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Defining Socially Responsive design

“Socially responsive design takes as its primary driver social issues, its main consideration social impact, and its main objective social change”

Designers rarely have the power or independence to be entirely ‘responsible’ in terms of the designs they deliver to market or industry. So DACRC uses the phrase ‘socially responSIVE design’ to explain what we actually do when responding to ethical issues by design. Socially responsive design approaches to non-crime themes are led by Adam Thorpe, co-founder of the socially responsive design company, Vexed Generation, and Co-Director of DACRC, who is currently working on:

White Sound: An Urban Seascape at Wellcome Collection

Walk Ride Camden health project with LB Camden

• Knowledge Transfer Partnership (KTP) with Luta/ Fight for Peace

• DESIS Network’s 2012 Public and Collaborative Thematic Cluster action research project brief


Designing against crime involves delivering responsive design for social change in diverse ways. Often participatory processes involving many stakeholders and dutyholders, as well as users, are applied by our project teams to create design briefs that are ‘fit for purpose’ and appropriate to stakeholder needs according to context. Our responsiveness doesn’t stop with co-created design briefs. Whilst ‘designers’ deliver our actual designed outputs, we iterate our prototypes with experts and other stakeholders, and then subject our designs to user and abuser real world testing. We also subject our work to critical and independent evaluation, where opportunities exist and funding permits. Evaluation tests design efficacy, and has helped our team to understand what works and what doesn’t and to ensure our designs against crime deliver according to stakeholder requirements and need.

DACRC have used the phrase ‘socially responsive design’ to explain how our design approach takes social issues (crime, health or ageing for example) as our primary drivers, social impact as one of our main considerations and social change (we are driven by a change agenda) delivered through objects, systems or services in which deflection or prevention of crime is integrated within the designed functionality, as our ultimate aim and objective. For example, we may seek to tackle and address bike theft through the design of a bike stand, but this anti-theft functionality is integrated within a design that provides convenient and attractive cycle storage to cyclists. More broadly, an address to cycle theft serves not just to reduce crime but to promote cycling and the health, environment and economic benefits it provides. Our team avoid myopic approaches that fail to acknowledge the ‘broader picture’ when addressing a single social issue, and so deliver designs that address what we call ‘multiple drivers’.

DAC does not easily fall within Victor Papanek’s definition of socially responsible design, due to our objective engagement with the marketplace as a tool for social change. According to Papanek’s definitions, DAC’s practice is not socially ‘responsible’, and thus may be better defined, as Gamman and Thorpe have explained at length, as a market interventionist socially responSIVE design approach, what we call SRvD. Our qualified definition includes the understanding that:

• Products designed are ethically motivated; our dominant focus is led by society/rather than the market which represents only one sector of the society it purports to serve.

• Designers use social scenarios to catalyse design of original objects that make a positive contribution to society either through the nature of their usage or the awareness they generate for the ethical issues they address.

• Designers use design of products, and their delivery to market, to catalyse social change.

• Market interventionist. Designs seek to objectify and commodify ethical/ social issues to catalyse market acceptance and thereby facilitate social acceptance and social change.

• Designers use social research and social scenarios to inform innovation and create economic opportunity.

• Socially responsive design “informs, reforms, and gives form” (Victor Papanek, The Green Imperative, 1995), but also performs. It is the performative element of DACRC’s approach to SRvD that challenges Papanek’s negative account of a design profession that “performs simply to conform, deform and misinform”. We believe our practice delivers socially useful design without deforming or misinforming, linked to our change agenda, as well as our design professionalism.

• DAC in delivering SRvD combines social imperatives with commercial imperatives in an attempt to harness consumerism to facilitate positive social change.

Clearly our definition of SRvD has much in common with socially useful design in which the consumerist criterion of profitability is rejected in favour of social usefulness (Nigel Whitely, Design for Society, 1993). Though our definition of SRvD does not deny economic profitability to be beneficial, our motivation is different to that of market-led design, as we aim to serve social need over market needs but acknowledge that to do so economic sustainability is required. We also believe our models of the design process, the approach we use to deliver SRvD, pioneered through practice whilst designing against crime, are transferable to other social themes, as well as ethically led agendas.

For more information about SRvD please contact Adam Thorpe at: