all incredibly gracious with their time throughout that process.

DRoB Contributors

JV: What change did writing this book create within you as a designer? Within your design process? Do you follow all of these strategies? 

AS: Good question, I started the project because I wanted to learn more about how to frame community/client-based projects, troubleshoot problems that arise during these projects, double-check the results of these projects, and learn more about how to fund these projects. All of these goals can help empower designers to take more calculated risks and can lead to more powerful outcomes. So, more to your question, writing this book helped me to refine my design process and reflect on these 20 projects as I work through my projects. Many of the strategies come naturally to me, but I always consult with these strategies, and I’m always looking for more.

JV: Is there any particular reason that there are 10 strategies? How did you narrow it down to these 10?

AS: There’s no specific reason, though it happened to be a good number for the book since there were 20 case studies. For awhile I hovered at 8 strategies, which came from observations that I made from my projects and the insights of contributing designers. Then I started to read books and articles from activists, social workers, government agencies, universities, political organizers, etc, which helped me to refine the strategies that I already had while providing me with the last two.

JV: Were these 10 strategies utilized by all of the designers you included in the book? Were there any unique strategies that weren’t included? 

AS: Some strategies were used by everyone, like “Immerse Yourself”, but not all of the designers used all the strategies. These strategies are important considerations when working with clients/community partners. One strategy that I didn’t include comes from Project H: “start locally and scale globally.” The main reason I didn’t include it is because the projects in the book are based on the US, not throughout the world.

JV: You not only wrote the book but you also designed it. What came first – the visuals or the text?

AS: I proposed a design when I pitched the book to PAPress, but then spent over a year writing and didn’t think about the design. I proposed an updated design after I finished writing, but PAPress liked my first design better. The cover came last. By listing the 10 strategies on the cover, I was able to lend more transparency to the process of designing for social change.

JV: The book has been out for a bit of time now. If you could go back and change one thing what would it be?

AS: As far as the book’s content and design, I did everything I set out to do. That said, I would have worked on publicizing the book prior to it being released. I buried myself in the work and forgot to build buzz for it. I was fortunate to have PAPress publicizing it for me and the book has received some great coverage as a result. It has recently been reprinted, and is now being translated into Japanese and Korean. So I’m actually very happy with how well it has been received.

JV: If you could give a designer only one piece of advice on designing for social change what would it be?

AS: Partner with people/organizations you respect and work on topics/issues that you care about. This will help you remain interested in the project and committed to seeing it through, especially when the project reaches difficult junctures, which it will.

DRoB Contributors

Largely considered a launching pad for a designer’s community-based voyage, Designing for Social Change should also be celebrated as an esteemed illustration of a final destination. Partially, due to its well-organized strategies providing a clear means to an end but more importantly because the text itself is a picture-perfect example of successful human-centered design. Andrew’s work embodies knowledge gaps filled, wrongs turned right, passion that has found form, communities invigorated and inspired, and in the end, success through failure.

Designing for Social Change is published by Princeton Architectural Press  and can be purchased from Amazon (US | UK).

About the Reviewer

Jenny Venn is a designer, writer, educator, and founder of StudioJenVenn, a multidisciplinary design studio that is on sortie from jenvenn.com in Laramie, Wyoming.

Photos: Cole LeMaster, StudioJenVenn intern  Special thanks: Mark Robertson, TriBeCa notetaker