The overlooked social transformation potential of design

By Lynne Elvins

This post outlines and recognises the historical developments that have led to the predominant framing of design as being a commercial tool of consumer manipulation. But it invites a reframing of design as having positive potential as an experimental research technique to create new worlds, in a similar way that art practice is embraced. This is supported by looking beyond commercial design projects to those within ‘new social design’, a body of practice that also has a traceable development in design history, but one that is overlooked.

02. Lynne blog-image-design(Photo author’s own.)

I have come to this MSc in Human Geography as someone who has spent the previous twenty years working in the design industry. Afterwards I intend to continue working with design practitioners and those organisations, often commercial businesses, that commission design projects. So, why would I study human geography over the range of subjects that directly focus on design thinking, brand strategy or design research? The issues of ‘society and space’ are directly relevant to the practice of design, because designers hold a vital set of knowledge and skills that shapes spaces and influences society. Design is all about connecting with people and influencing their movements, behaviours and attitudes. Designers make ideas tangible, whether it is in the form of physical objects (industrial product design), visual communications of branded companies (graphic design), or interactive digital services (user experience ‘UX’ design). With iPhones that fit intuitively in the palm of a hand, Starbucks coffee shops that are reassuringly familiar across the globe, or apps for companies like Uber that did not even exist just a few years ago, modernity immerses us in a highly-complex network of designed objects, brand messages and other ‘touchpoints’ every day.

Human geography is a subject that considers the interconnections between the environment, social justice and globalization processes among others. It can be critical of design rather than a natural ally, and the three company names mentioned above were selected specifically to serve as examples of why. In the service of businesses, design becomes intertwined with the dominant corporate, Western, globalised world of sales, advertising and marketing in the pursuit of profits. It is totally and inseparably integrated, ‘overcoded’, with capitalism, and therefore the role of design is easily framed as only serving to drive consumer-culture, unnecessary production, waste and economic inequality. Branding in particular, as a method to differentiate products and services from their competitors, is a tool for brand owners to economically exploit luxury niches or expanding markets in ways that reproduce “economic and social inequalities over space and through time” (Pike 2009, p620). Design can also be viewed as fake or inauthentic, with examples such as the highly designed environments of ‘casino cities’ being “branded as spaces of total happiness” despite facilitating the potentially destructive nature of gambling and being located immediately next to areas of great poverty and despair (Mansvelt 2010, p227). In short, design is often a problem, not a potential solution.

This profile of design and branding has been supported by exposé publications including Naomi Klein’s 1999 anti-brand book No Logo and magazine publications such as Adbusters, which promote the activities and principles of anti-consumerism movements (Kozinet 2004). These support an oppositional and resistant stance as a route to change. Brands and businesses become targets of campaigns and boycotts, such as the anti-Nike campaign in the 1990s, and commercial design practice becomes complicit as an enemy. This is a side of design practice that I recognise. Design agencies are often commissioned by commercial companies with the main aim of increasing sales for goods that expand unsustainable uses of resources supported by shareholder models based on profit. Representatives of the design industry, such as the UK Design Council and the Design Business Association, support such ‘return on investment’ calculations. The roots of design lie in the rise of capitalism and the industrial revolution, when workers were drawn into cities for factory-line production that fragmented the making process into separate stages for large-scale repetition. This type of process requires a product designer, and so design became an early-stage component of the overall manufacturing process that is very different from the self-sufficient skills of country-craftsmen. In historical parallel, the development of printing made posters accessible and affordable, allowing any business wanting to sell its products, including the unscrupulous, the ability to promote and advertise. This led to the demand of what became graphic design services. Fast-forward to the 21st Century, and TV programmes like Mad Men, the highly successful drama series based on the development of the 1960s advertising industry when major brands were first created, depicts the ruthlessness, lies and the selling of fabricated image over fact that is the generally-held perception of the advertising and design industries. From a philosophical position, Deleuze and Guattari confirmed this hostile view when they saw that the language and methods of creativity and concepts were being co-opted by “inane rivals” in ways that replaced critique with sales promotion:

[T]he most shameful moment came when computer science, marketing, design, and advertising, all the disciplines of communication, seized hold of the word concept itself and said: ‘This is our concern, we are the creative ones, we are the ideas men!’ (Quoted in Brassett 2015, p44)

Core to Deleuze and Guattari’s work was an interest in art and certain types of artists, particularly those, such as Dadaists and Marcel Duchamp, whose conceptual approaches to art disrupted existing orders and provoked new thinking. Design is dismissed for being complicit with capitalism, but art is positioned as a central domain of thought alongside science and philosophy. Art is situated as free from capitalism, and its role of creating percepts and affects, where artists strive to resonate with an audience in ways that manage to touch deeply held and elusive blocs of sensations and understandings that we otherwise struggle to communicate and yet somehow instinctively recognise, allows art to be transformative, experimental and inspirational with the ability to propose new worlds.

The business application of design for sales might well be positioned as one-dimensional in comparison, but the best designers are also familiar with using shape, colour, words and symbols to resonate at an unconscious level. And, as well as being put to work as a commercial sales tool that can be boycotted, design also has other sides to it, beyond the shackles of capitalism, that are similarly connected to art and experimentation; are not commercially driven; and can be deployed in resistance to capitalism as forms of design activism. And this collection of practices is not new. As Ilpo Koskinen pointed out at the 2016 conference of the Design Research Society “designers have been doing design that seeks to respond to social problems for over fifty years” (Koskinen 2016, p01).

As commercial examples that might parallel, yet counter, Apple, Starbucks and Uber’s use of design: Fairphone is the world’s first modular mobile phone designed to be repairable for long-term ownership; the profile of a social enterprise making apple juice from otherwise wasted garden apples was significantly boosted by award-winning branding; Bristol-based digital professionals designed an app for schools and parents to facilitate the organisation of walking-buses to school. More experimental uses of design are outlined by Koskinen as forms of ‘new social design’. Designers, like artists, are well placed to create props and prototypes to stimulate debate and challenge thinking. Designers can become facilitators of co-designing, using their organising processes of design alongside communities and users to develop participatory solutions for social care or sharing services. And design processes can be given to communities so that they can design their own prototypes to discuss, or solutions to trial. This approach is being used by international design agency IDEO in their School Retool programme, where design thinking methods are taught to Heads of schools and their teams of teachers to use with students. The aim is not improved efficiency or competitiveness, but to empower the school community to experiment and take more radical approaches to rethinking teaching environments so that students, with emphasis on improving education for the most disadvantaged, are put at the centre of the learning experience and given more opportunities to speak their minds.

With examples like these, it is time to extend the way in which we think about what design does and how it relates to the work of human geographers. Like art, design can be a multi-dimensional experimental research practice that can be led by designers interested in re-making the world, and by sharing their tools. Rather than dismissing design, we should ask, as Petra Hroch does in Deleuze and Design “what kind of design expresses both critiques and creative alternatives to problems such as ecological destruction and waste, economic disparity and collapse, and social inequality?” (Brassett 2015, p221). Design is already shaping and influencing our world. If it is overlooked, human geographers risk missing an important aspect of the societies and cities that they are seeking to understand.



BRASSETT, J. (2015). Deleuze and Design. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.

KOSKINEN, I. (2016). The Aesthetics of Action in New Social Design. Design Research Society 50th Anniversary Conference Papers, Brighton, UK.

KOZINETS, R. (2004). Adversaries of Consumption: Consumer Movements, Activism, and Ideology. Journal of Consumer Research Vol 31(3) pp.691-704.

MANSVELT, J. (2010). Geographies of Consumption: Engaging with Absent Presences. Progress in Human Geography 34(2) pp.224–233.

PIKE, A. (2009). Geographies of Brand and Branding.  Progress in Human Geography 33(5) pp.619–645.

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