Book Excerpt: Designing with Society

Design is relatively a new discipline, its terminology dating back to the creation of tools and products that have influenced and shaped our world, and our humanity. Today, design is a practice that can solve some of the most complex social challenges around the world. Author Scott Boylston, graduate coordinator for the Design for Sustainability program at the Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD), presents a compelling perspective and important considerations for designers to build a sustainable future in his new book,Designing with Society: A Capabilities Approach to Design, Systems Thinking and Social Innovation. Read an excerpt from the book’s introduction below.


In times past, design had the luxury of stimulating and feeding the desires of the world without much ethical trepidation. In relation to the expansiveness of the natural world, humankind was small, with limited means to disrupt that expansiveness. These limits to ecological harm were accompanied by our general inability to see the negative human toll of our design decisions with our own eyes. Factories could be moved far enough away to keep the worst of both impacts out of our direct sight. But the scale of human progress over the last century has made it impossible to ignore either of these negative repercussions. The scale of our technologies is now so massive we can’t dismiss the damage they inflict anymore. In fact, we can’t even keep up with them. They generate dysfunctions at a scale and rate beyond our control. For decades, we’ve been designing denial as much as anything else, and systems in distress have become systems of distress. But designers can no longer hide from our complicity. Without adding depth and breadth that can transcend the detrimental repercussions of traditional growth and stimulate long-term, sustainable vitality, the traditional suite of design offerings is no longer fit for purpose in our highly interconnected world.  

Without adding depth and breadth that can transcend the detrimental repercussions of traditional growth and stimulate long-term, sustainable vitality, the traditional suite of design offerings is no longer fit for purpose in our highly interconnected world.  

So what would it look like for designers to contribute to virtuous cycles of growth rather than vicious ones? We need look no further than social innovation. Social innovation has been defined as “a process of developing and deploying effective solutions to challenging and often systemic social and environmental issues in support of social progress. It has also been defined as “a novel solution to a social problem that is more effective, efficient, sustainable, or just than existing solutions and for which the value created accrues primarily to society as a whole rather than private individuals. Both of these are suitable for the purposes of this book. Social innovation offers designers a chance to expand our creative skills to their full potential. The virtuous cycle of growth in question here is simply this: human capacity. While technological innovation asks the question, what human capacities can be enhanced by improving technological capabilities? social innovation cuts directly to the point by asking, what human capacities can be enhanced by improving human capabilities? And while empathy, connecting multiple perspectives, and an ambiguity for tolerance will always require some constraints in order to be effectively applied, developing them with an eye toward accrued value to society opens them up to an infinitely more humane and just form of practice. This is not an overly idealistic sentiment. The proposition to address matters of equity and ecological reciprocity in our work, far from being radical, is a call for the most modest of transformations. It simply proposes a shift in perspective that keeps pace with the evolution of human civilization and its interrelatedness with our planet’s life support systems. It’s only when inadequate adjustments in our worldviews are so dramatically outpaced by changes in reality that modest calls for change seem radical, when, in fact, the lag in response to those changes is the extreme perspective.  

The transformations designers can help facilitate exist both in our community of practice and in the paradigms that our final solutions perpetuate. As suggested by Transition Design proponents, such paradigm shifts require new visions for how we live, theories of change informed by the sciences, a mindset of openness, mindfulness and self-reflection, and new ways of designing that are both participatory and place-based, and transdisciplinary and strategically iterative. In order to remain fit for purpose in the 21st century, design must align itself with the best intentions of collective human flourishing. As one significant movement in the design field, Transition Design focuses on catalyzing future-oriented mindsets that acknowledge the need for societal transitions that transcend the blinkered perspectives of our present worldviews.  

SCAD Savannah, Winter 2017. Photography by Dylan Wilson

Fifty years ago, a framing of human learning emerged from management training circles around four stages of competence: unconscious incompetence; conscious incompetence; conscious competence; and unconscious competence. We all know these stages well because we’ve experienced them in our own lives. From a designer’s perspective, there was a time when we were too young to realize there were skills such as shading, perspective, and foreshortening. And we blissfully existed in a state of unconscious incompetence. At some point, we became aware of our tenuous drawing skills. For most of us, it occurred when we stepped into our first art class and sat next to people who could do things with their pencils we never imagined possible. These are painful moments and the intimidation we feel can prevent us from continuing in the pursuit of that skill. This is the conscious incompetence stage because our inability to do something has been thrust into our awareness. If we persist, we enter into the third stage of conscious competence. While we’ve developed a proficiency in sketching, we’ve only done so through deliberate and ongoing efforts. This stage can be a breaking point for many because we can easily justify abandoning the pursuit by pointing to our significant efforts even as improvements come slowly. Each gain comes at great effort. Only if we have the perseverance to stay the course do we find ourselves in the fourth stage of learning, called unconscious competence. In this stage our ability to sketch manifests itself in the moment seemingly without effort. 

These stages of learning can also be witnessed in cultural and professional contexts. From a cultural perspective, humankind has existed in a state of unconscious incompetence in ecological stewardship up until recently. We’ve historically obliterated nature without regard or regret. Over the last 50 years, a conscious incompetence triggered by the ill effects of pollution on human health has laid the groundwork for a growing conscious competence. Advancements in resource efficiency, dematerialization, waste management, and renewable energy continue to develop this competence. In matters of social justice, human civilization has been mired in an erratic third stage of conscious competence for thousands of years, alternately failing and succeeding in the most tragic fashion; from peaceful coexistence to ruthless carnage.  

From a professional perspective, design has just recently entered into the stage of conscious incompetence in matters of sustainability. While notable designers like Buckminster Fuller, Victor Papenek, and John Chris Jones shook us out of the first stage of unconscious incompetence, the knee-jerk rejection of that awareness still lingers in many circles. Despite that resistance, a more recent wave of design discourse has provided evidence of what an industry-wide conscious competence might look like. In the realm of social justice, design as a profession has barely entered into the second stage of conscious incompetence, with change agents like George Aye, co-founder of Greater Good Studio, highlighting designers’ lack of understanding of how power works as a dormant yet significant weakness in the emerging practice of design for social innovation. 

Yet, digging deeper, the fourth stage of learning for design and social innovation doesn’t seem to be a fully accurate reflection of the necessary elevation of awareness. The terminology of unconscious competence seems too contradictory for an ultimate goal. Rather than an absence of conscious effort, the final stage for competence in design for social innovation requires a shift toward deeper consciousness. While possessing an unconscious competence in the skills shared within this book is certainly important for designers to develop, there must be a corresponding increase in consciousness into what could be called a consciousness competence. Essential components of this consciousness include a responsiveness to new information, a celebration of diversity, and an insistence on human dignity. And inculcating an appreciation for systems thinking and social justice can provide pathways into that deeper consciousness. 

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