Always in design mode

I recently finished reading Ezio Manzini’s Design, When Everybody Designs: An Introduction to Design for Social InnovationIn it, he puts forward an abstract description of the “design mode” as a combination of three things: a critical sense turned on reality, a creativity to posit a new state of affairs, and practical sense of what it takes to turn the current state into a new one. He contrasts this with a “conventional mode” that sticks with reality as it currently exists.

In this sense, everybody designs. From everyday choices about what to have for breakfast or how to celebrate your birthday, to the more complex designs of websites, clothes, buildings, public services, jet engines, business models, systems of governance. Design is a universal human activity, like storytelling or putting things in categories.

What makes some designing more complex (and more likely to involve professional training) is a function of several factors:

  • amount of space and time the design output occupies (three-dimensional objects v. flat graphic designs; objects that must last v. those that are term-limited; etc.);
  • number and diversity of users (easier to write an email to one person than a similarly impactful newsletter to a thousand; easier to design a service for a homogenous group than for a mixed community with various needs; etc.);
  • ability to keep others from interfering with the design (i.e. co-design is always tough);
  • degree of uncertainty involved (harder to design when there are unkowns);
  • amount of meaning invested in the output.

This is a bit of a caricature, but as an illustration of the principle: the simplest design task is something with two dimensions and no expectation of longevity, for yourself alone, with no uncertainty, and that has no meaning. What fits that bill? A doodle in the margins of your notebook. At the other end of the spectrum, the most complex design task is something that covers a lot of space, must last in time, serves a large and diverse group, must be co-designed with them, in the face of unknowns, and where the output has significant meaning. In other words: social and governance systems.

Though not quite put in those terms, this idea is at the center of Design, When Everybody Designs. Manzini is the founder of DESIS, an international network of university-based design labs promoting sustainability; however, he makes clear that “design for social innovation” is not strictly about design for positive social impact. Rather, he’s interested in a broader view of design for new ways that groups of people work or cooperate together. He’s also more interested in informal or small-scale social systems, rather than the formality of governance. His examples range from a collaborative housing program in Milan to a food cooperative in Brooklyn to a storytelling project in south India. Each provides a different view on how individuals have approached their relationships to one another with intentionality and leveraged technology, space, services, or just social norms to shift those relationships.

The challenge of design for social innovation is captured in the factors of design complexity listed above (which are more my own inference than a checklist provided by Manzini). The book uses a core distinction between “expert design” (by those trained in formal design methods) and “diffuse design” (by everybody)—arguing that cultural and technological shifts have made diffuse design common, thereby shifting the role of experts. Notably, the lack of control that the “expert designer” has and the number of uncertainties present in design for social innovation require greater attention to designing coalitions, programs, and frameworks within which design projects can take place. The projects then serve to test and advance the broader frameworks.

The book introduces a number of interesting distinctions and nuances for thinking about how design interfaces with social innovation. One bit I appreciated was the call for a middle-path between two extremes: “big-ego design” on one end, where design is thought to be the imprint of an especially talented person on the world (perhaps seen most clearly in architecture or fashion); and “post-it design” on the other, where the expert designer is reduced to a process facilitator or administrator, merely capturing the ideas of a co-design process.

These sorts of distinctions can provide reflection points for your own practice, whatever that may be, whether you’re an “expert designer” or simply someone who approaches their life and impact on the world with intentionality. However, given that these are reflection points, this book is not so much the introduction promised in the subtitle, but rather an elaboration on the thinking and values behind design for social innovation. That’s more valuable to someone already familiar with it, rather than to someone completely new: imagine you’re being walked through a city you’ve visited before, now accompanied by an expert local guide who points out how each piece fits together and describes the history of the neighborhood; the nuance would be less meaningful, and perhaps even overwhelming, if it were your first time there.

At times, the book struggles with its own abstractions. Manzini is philosophical about the role of design in human history and its potential for our collective future. He has a tendency to glide over the top of practical concerns. Concrete examples are used throughout, but ineffectively. I often got the impression that he was describing an example based on what others had written about it. Many examples felt disconnected from his analysis, and a skeptical reader is left unconvinced of their real-world impact. That ultimately weakened his overall narrative.

The book’s tendency toward abstraction and big picture concerns reminded me of how many professionals try to apply their crafts to the higher order questions, beyond the issues on which their tools were forged. There’s some logic to this: particular disciplines can only be created around narrow scopes, leaving a no-man’s land between them; that’s also the space where society’s biggest challenges lie. We need all of those disciplines—design, and also economics, and politics, and technology, and ecology, agriculture, anthropology, and more—to shape our broader progress through history.

Disclaimer: The MIT Press was gracious enough to provide me with a review copy of Manzini’s book.