Social change is necessary in solving the unsustainable level of consumption in our society. The Design Industry has played a part in the creation of consumerism therefore it has a responsibility to play a part in solving the problems consumerism has caused. This paper demonstrates that designers can create positive social change by implementing Design Activism Principles.


The level of consumption is a current worldwide problem (Fuad-Luke, 2009, p61). Humanity is depleting the world of its resources at an unsustainable rate. A change in lifestyles and habits is required in order for our resources to be replenished and to sustain us. Various design organisations have tried to persuade designers to act responsibly towards society and the environment, but they have not yet created a solution that is in itself sustainable. Designers have played a part in the creation of consumerism due to their role in designing products and persuasive advertising (Berman, 2009, p25). As such, the world and its environment would benefit from designers becoming catalysts of social change, pushing society and the design industry away from consumers and more into a sustainable position.

Design Activism offers the design industry alternative methods, which can be used to create better design that is focused on the user and environment. However there is also scope for these practices to be developed and linked more closely to the idea of sustainability, creating a set of principles that can flow through all design disciplines, and in doing so create a more complete and long lasting solution to the problem of unsustainability and over-consumption. Therefore by proving that by applying design activism principles to how we create social change using designers and the design industry we can help reform the consumerist society that has led to an unsustainable world. Designers can help create a solution for our unsustainable world by using design skill and implementing alternative methods and practices within design. In order to examine what has, and what could occur in the design industry with regards to its impact on society, this paper shall examine various case studies and organisations and the level of their success shall be analysed. It will indicate the possibilities of positive social change and help realise potential developments to move forwards towards a sustainable future.

While it is the aim of this paper to propose potential developments for the design industry and its designers to pursue positive social change, it is clear that the subject matter is of huge depth and scope. As such it is clear that a complete solution cannot be reached but rather a starting point for moving forwards will be arrived at.

Chapter 1. Why social change is necessary

This first chapter defines design, society and the current sustainability problem that is upon us. It explains the problem in detail, describing sustainability and over consumption and the role that designers and the design industry have played in the creation of the problem. It establishes the problem with consumerism and its negative effect on society and proposes that social change is a route to survival. Thus this chapter defines the term social change as well as analysing whether designers can implement its ethics into practice. Finally it concludes by proposing that Design Activism can be part of the solution to over-consumption and un-sustainability. Stating that the industry needs to implement new methods into design practice in order to reform society’s over-consumption. 

At its most basic level, graphic design can be defined as visual communication that communicates a message from one person to another. (Newark, 2002, p6) When constructing this visual message, everything must be considered. As such, design can be understood as a

“Visual language uniting harmony and balance, colour and light, scale and tension, form and content. But it is also an idiomatic language, a language of cues and puns and symbols and allusions, of cultural references and perceptual influences that challenge both the intellect and the eye.” (Helfand, cited in Shaughnessy, 2005, p18)

But a definition of design cannot stop there; a well-constructed design has influence and impact on society. Therefore in defining graphic design Fuad-Luke (2009, p5) focuses on the way that design changes a situation asserting

“design is the act of deliberately moving an existing situation to a preferred one by professional designers or others applying design knowingly or unknowingly”.

Analysing design’s impact according to Berman (2009, pp.21-25) entails analysing the physical state of the world, landfills, climate change and industrialised cities are examples of the impact design has caused. This means that either with or without realising it, designers communicate meanings and values to the world. It’s for this reason that

Newark (2002, p6) defines graphic design as a way of “imposing meaning on the world” a technique to create perceptions, ideas and ideals. The word ‘imposing’ has negative connotations, and it portrays designers has having a negative impact in the way design is practiced. Thus according to Newark (2002, p6) designers create false meaning for the world. This idea of design being understood as something that conveys or imposes ideas onto society has led to others being concerned about the social impact design has had on the world. Bush (2003) argues that the industry should concentrate on its impact on society. Both Bush (2003) and Tatum (2004) state that designers need to take responsibility for their impact and embrace their social role.

Tatum (2004, pp.72-73) presents the invention of the radio controlled garage door as a solution to a problem, but explains that it has had a negative impact on society. Often the journey from the garage to the house would encourage conversation between neighbours, but the invention of the radio controlled garage door allowed users to open and close their garage using a remote, thus reducing the ability for neighbours to converse, and in the extreme, results in a decline in community. Tatum’s (2004, pp.72-73) example demonstrates the idea that something as seemingly benign as the design of the radio controlled garage door can actually have negative social consequences. This emphasises the idea that design is something that can have a big influence on how society operates and the values peoples within society may hold. This also reinforces the idea that designers should be not only considering the design itself but the impact that design has on the world. Schmit (2004) argues, however that rather than considering their impact on society, the design industry has focused too much on producing designs to please the client, rather than creating socially responsible designs where the user benefits. This, Schmitt (2004) argues, has led to a decline in social responsibility, with the industry advocating a consumerist society without considering its affect or consequences.

The broadest definition of society is that it is not just a group of people that live within a set of institutions but it is companionship and community (Dean, 2005, p326). A person therefore, is an individual but at the same time is part of society, you can either be included or excluded depending on conformity or rebellion under current conditions within a society (Dean, 2005, p326). Society is calling out for change; although there has been an attempt to shift away from sustainability through persuading people to recycle more, buy ethical products, car share and take holidays in their home countries, these strategies are not making enough progress to ensure a sustainable future (e.g. Berman, 2009, p130).

In order for society to continue, people must live in harmony with the environment in which their society is located, in other words, they must acquire sustainability. In this sense, the definition of sustainability is to prolong and to support society’s ecological environment. Domenski et al (1992, p.23) state that:

“Sustainability may be defined as a dynamic balance among three mutually interdependent elements:(1) protection and enhancement of natural ecosystems and resources; (2) economic productivity; and (3) provision of social infrastructure such as jobs, housing, education, medical care and cultural opportunities.”

In defining sustainability in this manner, Domenski et al (1992) recognise the importance of the provisions that the earth provides all people with and the need to replenish these resources with respect and awareness of the consequences of our actions. Clearly, it is essential for the society’s survival to replenish the resources it relies on. As Orr (1992, p83) explains; without resources there would be no people, so creating a sustainable future is important in order to sustain human life. This is why environmental sustainability is of such central importance, because it in fact dealing with human survival. The goal of sustainability, therefore, must be at the centre of human society, because without it there would be no society. As Orr (1992, p83) expresses, sustainability is not only a permanent feature on the political agenda; for all practical purposes, “it is the agenda… Sustainability is about the terms and conditions of human survival” (1992, p83).

Despite it’s obvious and central importance, our current society is failing to live sustainably with the environment. Fuad-Luke (2009, p188) asserts that by looking at the current state of the world we can detect “contemporary warning signs” which indicate that the way our society is operating is causing environmental damage. For instance, the amount of products being produced and the amount of products being recycled and going through the waste disposal process is unsustainable. In order to demonstrate this, Berman (2009, p129-130) uses the example of the humble BIC biro pen. In many ways the design of a BIC pen is admirable; it is cheap, reliable, functional and comes in a wide variety of colours. Berman (2009, p129-130), however, also recognises the environmental costs of the design. Since the BIC Biro is non-refillable and is not recyclable, the 14 million BIC ballpoint pens that are purchased every day around the world end up in landfill due to the nature of their disposable design (Berman, 2009, p129). On average a BIC pen life cycle is between six to twelve months, but it takes nearly 400 years to decompose (Berman, 2009, p129). In reality, a BIC biro spends most of its existence in landfill, rather than in the use it was designed for.

Although the BIC Biro offers consumers convenience, it’s design is clearly unsustainable. Due to the volume of people purchasing a BIC Biro, using it, throwing it away and purchasing another, our environment is suffering, with increased landfill and pollution. In effect, the BIC biro is over-consumed; pens are being produced and consumed at a rate higher than which the environment can manage. Berman (2009, p25) asserts that this kind of over-consumption is a central reason for our environmental decline. He states that the Western World, as the biggest consumers on the planet, are consuming faster and at a larger volume than the rest of the world. Hillary Mayell (2004) describes how this type of consumerist lifestyle has led to a culture of people with

“diets of highly processed food, [a] desire for bigger houses, more and bigger cars, higher levels of debt, and lifestyles devoted to the accumulation of non-essential goods”

and Gardener (cited in Mayell, 2004) argues that this type of over-consumption is the source of “Most of the environmental issues we see today”. This can be seen, for example, in the increased demand and consumption of fish, which has resulted in the overfishing of our oceans. Dougherty (2008, p29) uses the example of ‘over-fishing’ as a way to describe and demonstrate the problems of over-consumption; our oceans are being depleted for the sake of society having more and more fish to eat. This high demand has seriously depleted the fish in our oceans, which has in turn led to fish-farming practices. It is such overconsumption of our natural resources, which must be reversed before long lasting damage is inflicted on our environment, such as species extinction.

It is clear that our environment is suffering from society’s over-consumption; we can only expect this to increase until we change something about our lifestyles. If we persist in this over-consumption we run the risk of the earth running out of resources that support us. Up until now, however, designers have encouraged over-consumption through persuasive design and advertising. As Berman (2009, p25) argues,

“Professional communicators are the people who proudly think up clever visual persuasions intended to trigger deep emotional needs to increase consumption.”

In doing so designers are partly responsible for consumerism as they use visual communication to create a sense of value to the things they sell. Whilst designers take pride in using their communication skills to successfully sell people things by creating a desire and a value for non-essential goods, in reality they are advocating mindless consumerism without encouraging consumers to think about the impact of their consumption on the environment, thus making consumption it culturally acceptable. As Fuad-Luke (2009, p36) argues

“Design has occupied this central role as mediator of culturally acceptability and therefore provides a regulatory service in production and consumption.”

It is clear from what we have seen that the world needs to become more sustainable and to do this we need to consume less. Clearly it is not just the job of one industry or one person to become sustainable; it is in fact the job of the whole society. However, since designers are a part of society, they have a duty as a member of that society to become more sustainable.

Moreover, as a current advocate of consumerism, designers have a particular responsibility to reduce consumerism and increase sustainability. It is for this reason Fuad-Luke (2009, p189) argues,

“Design needs to take on a more activist role on behalf of society/societies and the Environment.”

Sinclair (2008) argues that if designers become more informed on societal issues, and they used this knowledge to influence their design decisions they could in turn use design as a tool to create social change. Social change is necessary for creating a solution for our unsustainability problem. The world cannot prolong our current level of consumption, thus change needs to be the world and the design industry’s top priority.

Positive social change broadly describes changing a current system to an improved one (Light and Reynolds, 2010). To make social change happen there needs to be ‘social entrepreneurs’ who in essence “operate across society” and believe the world can be a better place (Light and Reynolds, 2010, pix). If designers begin to put social issues as a concern in their design, they would become such ‘social entrepreneurs’, with the ability to catalyse social change. Furthermore, if we deem over-consumption and our world wide unsustainability issue a substantial problem, then we must create change to reform society and preserve world resources through implementing design tools.

Designers need, therefore, to develop a heightened sense of social responsibility. MacNab (2001, p137) suggests that applying Fritz Perls’ interpretation of the word ‘responsibility’ as ‘response-ability’ gives us a new understanding of the word, namely, interpreting it as “developing the skills necessary to get the job done”. Using the word in this sense gives us a clearer understanding that the correct response of designers would be too develop the correct skills in order to positively respond to the problem of unsustainability. Similarly, Berman (2009, p111) claims

“Social Responsibility is good for design because it will protect the profession.”

Berman (2009, p111) believes that making designers realise their responsibility could help reform the design industry in order to create more sustainable design practices. Similarly Fuad-Luke (2009, p23) argues that if a designer

“Recognises the services that nature provides and the duty of care man has to nature, invokes productivity rather than economic growth, and links sustainability to our overall social condition and health”

then the designer has reached his/her sustainable role in society with a wider knowledge of their social responsibility. A social designer therefore would result in people consuming less and at a level that the world can sustain. Thus society needs designers to change as the start of a long process of becoming more socially responsible and embracing social change as part of design activism through design.

Keedy (2001, p206) asserts that designers are by nature problem solvers, and therefore could apply these abilities to solve the problem of over-consumption. However, he also questions whether they can play a part in the creation of a solution when they are currently a part of problem (Keedy, 2001, p206). Whilst Keedy raises a valid concern, this paper asserts that designers can play a part in a solution. The First things first manifesto, for example, demonstrates that designers can be motivated and willing to attempt to move the design industry into sustainability rather than maintaining consumerism.

The First things First manifesto was written by Ken Garland and originally published in 1964 (For a copy see Bierut et al, 1999, pp.5-6). The manifesto claims that there is a better use for a designer’s skill than advertising products that the consumer does not need, with the 2000 version of the manifesto stating (cited in Bierut et al, 2002, p5-6)

“A reversal of priorities in favour of more useful, lasting and democratic forms of communication – a shift away from product marketing and toward the exploration and production if a new kind of meaning”

This demand for a change in design practice in favour of more useful and socially responsible design has influenced the industry over the past 40 years, pushing towards an increased value in ethical practices. Garland (Baugnet, 2004, p96) states that everyone should consider his or her position within the world, and their current sociological and environmental impact. The manifesto has been reprinted repeatedly and Garland’s challenge to the design industry still stands today. Carolyn McCarron (2000, p113-122) therefore argues that the ideas within the manifesto could spark change within the design industry, though also emphasises that it encompasses Garland’s theory of what the design industry should be or should aim to be, which is not necessarily the only possible solution. It could be argued that the manifesto proves that designers cannot be a part of the solution as even though the manifesto was signed every time it was re-printed and published, it has failed to make a significant difference (McCarron, 2000, p115). Nevertheless, the manifesto has still acted as a continuous challenge to designers at the core of creating the solution.Furthermore it demonstrates that there are people within the design industry willing to make those changes, who have a vision of a more sustainable and less consumerist industry (Baugnet, 2004, p96).

In 2000 there was a steady change towards social responsibility and sustainable solutions whereby designers became enthusiastic by the concept of eco-design and ‘greening’ designs (Thorpe, 2010, p4). This demonstrates designer’s ability to create change, but to gain real sustainability, the transformation of society and design needs to be more than superficial (Thorpe, 2010, p4).

Design can Change ( is an example of how sustainability can be built into the way design is practiced. Design Can Change is an organisation focused on laying out the problem, the facts and the proposed solutions to climate-related disasters. They state that designers

“must examine how our practices impact the environment.” (

They outline the main factors that have caused our environmental issues, these are; power stations, Industrial processes, Transport, Agricultural bi-products, Fossil Fuels, Residential, commercial, Land use and biomass burning and waste management. They ask designers to ‘take the pledge’ in becoming sustainable in their daily work ( They state that designers should become experts on social issues, set-aside time to explore sustainability and persuade clients and suppliers to become green through asking them to only supply sustainable products (

Sustainable thinking is another principle of becoming a sustainable designer, considering the entire life cycle of a design and asking the right questions to achieve the right end result in a sustainable manner ( Questioning the designs sustainability and questioning why designers decided to ‘green’ products equals acknowledging that designers have tried to create positive social change, but so far it has been no more than superficial. The ‘green washing’ of products was successful in selling products, moreover is clearly unsuccessful in solving environmental issues caused by over-consumption ( Design can change whilst trying to make social change through focusing on societal issues has failed to find a true solution to over-consumption and sustainability. The ideas presented through the pledge are ideal in creating social change and moving designers towards to act sustainably.

However, since the pledge can be signed by designers to say that they act sustainably does not necessarily mean that it is being performed, resulting in the cause not being transformative enough to make deep long lasting societal change. And the ‘greening’ (Thorpe, 2010, p4) of products can be described as them taking the easy route to sustainability; nevertheless Keedy (2001, p207) asserts that there is a need to find alternative methods in design to create a socially responsible and sustainable industry in which will support the growth of a sustainable world. As Fuad-Luke (2009, p142) argues

“If sustainability is the most challenging wicked problem of the current era, then participation in design, as a means to effect deep, transformation, socio-political change, seems essential.”

Thus Fuad-Luke (2009) claims that rather than creating a superficial solution to sustainability a deeper more long lasting social change is needed. This paper proposes that design activism can offer the design industry a progressive solution to our worldwide over-consumption and mass consumerism problem. Design Activism has a central role in positive social change because of its cultural societal power (Fuad-Luke, 2009, pp.5-27). Papanek (1997, p234) describes it as needing a change of direction or change in focus, and the creation of a set of values for the industry and its designers to commit to.

Design Activism is a core principle of creating social change, and it is described as the act of creating change, all design has a social impact but designers should be taught more about what they can do to have a positive impact rather than a negative one. Fuad-Luke describes the three main factors of activism that designers should integrate into design practice; as user participation, design reassessment and positive social transformation. These three factors could be implemented through the design process and practice. According to Ann Thorpe (

“Design activism arises anywhere from within advocacy groups, businesses, or public agencies. Design activists use artefacts and design processes to influence change by disrupting the status quo and revealing better visions for society.”

Thorpe’s definition of Activism shows that design activism can be a part of many industries, but society benefits most when design practices are applied and developed into cases of design activism to positively impact society and create social change. Similarly Fuad-Luke (2009, p20) describes a design activist as a person who acknowledges the power of design and embraces a “desire to contribute to a greater societal good”. Therefore an activist, according to Fuad-Luke, is a person who carries out activism and recognises the importance of Design activism to help society to deal with its social issues. He states that there is a universal understanding of the two words separately (Fuad-Luke, 2009, p1), but we are uneducated in design activism’s principles and states that the best form of activism would be a collaboration between a professional within the design industry and a professional outside of the design industry (Fuad-Luke, 2009, pp.169-173). This would allow the role of the designer to be expanded to view design and culture and its societal impact on future generations from different perspectives.

This chapter has discussed consumerism as a problem that designers maintain through their work. On the other hand, there have been industry people who have acknowledged that designers have a responsibility to be aware of the social impact that they cause through design and to implement better design practices that do not harm society or its environment. This has been a positive step towards social responsibility within the industry, however the changes have sometimes been superficial or short lived. It has been argued, therefore, that the principles proposed by Design Activism can offer the industry alternative methods and practices to reverse consumerism and create a more sustainable world. The next chapter will go on to discuss specific principles and alternate methods within Design Activism and their validity in solving consumerism and improving sustainability of society and the design industry.

Chapter 2. Social Change: How is it going to be achieved?

In the previous chapter it was proposed that Design Activism could offer a route to create positive social change necessary to reverse the effects of over-consumption, which has led to environmental unsustainability. This chapter will go on to propose various design practices and processes that are currently practised through Design Activism that could be applied to the mainstream design industry to encourage positive social change. It will discuss the Design Activism principles and the validity of applying them to the design industry and other design disciplines.

Activism in its broadest definition is a way to bring about positive change, it is about

“taking actions to catalyse, encourage or bring about change, In order to elicit social, cultural and/or political transformations.” (Fuad-Luke, 2009, p6).

Design Activism is a similarly broad concept and, as Tim Jordan (2002, p139) acknowledges, it “cannot be found in just one movement” but rather can be found by reading between the lines of movements and protests. This means that the principles of design activism do not act as singular practices, but can be used together and overlapped in order to gain the best solution. Since the principles within design activism are so broad, it would be impossible to examine them all in this paper. However three prominent principles have been selected, and these will be analysed to show the potential of design activism principles and how they can be applied more broadly in the industry which in turn will result in more positive change.


Co-design is essentially design that is created with the user, for the user (Fuad-Luke, 2009. pp.147-148). In Co-design the designer and the user work on the same level throughout the project, to create a solution that fully fulfils the users need. Because they are on the same level, there is no hierarchy of power. As such, Fuad-Luke claims that it is a mutual learning path for both designer and audience and states that it “is the creation of new societal values to balance human happiness with ecological truths” Fuad-Luke (2009, p141). Rather than the designer imposing values and meanings on the user, Co-design gives the user the ability and the opportunity to create their own communication and their own set of values. At present Co-design is more established in Architecture and urban planning (Fuad-Luke, 2009, p148), where it is already used to offer projects more social inclusion, participation and democracy.

However there is potential for it to be applied more widely in the design industry. RED (, for instance, provides an example of how Co-design could be embedded into the design industry. RED is a group of designers and specialists that are focused on improving social and economic issues. RED is a part of the UK Design Council (, and both organisations have a similar mission statement; all design should be of a standard that improves humanity’s current state, focusing on improving human life rather than improving economic growth. They work closely with those who the design is for, those that will use it everyday and those who commissioned the project alongside the company and experts in the field of that which the individual projects are focused.

This example demonstrates how Co-design is well aligned with the ‘social model’ of design, giving a ‘social’ designer the ability to have a deeper understanding of humans and the environment and enabling to listen with an attentive ear to ensure that they understand what they are being asked to improve. The ‘social model’ proposed by Victor and Sylvia Margolin (2002, P24) refer to the industrial revolution and the influence it has had on the design industry, claiming that it has led the design industry and practice to function within the ‘market model’ rather than the ‘social model’. Victor and Sylvia Margolin (2002, p24) define the ‘market model’ as a product that has been produced purely for sale or market purposes. Victor and Sylvia Margolin (2002, p24) state that little has been done to develop a broader understanding of how design for social need might be commissioned, supported and implemented”. Victor and Sylvia Margolin state that social design involves being aware of design’s function and the life cycle of the design or product, ensuring that it has be designed appropriately with environmental and ecological issues considerations.

Victor and Sylvia Margolin question whether this has been implemented into the industry, which works within a market model and is focused on selling items. Victor and Sylvia Margolin (2002, p25) aimed the ‘social model’ at product designers, however it could be applied to graphic design and advertising, through building a wider set of design values that encompass Co-design and the ‘social model’. Whilst the ‘social model’ (Margolin, V and Margolin S, 2002, p25), is focused on improving human life not selling products, Co-design works with the user to produce designs that are beneficial to the user (Fuad-Luke, 2009, p147), Therefore, by combining the ‘social model’ with Co-design we could gain designs that not only improve human life, but which would also reduce unnecessary consumables, which would result in reduced consumerism and consequently increased sustainability. Thus a combination of Co-design and the ‘social model’ would result in giving designers a practical solution to become catalysts of social change.

Slow Design

Slow design is a set of principles aimed at slowing the design process down to enable us to gain better design results through a change in behaviour (Fuad-Luke, 2009, pp.157-158). Slow design, according to Fuad-Luke (2009, p157), “requires stepping outside the existing mental construct of capitalism,” which in turn would “generate fresh awareness, possibilities and subsequently help create new social values.” By analysing the stages of Slow Design we can gain a better understanding of why Fuad-Luke claims we need to move out of our normal situation in order to evaluate it.

Slow design involves six different stages: Reveal, Expand, Reflect, Engage, Participate and Evolve (Fuad-Luke, 2009, pp.157-158). Each of these points can be seen as human experiences and therefore reflect our own lives. The ‘reveal’ stage of the process involves the designer witnessing the daily events of life from a new perspective, giving the ability to be more objective about the possibilities of change (Fuad-Luke, 2009). After viewing events differently, Slow design principles ask the designer to ‘expand’ that experience, analysing the event or item beyond its core reason to exist. Once the designer has been through these first two stages, the next stage requires them to ‘reflect’ on this experience, question the need for this item and the consumptive value of this item or event (Fuad-Luke, 2009). After these first stages, the next Slow Design principle is collaboration, sharing and ‘engaging’ with others. The focus here is upon learning more via sharing and engaging with others, as opposed to simply collecting data. This would lead into the ‘participation’ stage, where the target audience or user would become part of the design, encouraging a better focus for the design (Fuad-Luke, 2009). The last principle gives the designer and the design an opportunity to ‘evolve’, to acknowledge the experience gained and to use the experience to push social change (Fuad-Luke, 2009). Fuad-Luke claims that by stepping out of the normal processes of designing and observing everyday life, we can expand our experience and knowledge of that subject, which in turn would lead to improved design, an improved design industry and ultimately an improved society with stronger values.

Slow design could be applied broadly to the design industry as a way to implement behavioural change towards sustainability and consumerism. It could be used to help users and designers become aware of why products and designs are unsustainable and give them an analysing tool to use towards other designs and products in the future. Fuad-Luke (2009, p158) states that Slow design’s “full potential remains to be explored.” Nevertheless, it seems that the process could have great potential. For example, design agencies could implement the Slow design process when considering taking on work. This would enable them to take a step back, look at the projects credentials and reflect on the reasons for its existence. If this kind of thought process could be combined with an awareness of social responsibility, Slow design could offer a potentially transformative process for designers, as it would give them a way of questioning every project they take on in terms of its social impact. This could result in better design with a positive social change for society.


Metadesign is a design practice whereby the designers orchestrate solutions to problems by setting out the conditions or a framework of the design, for the user to then propose ideas and concepts, thus giving the user the opportunity to participate in creating the solution (Fuad-Luke, 2009, pp.151-152). It can be used to create progressive projects, where the design is intentionally under designed in order to encourage user participation and creativity (Fuad-Luke, 2009, p151). As such, it offers new platforms in which to develop new and exciting paths to find solutions to problems. Whilst the user takes a key role in creating design solutions (Fuad-Luke, 2009), this in no way makes the role of the designer redundant, since they are needed to maintain control of the process of finding solutions to problems.

Metadesign could lead to the creation of an improved set of solutions, which have been choreographed by designers, but ultimately created and confirmed by society, since the design would drive itself through the design process with the help of audience participation (Fuad-Luke, 2009). This highlights the way in which Metadesign is both co-creative and co-evolutionary in nature (Fuad-Luke, 2009, p151), which allows the user to self educate and be self concerned with the final outcome. In this way, Metadesign encourages users to create and involve their own values into the design solution in a highly democratic and non-hierarchical manner (Fuad-Luke, 2009). This contrasts to the typical approach of designers choosing which values to communicate and make appear desirable. This approach clearly lends itself to the creation of positive social change because it gives users a platform from which they can collaborate with others in solving the problems that matter to them. Designers could, for example, implement Metadesign through using the Internet and workshops, and through providing the right kind of questions and conditions in order to gain a solution that is appropriate to individual projects. Metadesign can be seen through blogs and forums that appear on the Internet, these are orchestrated through a designer but the content is driven by the user participation. ( exemplifies the way in which Metadesign can be used to create a platform to encourage mass participation and enthusiasm for sustainable design solutions. The designer in this case has created a website to inform people about green news, but has also set the stage for users to drive their own green content, this means that the website constantly evolves. This method of design could provide a way in which social change is created through encouraging users to become more aware of sustainability issues and by creating a path for them to be involved with the solution of sustainability.

Collaborating design activism principles

A collaboration of design activism principles would lead to an improved set of design practices. Creating inclusive, user orientated, participatory design which the user is the key in finding solutions to problems that concern them. But it is clear that there needs to be an understanding of the ‘social model’ to enable designers to fully integrate the concept of sustainability into the design activism principles. For example dott07 (Fuad-Luke, 2009, pp.121-122) was focused on creating social change through visual communication, with its main principle to bring design to the forefront of society, analysing the “five aspects of daily life: movement, energy, school, health and food” (Fuad-Luke, 2009, p121). The project consisted of “community projects, events and exhibitions” (Fuad-Luke, 2009, p121) and worked to improve the societies sustainability through participatory activities involving large local partner organisations. Dott07 used a collaboration of the design activism principles; Co-design was used to create and develop the running of the project and was used to encourage the students to work together, but ultimately Metadesign was used to produce the solutions via the fifteen schools from around the world. This demonstrates how the development of these principles and practices could make a difference for future generations and the future of the design industry.

In conclusion, Design activism is merely a set of principles; it is the designers put the principles into practice. If designers were to implement the design activism principles into the industry and in the studio, then they have the potential to create positive social change. In order to do this, however, designers need to combine design activism principles and the ‘social model’. In doing this we would not only gain participatory, democratic and user-centred design, but also we would create design that is focused on sustainability and social responsibility.

The next chapter will look more closely at real case studies of people from within the industry developing their own paths of social change. In doing so, we can gain a greater understanding of how combining design activism principles with a ‘social model’ can lead to positive social change.

Chapter 3. Creating paths of social change: Case Studies

Having demonstrated the potential for design activism to be combined with the ‘social model’ to create positive social change, this chapter will go on to examine existing organisations that are working to improve the design industry and its sustainability through positive social change. In order to do this, the case studies have been categorised into different types of organisations: regulators, aggressors, and tools of change and educative tools. The societal effect that they have had will be analysed as well as the types of concepts that they have developed and the overall success of the project or organisation. Finally, this chapter will conclude by proposing potential ideas for development and potential progressive solutions.

The Regulators

The following organisations have been categorised as ‘regulators’ because they define the rules and regulations that designers, in their opinion, should commit to in their professional life. All regulations are voluntary and do not force themselves onto the industry, but they do offer designers an alternative set of ethics or values.

The Chartered society of designers ( are focused on regulating how the design is practiced. The chartered society of designers is a members only organisation, and strives itself on being the “authority on professional design practice” ( It is registered as a charity and therefore it is a non-profit organisation. The members are worldwide and the society of designers exists to promote the core principles of the design industry, claiming that it benefits designers and society, with its focus on providers, users and education, therefore illustrating the need for designers to be aware of their social responsibility to the public. The society of designers has a published code of conduct for their members, one particular section asks members to judge their work in terms of its social impact, it asks them to consider humans, animals, the world and the atmosphere ( The chartered society of designers are set on changing the industry into a more responsible practice that is aware of its social impact and sustainability. The society of designers is current and active, showing that there are designers who are working towards a sustainable future for both the industry and society.

Similarly, the AIGA also have a set of ethical practice rules, which are communicated as part of AIGA’s promotion of design as a master craft ( AIGA’s code of practice provides designers with a standard to work by, and this includes focusing on the designs impact on society, for example: “6.1 a professional designer shall avoid projects that will result in harm to the public.” ( Although this is open to interpretation, the idea of perceiving whether work is harmful to the public before its production is an important point for designers to focus on. The AIGA standards of professional practice also states that no professional should be deliberately reckless through their design ( This could be translated as reducing negative social impact, and concentrating on designers not being harmful to the environment and other people.

In much the same way The Living Principles framework ( is also about positive social change, however their strategy is based on culture and using the power of design to affect the culture of consumerism and sustainability. The living principles ( are a set of regulations that are set out for designers but are focused towards making positive cultural change. They work to create principles that cross all design disciplines and which empower designers to do good through design, stating that,

“The Living Principles for Design aim to guide purposeful action, celebrating and popularizing the efforts of those who use design thinking to create positive cultural change.” (

The Living Principles state that there is four strands to sustainability, (1) Environment (2) People, (3) The Economy and (4) Culture, these are needed to gain a sustainable society and should be a priority for the industry ( The Living Principles argue that a designer should treat these four points of sustainability as part of the design process and should consider each point as important factors. It is a framework to create cultural change; it is a response to the everyday decisions we make as designers that affect the world (

Regulators are groups of people that have fought or who are fighting for the design industry to take responsibility and create a more sustainable world. They have tried to put in place a set of rules that designers should implement in their work, encouraging designers to take a step forward and pledge to implement frameworks that could enable them to obtain the ‘sustainable designer’ role. This set of regulators has created a presence for ethics in design and at the same time have promoted social responsibility, pushing the idea of social responsibility forwards within the industry.

However they have failed to make a big enough impact to significantly change the industry and society. The creation of rules for designers has led to regulators pleading with designers to sign and commit to these rules, but who is to say that these designers are actually acting sustainably through their design once they have committed on paper? Instead of simply creating rules and memberships and expecting designers/organisations to sign up to them, perhaps free workshops and talks could be more appropriate, or would create a greater presence for the ideas of social responsibility. Designers need to be shown alternatives to what they already know in order promote open mindedness and encourage education of culture and societal issues.

In this way one could argue that regulators are simply trying to enforce rules and ways of doing things, without showing designers how changes could be made. The next section will now go on to look at organisations that are trying to create change more actively than the regulators.

The term ‘aggressors’ has been used to categorise those groups or people that make change happen. By actively pushing themselves and their vision of society on society through action. It will be argued that if ‘regulators’ collaborate with ‘aggressors’, the social change created will be more effective. Wikileaks ( and, is a group of people using a web space to leak or publish secret documents or information to the public; it empowers the public in different ways to take action on societal issues. Wikileaks has revolutionised activism through the use of the Internet and technology and as such is a leading example of activism changing to be part of digital combat. Wikileaks’ approach to technology can be used to expand design practice; it demonstrates that designers can evaluate current society and culture to create an appropriate solution to sustainability.

Wikileaks can teach designers and regulators to be proactive and to be more radical when encourage a more effective positive social change. The reason wikileaks is effective, is because they make radical decisions if how to act on their ethics, rather than sitting on the sideline. By publishing important unknown information straight onto the web, it reinforces the web as a completely democratic platform. Wikileaks is successful because it set out to make change, and with each new leak of information stirs up attention and opinions, allowing people to form their own ideas and values, empowering them with the information and encouraging them to question how this information affects them, consequently resulting in people knowing more about society leading to a society which is more likely to change.

Adbusters (McCarron, 2000, pp.116-117), claim that it is working to reduce advertising for the sake of solving over-consumption, but use advertising to communicate their own message. It is a global collection of artists, activists, writers, students, educators and entrepreneurs using Culture Jamming to

“topple existing power structures and forge a major shift in the way we will live in the 21st century” (

Culture Jamming is changing an existing advertisement or design to express a different message (Jordan, 2002, p102). ‘Buy nothing day’ and ‘TV turn-off week’ are a two of the most famous campaigns run by Adbuster aimed at reducing consumerism ( The campaigns explore society, and ways to improve it. The Media Carta ( is an Ad Buster manifesto fighting for people to the reclaim their mental environment, stating problems with society and the mental over consumption of advertising and design.

Adbusters have recognised the negative impact that design has on society and have and will continue to work against it. By launching a campaign to help people reclaim their minds from advertising and over-designed products, by doing so we not only reject design but we reject consumerism, which is a route to sustainability.

Adbusters are clearly working in a ‘social model’ as they are focused on the user being not harmed through designers being advocates of consumerism. By using culture jamming, Adbusters are acting out their ethical views of what society should be like. They are actively getting into society and making change to reverse the effects of consumerism, getting people to question the effects that consumerism has had on them or in other words, what impact designers have had on them.

In conclusion, the ‘regulators’ have aimed at creating change through designers, and ‘aggressors’ have aimed to change society. Designers are a part of society and therefore are affected by both. Wikileaks and Adbusters have found appropriate media and outlet to stage their public display of ethics, initiating questions for society to ask of themselves and the action they should take. The regulators could learn how to become more challenging to the people it is aimed at, to stir opinions and create more of a presence to initiate questions of personal and societal values. Therefore the ‘aggressors’ offer the ‘regulators’ techniques that could potentially be used to create positive social change. Because without the ‘regulators’ developing their strategy to align themselves with ‘aggressors’, their rules become static, resulting in an un-changed society.

The next examples are described as tools of change because they are practical methods designers can implement in their day-to-day work to improve sustainability. Sustainable Minds (, promotes sustainability within the design process, integrating it in the process from start to finish. Sustainable minds is based on eco-design process, using ‘life cycle thinking’ to decrease the environmental impact of a design early on in its creation. The ‘life cycle thinking’ is a measure of a products aesthetic value and its environmental value, considering its production methods and its disposal methods. Sustainable Minds in Australia have created Life Cycle Assement software that will assess a projects environmental impact, they have recently targeted designers, manufactures, schools and sustainability consultancies to use the software. This has the potential to be implemented throughout the design industry and other industries to increase sustainability throughout the world. The industry, therefore, has been given the opportunity to be able to predict their societal and environmental impact of their work, using the life cycle assessment Software.

The design with intent toolkit
The design with intent toolkit (www.architectures.danlocktoncouk/2009/04/06/the-design-with-intent-toolkit/) is a method for designers to influence consumer behaviour and is therefore is similar to Adbusters using culture jamming to influence consumers. The toolkit focuses on designers becoming culturally aware and embracing it to help solve societal issues. Offering advice to wide range of design disciplines as a guide to behavioural design. Proposing questions to help designer’s make better decisions on designs and producers to help achieve the desired intention of their design. It is a method of educating designers, asking them to position themselves on the scale of sustainability (

The life cycle assessment software is good for making a social change, because it is a practical way to integrate sustainability into existing companies and agencies. Therefore it much improves the level of world’s sustainability, and once more people have integrated it into their company, others will follow. However, It could not only improve the sustainability of design agencies but could be used across all disciplines for example, In product design the product could be accurately assessed as to the products environmental and ecological impact. The software could deem the design or product to be unsustainable, but because the designer has used the software before production, the designer then has the opportunity to change the design to build more sustainable product. Whereas the design with intent toolkit requires the designer to pick up and question the product or design through a set out list of questions, initiating the analysis of the design in terms of its sustainability or social responsibility, in this way it is similar to Slow design, asking deep design questions that directly affect the user and the intention of the design. Thus improving the designs consideration towards society and the impact it would have.

Although both give designers practical tools to integrate sustainability into design and are active in their approach to affect change, learning how to be more forward when inviting designers to use these practical tools could be learnt through applying ‘regulator’ and ‘aggressor’ techniques. For instance, the ‘aggressors’ are subversive in the way that they express their ethical views on society, but if ‘tools’ were to take the same stance and use culture jamming aimed solely at designers, it could show designers alternative ways at looking at projects and designs. As well as how designers should integrate ‘tools’ into the industry, affecting both designers and society and initiating deep transformative social change.

Therefore when analysing the tools proposed by different organisations, it is clear that educating designers through making them question their actions is a key point of making change. By educating designers about the impact that they have on society and the environment they can become more socially responsible.

So far we have ‘regulators’ who have a developed set of rules on how to make the industry and the world focus more on sustainability, ‘aggressors’ offering ways to make that change happen and have ‘tools’ giving designers practical advice on how to push those rules forwards intro positive transformative social change.

‘Education’ tools are organisations or groups that have focused on educating designers to improve the sustainability of the design industry. They believe that through education a designer can make more socially responsible decisions resulting in improved sustainability within society. Therefore education tools for designers and society are necessary in social change. Impact: Design for social Change (, is a six-week intensive workshop that focuses on social entrepreneurship, teaching design students “how to conceive, execute and fund their own projects for social change” (; It is of the same level of education as graduate studies and encourages the students to pursue design activism in the future. The organisation is a non profit run program indicating non-client based briefs and a wider choice of design disciplines to pursue ( They have provided lists of books, websites, and projects that students complete during this six-week course. The aim is to empower students and designers to not only create positive social change but to create concepts and ideas for change and learn how to gain funding. The overall concept of this course is to encourage design students not become advocates of consumerism, but to be aware of societal issues and learn how they can improve them using their design skill (

AED (, are focused on the designer growing and changing with the user to benefit the user, and therefore their aim is to support designers in becoming “advocates for change” (, arguing that it should be the industry’s goal to “expand the definition of design from style to solution” ( And “champion the strategic value of design in creating positive social change” ( They focus on helping groups all over the world improve their own communities through design and education. Thus educating designers and consumers about issues of sustainability, can improve the way in which social change is created to combat our current over-consumption problem.

Focusing on education for design students before they reach the industry could vastly improve the design students’ outlook on design’s responsibility to society. For instance, Lasn (cited in McCarron, 2000, p116) presents that educators are and should be using the First Things First manifesto as a discussion point in schools and universities to spark interest in searching for improved design practices. This would teach them that there is design beyond advertising and marketing, and that design can help solve some of the world’s societal issues. This would give students an insight into the application of the ‘social model’ in design and how to apply it to the design process, which in turn could result in establishing sustainable thinking as part of the design process, ensuring consideration for both the user and the environment.

In much the same way, educative tools could empower designers who are already in the industry to think about social responsibility and the impact that they have on society. Educating designers in the issues surrounding sustainability and social responsibility will assist them to make design decisions that are better for the environment and society. Such education would give designers the space and opportunity to form their own opinions and values. Overall, this could lead to a big change towards sustainability within the design industry, which in turn could lead to a change towards sustainability in society.

This chapter has shown that designers can become catalysts of social change when applying the various methods and techniques observed. They have demonstrated the truth in the claim of The Living Principles that,

Design is a powerful conduit for change. As the messages, artefacts and experiences we create pass through the hands, minds, and hearts of people, we have an opportunity to weave sustainability into the broader fabric of culture and to shift consumption and lifestyle aspirations to a more sustainable basis for living.” (

However, analysis of the case studies has also revealed that there is potential to increase the effectiveness of designer’s ability to create change, through design education and an increased awareness of societal issues.

Similarly, this chapter has also suggested that in order to improve the effectiveness of designers’ social entrepreneurship, a collaboration of the of ‘tools for change’, namely ‘regulators’, ‘aggressors’, ‘tools’ and ‘education’ would result in a more long lasting change. The case studies have revealed how these different elements of change have the potential to work together. ‘Education’ is what informs opinions and ideas, ‘regulators’ are those that steer the industry, but without ‘aggressors’ and ‘tools’ to implement the ‘education’ and rules, both are ineffective. In conclusion, therefore, in order to create long lasting social change, a collaboration between these four tools would be the most effective route, and therefore for a designer to become a catalyst of social change they must also learn to merge the four tools of change alongside harnessing the ‘social model’ to ensure a sustainable future.

This post has argued that there is a need for designers to become catalysts of social change. The attempts of those designers who have already set out to create positive social change have been analysed, and suggestions of how the effectiveness of such projects could be improved have been made. This paper discusses the definition of design, sustainability, consumerism and the role that design has played in creating consumerism. The potential of collaboration between design activism principles and the ‘social model’ to create a more effective positive social change has been indicated. Whilst this paper explored the possibilities of solving the increasing level of over-consumption through promoting an increased level of sustainability, a complete solution has not been produced, due to the magnitude of the subject matter. Therefore, the conclusion of this paper will offer advice on what now needs to be investigated to further the concepts that have been developed through this paper. The world cannot sustain our current level of consumption; our world resources are going to run out if we do not change. We need to change our behaviour so that the world can replenish and sustain us. Consequently, designers and the design industry have a responsibility to reduce consumerism and improve the integration of sustainability into the industry and society as a whole. The nature of design work is such that it encourages consumer behaviour, with designers producing designs in order to sell products to consumers for the client. For this to change, so that this environmentally harmful level of consumption can be reduced, designers need to re-align whom the design is for and what the designs is intended to do.

One of the proposed solutions to re-align the purpose of design is to couple design activism with the ‘social model’. It has been demonstrated that design activism and the ‘social model’ have the desired tools to be able to change designers from simply selling products through design for clients, to improving people’s lives within society, since both the ‘social model’ and the design activism principles are focused on improving human life and the world’s environment. Furthermore, it has been observed that implementing design activism principles could lead to a re-alignment of the design industry as it would place the user as the key in all designs, firmly placing them at the heart of the design process. This re-alignment of focus within the industry would empower the user to create their own design solutions and allow them to create their own set of values, which ultimately will enable them to create end results that completely fulfil their needs and consequently make changes for the better within society.

The case studies in this paper offered a real vision of what people are already trying to do to create social change. By investigating and comparing how four different types of cases have attempted to create social change, this paper has demonstrated how widely differing projects and organisations have accomplished some success, as well as highlighted how existing attempts can be improved to realise a much needed, long lasting and improved way of creating social change.

It has been highlighted that different groups or projects have proposed toolkits, strategies and production methods to effect change within society, but that sometimes they have not been fully promoted or enforced. For example, organisations have tried to push regulations on the way that designs are produced and to improve the ethics within the design. However, pushing rules without advice on implementation has left designers unable to fully embrace the regulations that could improve the design industry. Thus, this paper proposes that regulators make better use of toolkits and practical design methods, which could aid and educate designers in how to embrace the ethos of the regulations. While the regulators in design have not completely failed, as they have some industry presence, they have underdeveloped methods to promote and apply these regulations to the industry. There are too many regulators, for example, with slightly differing ideals for the industry to focus on, which is not particularly effective. It would be better for there to be a combination of ethics that all regulators use and agree to, leading to increased harmony across the industry, and consequently a higher awareness amongst designers of the regulators and the ideals they promote. Similarly, a combination of all four tools of change; ‘regulators’, ‘aggressors’, ‘tools’ and ‘education’ could offer the industry and society a much more effective way to create positive social change. Such a combination of these tools we could obtain the advantages of each, enabling a much more effective method of social change.

Whilst a combination of the tools for change undoubtedly offer the industry a route to make positive change, perhaps the main focus of this paper’s findings are the two themes that run through both. The first of these is the importance of the users’ ability to form their own values, rather than being sold them by designers for clients. This requires a step towards user empowerment through information and education, and would result in the user being more likely to participate in creating change that benefits them and their environment. The second is the need for people to question the things around them in a more critical manner, such as questioning the impact of design, designers and the products sold by design on individuals, society and the environment. This would require extending education; both educating people on sustainability issues as well as giving them practical methods to implement changes once they have understood that changes are required. Therefore teaching people how to ask the right questions is one practical way of integrating sustainability into design.

The design industry should concentrate on combating sustainability and over-consumption through considered design. Using education, the industry could potentially imbed sustainability into its practice, ensuring its designers think and act sustainably. For those who are already within the industry, a re-education of sustainability through workshops could be offered, along with toolkits and practical design methods, helping to move sustainability into the forefront of design.

In order to expand the conclusions of this paper, an increased amount of research needs to be carried out in order to arrive at a complete solution. An investigation into the possibilities of institutional integration of sustainability and ‘regulators’ needs to be implemented, as well as in-depth analysis of designers’ current action towards increased sustainability within their work and agencies. Research into the development of workshops which could be used within the industry, studios, agencies and educational institutions to increase awareness about the discussed issues needs to be extended, in order to focus the industry as a whole towards sustainability, and ultimately to combat over-consumption and resource depletion.

The design industry can either persist with current design practice, advocating consumerism and creating a bigger depletion of resources, or it can join the designers that are already fighting for change. The design industry can craft changes though implementing a combined solution of design activism principles and the ‘social model’ and/or through concentrating on the rules that ‘regulators’ have put forward as their vision of the industry, with the combined help of ‘aggressors’, ‘tools’ and ‘education’ into a complete toolkit allowing designers to become catalysts of social change.


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