Design employs the language of problem solving and features a great deal of tools that encourage participation in solution generation, yet what problems get solved and what solutions are generated for whom are, too often, left untouched.
Yesterday I had a long conversation with a fellow health promotion designer that covered much ground, including the importance of making social justice as a focus for our work explicit. That is what makes us health promoters different when it comes to approaching problems of design. Hours later, the tweet shown above appeared in my Twitter stream illustrating similar concern, but from a design students’ perspective.
A colleague of mine recently used the metaphor of teaching someone to swim from a book to illustrate the problems associated with addressing complex topics using theory alone. Indeed, even if Michael Phelps sat down and outlined every single thought, feeling and physical movement associated with swimming and put it to page, it would be of little use to someone who has never, ever been in the water and swam. However, if a person was a swimmer, some of the lessons on this hypothetical Book of Swimming could be useful. In other words, one needs to act in order to make sense of theory.
That is the key distinction. Social scientists refer to the concept of praxis, the fusing of theory and experienced action, as a way of addressing this gap between the idea of something and its realization.
So, I tried to do a kind of semantic clarification in which praxis—if not on the thither side of this divide—was perhaps somehow between the theoretical and the practical as they are generally understood, and particularly as they are understood in modern philosophy. Praxis as the manner in which we are engaged in the world and with others has its own insight or understanding prior to any explicit formulation of that understanding…Of course, it must be understood that praxis, as I understand it, is always entwined with communication. —Calvin O. Schrag. 
Design thinking and its potential applications to support social justice is readily apparent to someone with an imagination. The use of combined logical, emotional and abductive reasoning, participatory forms of knowledge generation, the attention to context, and the prototyping of ideas to ensure that what is communicated is heard are all highly consistent with an agenda more familiar to those who work in social justice initiatives and health promotion. Yet is social justice a part of the praxis of design? The above tweet suggests that some designers are questioning that.
The question I have is that has the social justice language been infused with action, or are designers simply talking and not doing?
Observing much of the work by prominent design firms such as IDEO and Bruce Mau Design would suggest that design and social justice are a good fit and that it is being practiced vigorously. Perhaps. But a closer look at a lot of the initiatives that focus on addressing social problems reveals a dearth of questioning about the systems in which these situations are produced. A recent example is the work of IDEO and their collaboration with the Acumen Fund looking at issues of water quality and safety in India.
“There is no silver bullet to the world water crisis. Addressing the crisis certainly is not simply a matter of better product design — we will need a range of options that accommodate for the myriad varying climatic, hydrological, terrestrial, and cultural dimensions of the problem,” noted Jonathan Greenblatt of Worldchanging.org. “New players like IDEO can offer highly useful lessons from the field of design that, when adapted to the water sector, could yield interesting results.” – From IDEO.
And indeed they have. In a webinar yesterday from Stanford’s Social Innovation Review, IDEO’s lead in that area, Joceleyn Watt, used this project as an example of ways to apply design thinking to social problems and how this approach led to a deeper understanding of why women in India were often not choosing water from a treatment plant over water from a polluted well. The answer had much to do with the design of the size of container of water that the treatment plant required the women to use (it was too big), the cumbersome hours the plant was open, and pricing models that required women to buy much more water than they needed each month.
From a designer’s perspective, this problem was addressed quite well. But from a perspective of social justice, it could be argued that much less was achieved. Did the process call into question why the treatment plant opted to use 5 gallon jugs (too big for women to carry) in the first place? Did it probe into the rationale for pricing models that clearly encouraged waste in a system that can ill-afford it? Were the power dynamics that were established when the treatment facility was created looked at in how it affected those people most likely to benefit from it? Although women provided insight into the problem, were they given opportunities to develop skills that would encourage them to address future problems without a designer on hand?
When IDEO and Acumen leave, the community may find itself facing new problems of the same nature, yet without the designers around, those problems may go unsolved.
The answer to some or all of these questions may be yes, but if so, it wasn’t apparent. My review of the design briefs and project reports of most social design projects suggest that “no” is the more likely response.
There is an opportunity for designers to make a bigger impact beyond the product. It follows what Jane Winhall writes on Core 77’s blog more than 5 years ago:
Designers must find new ways of working that enable them to apply their skills where they are most needed – to tackle problems such as chronic health care, climate change and an ageing population.
I would argue that this new way of working should consider a praxis focused on social justice as a vehicle for sustainability.