Existing political, economical, ecological and even social structures are widely questioned. … As a consequence design can no longer only be defined by just technical performance, aesthetics, or creativity. …

Dennis Elbers, London Calling, Dee, Issue 3, 2014

It is still quite rare to see a design exhibition in a museum. But thanks to Dennis Elbers and Sven Ehmann’s initiative, and the sensitive approach to design of Nadine Clemens, the president of Design Friends Luxembourg, it is now possible to see Resolute–Design Changes exhibition at the Casino Luxembourg–Forum d’art contemporain. The projects presented in Resolute and Postscript Luxembourg give us insight into how socially responsible designers approach social problems and how they try to solve them on a bigger scale. What’s interesting is that these designers always work in, with and for a community. Their work is no longer just about staging provocations; it is about involvement and finding solution.

Design for Social Innovation applies the abilities of talented individuals to collective creativity and to the transformation of complex systems at great scale. In this new role, the designer’s practice takes place not in private studio but inside an organisation or community. It the invisible dynamics of individuals and their relationship with each other instead of material resources. Its method and value are in collective participation and creativity that engage organisations in finding solutions that work for them.

Cheryl Heller, The Social Innovation Revolution

An interest in social matters has become a hot topic in the world of design. Dutch design, for example, aims to make an impact on a society rather than show off strong visual concepts. With Works That Work, Peter Bil’ak, a Slovakian graphic and typeface designer based now in The Hague, quietly revolts against the usual magazine publishing models and promotes design that happens in most unexpected places and circumstances. Alice Rawsthorn in Hello World casts light on the new challenges we all face when it comes to solving delicate social issues using design systems. In her book she showcases fantastic examples of projects concerned with communities. Everyday Rebellion documents social movements that speak up against inequality, injustice and fraud. And, last but not least, the V&A curators have recently shown Disobedient Objects, an exhibition which explores the role such objects play in grassroots movements.

Conclusion? Designers and people involved in design fight to be sustainable; they put their efforts in growing something, often intangible, rather than creating objects that you can buy and throw away when obsolete.

Look and See

To observe, you must learn to separate situation from interpretation, yourself from what you’re seeing. (…)

Choosing wisely means being selective. It means not only looking but looking properly with real thought. It means looking with a real knowledge that what you note – and how you note it – will form the basis of any future deductions you might make. It’s about seeing the full picture, noting the details that matter, and understanding how to contextualize those details within a broader framework of thought. (…)

Mastermind: How to Think Like Sherlock Holmes by Maria Konnikova

The power we have as designers is that we are generalists. Designers have the ability to see systems and patterns.

Cheryl Heller

Designers need to make connections and see the overall picture. When you’re able to assess information and anticipate future impacts, objectively, you can see and understand the whole picture.

Maggie Macnab

So much more than just a buzzword?

Maria Popova  in an interview for Steven Heller’s book Writing and Research said:

The design world, especially the ever-growing piece of it that deals with the intersection of design and business, or creativity and corporation, tends to reduce complex arguments and ideas to sound bites that can fit on a Powerpoint slide. (Okay, perhaps Keynote.) Over the past few years–or, some might even say, decades–words and terms that once stood for something have become vacant of meaning, thrown around as weightless fluff.

What is Design Thinking?

Creative thinking-in-action. 

A discipline that uses the designer’s sensibility and methods to match people’s needs with what is technologically feasible and what a viable business strategy can convert into customer value and market opportunity.

Design Thinking by Tim Brown, Harvard Business Review, June 2008  

A comfort zone where graphic metaphors are the basis for creating and co creating.

Visual Facilitation by Jane Cheng, ID PURE, issue No. 30 


Can designers design without thinking?

Do doctors feel the need to remind us that they think about health?

…As designers, we can stand at the intersection of creativity and enterprise; the place where thinking and knowing and creative leaps of faith are integrated.

Cheryl Heller 

Whether or not I like the buzzwords, they have strategic muscle. I have long been suspicious of the term ‘design thinking’, believing that all designers think, so to separate it from quotidian matters is basically marketing-speak.

Writing and Research by Steven Heller 

Design Stinking? No, Design Thinking.

It lulls people into thinking they are being creative when they are not. It harbors procrastination and stereotypical thinking, substitutes process for real invention. It robs design of dimension by placing it solely in the world of the brain when design is much more than rational thinking – it is emotion and intuition and sensing and gut.

Cheryl Heller 

How Design Thinking happens?

The design process is best described metaphorically as a system of spaces rather than a predefined series of orderly steps. The spaces demarcate different sorts of related activities that together form the continuum of innovation.

Design Thinking by Tim Brown, Harvard Business Review, June 2008 

Unlike analytical thinking, design thinking is a creative process based around the “building up” of ideas. There are no judgments early on in design thinking. Outside the box thinking is encouraged in these early processes since this can often lead to creative solutions. 

Finally, since Edward de Bono is many designers hero, I thought the quote below might be a good ending, or a beginning…

Wasps chew up wood, mix it with their saliva and make it into a fine paste which dries into a material that is both lightweight and strong – paper. The common European wasp produces a very high-quality paper, and with it builds nests of great perfection. Within identical hexagonal cells, a huge workforce is raised to serve the queen and maintain the nest.

From Trials of Life (Home Making) by Sir David Attenborough 

Social Innovation, Communication and Language

Seventy-nine Short Essays on Design is a selection of essays written by Michael Bierut for his blog They’re inspiring and stimulating and, definitely, worth taking a closer look at. It is a great source of information not just about design but also about history, politics, sociology, art, architecture, literature, you name it. The book was designed by Abbot Miller. The fact that each essay is set in a different typeface is intriguing and gives the book a special flavour.

Number 2 Why designers can’t think is set in Atma Serif by Alan Green (

The following fragment is particularly interesting:

Nowadays, the passion of design educators seems to be technology; they fear that computer illiteracy will handicap their graduates. But it’s the broader kind of illiteracy that’s more profoundly troubling. Until educators find a way to expose their students to a meaningful range of culture, graduates will continue to speak in languages that only their classmates understand. And designers, more and more, will end up talking to themselves.

Seventy-nine Short Essays on Design by Michael Bierut

Now, the perfect answer to this problem would be Cheryl Heller and her MFA Design for Social Innovation programme at SVA in New York
Cheryl Heller is a communication strategist, she’s a founder of Heller Communication Design and a board member of the PopTech global innovation network.

The following text is a fragment of Cheryl Heller’s lecture that took place in March 2011 at MCU School of Design in Pittsburg.

The lecture Language, Design and Social Innovation is a part of a series of lectures titled How do you design the future?

In human society COMMUNICATION plays an enormous role because we talk all the time, we’ve become communication freaks, everybody has a platform, everybody is a platform, everybody uses multiple devices, everybody is an author, and we have limitless ways for people to be heard but we don’t hear each other and we don’t listen. So, if you imagine, if the communication plays the same role in our society as it does in nature, where it would connect ecosystems and high rockies and create shared ethics, and trigger congruence between Fractions and Truth and Power and Justice and Political Boundaries, …, but this is what our language does, we label everything and then we separate and then we create silos, and even beyond the labels we have labels above the labels, we abbreviate them through acronyms, to make them double (in) meaningless. So, in a service of efficiency we’re murdering language (…) Language creates silos that are artificial boundaries. We do it with everything and it impacts the way we see and the way we touch the world. So, silos between countries, between rich and poor, between generations, between liberal and conservative, between executives and workers, … we have the truth of science, the truth of politics, the truth of religions, and, I hardly need to say that they don’t align. We created this notion of environment that is separated from us and we judge people and we put them in separate categories, and, language creates experts (…)

Language creates war (…)

Language, Design and Social Innovation by Cheryl Heller

The text that follows are the fragments of Margaret Mead’s Warfare is only an invention – not a biological necessity ASIA, XL (1940).

(…) One may hold a sort of compromise position between these two extremes; one may claim that all aggression springs from the frustration of man’s biologically determined drives and that, since all forms of culture are frustrating, it is certain each new generation will be aggressive and the aggression will find its natural and inevitable expression in race war, class war, nationalistic war, and so on. All three of these positions are very popular today among those who think seriously about the problems of war and its possible prevention, but I wish to urge another point of view, less defeatist, perhaps, than the first and third and more accurate than the second: that is, that warfare, by which I mean recognised conflict between two groups as groups, in which each group puts an army (even if the army is only fifteen pygmies) into the field to fight and kill, if possible, some of the members of the army of the other group – that warfare of this sort is an invention like any other of the inventions in terms of which we order our lives, such as writing, marriage, cooking our food instead of eating it raw, trial by jury, or burial of the dead, and so on.Some of this list anyone will grant are inventions: trial by jury is confined to very limited portions of the globe; we know that there are tribes that do not bury their dead but instead expose or cremate them; and we know that only part of the human race has had the knowledge of writing as its cultural inheritance. But, whenever a way of doing things is found universally, such as the use of fire or the practice of some form of marriage, we tend to think at once that it is not an invention at all but an attribute of humanity itself. And yet even such universals as marriage and the use of fire are inventions like the rest, very basic ones, inventions which were, perhaps, necessary if human history was to take the turn that it has taken, but nevertheless inventions. At some point in his social development man was undoubtedly without the institution of marriage or the knowledge of the use of fire. (…)

If people have an idea of going to war and the idea that war is the way in which certain situations, defined within their society, are to be handled, they will sometimes go to war. (…)

(…) The people must recognise the defects of the old invention, and someone must make a new one. Propaganda against warfare, documentation of its terrible cost in human suffering and social waste, these prepare the ground by teaching people to feel that warfare is a defective social institution. There is further needed a belief that social invention is possible and the invention of new methods which will render warfare as out of date as the tractor is making the plough, or the motor car the horse and buggy. A form of behaviour becomes out of date only when something else takes its place, and, in order to invent forms of behaviour which will make war obsolete, it is a first requirement to believe that an invention is possible.

COMMUNICATION DESIGN now is all about content and artifacts created to inform, gain support and educate. COMMUNICATION DESIGN presents the systems with data visualisation, but remains the representation of the systems and doesn’t change them.

COMMUNICATION DESIGN = silo, content, artifacts

DESIGN COMMUNICATION = designing a system of communication

Nature is communicating life saving information, truthful and relevant and we’re not communicating the things we need to know. (…) Social innovation needs design. (…) Designers have the ability to see systems and patterns, and, really, the capacity to be integrators (…)

View a language as a connector not just a way to express yourself.

Language, Design and Social Innovation byCheryl Heller

CHAP. III. 1. Tsze-lu said, ‘The ruler of Wei has been waiting for you, in order to administer the government. What will you consider the first thing to be done?’ 2. The Master replied,’What is necessary is to rectify names.’ 3. ‘So, indeed! said Tsze-lu ‘You are wide of the mark! Why must there be such rectification?’ 4. The Master said, ‘How uncultivated you are, Yu! A superior man, in regard to what he does not know, shows a cautious reserve. 5. ‘If names be not correct, language is not in accordance with the truth of things. If language be not in accordance with the truth of things, affairs cannot be carried on to success. 6. ‘When affairs cannot be carried on to success, proprieties and music will not flourish. When proprieties and music do not flourish, punishments will not be properly awarded. When punishments are not properly awarded, the people do not know how to move hand or foot.

From The Analects of Confucius

By Confucius

Translated by James Legge