Designing for Social Change: Strategies for Community-Based Graphic Design

By Andrew Shea
Book Review by Lisa Handalian

This book got its start as author Andrew Shea’s masters thesis from the Maryland Institute College of Art, after he was unable to find social change/design toolkits specific to the graphic arts. Although the examples he provides are mainly visual in nature, Shea may actually be doing readers a disservice by highlighting graphic design as part of the title. To its credit, “Designing for Social Change” consists of more generalized and universally applicable observations that are well suited for design students of all disciplines, as well as less experienced professionals and researchers, volunteers and community organizers.

Shea has structured his toolkit around 10 strategies for engaging communities in co-designed solutions; he hasn’t come up with anything unfamiliar to more experienced designers, although he does package his proposed strategies in somewhat new ways. Enumerated handily on the book cover, each strategy is supported by two different case studies that illustrate the experiences of teams that “designed with, not for” their communities. Each of the examples is richly detailed and compelling, and he does a nice job of modeling key project milestones with building blocks: Project Details, Design Challenge, Engagement Strategy, Design Strategy, Outcomes, and Lessons Learned.

Listed below, all of the strategies are also outlined at the end of the book in a useful section containing bulleted summaries of chapter contents.

  1. Immerse yourself
  2. Build trust
  3. Promise only what you can deliver
  4. Prioritize process
  5. Confront controversy
  6. Identify the community’s strengths
  7. Utilize local resources
  8. Design with the community’s voice
  9. Give communities ownership
  10. Sustained engagement

While I accept many of his strategies and supporting points, I believe Shea misses an important opportunity by not scaffolding later strategies with earlier ones, or suggesting any progression or the concept of dependencies in the design lifecycle. As a design researcher, I cannot escape the expectation that a human-centered design path should begin with strategies like numbers six and seven – and even five – all of which advocate leveraging the strengths and resources of the local community, and identifying and approaching inherent obstacles. I don’t get the sense that Shea actually understands the need for upfront research as the precursor to strategies one and two (“immersion” and “trust building”).

I also found it a bit unfortunate that the only reference to “process” (four) contained few specifics, but provided nondescript design platitudes encouraging “transparency” and “researching solutions thoroughly” without explaining how. “Promising only what you can deliver” (three) is a great principle, but without including a few tactics, newer designers could easily come away with the sense that project management just happens. The case studies help illustrate the point to some extent, but some explicit suggestions or mention of how to handle scope creep, for example, would go far in elevating the guide’s effectiveness.

Concepts like “social design” and “designing for good” are definitely on everyone’s radar lately, and the very end of the book includes a set of recommendations for funding small to large projects. Shea summarizes useful insights about pro bono work and grant writing, and also mentions the names of a few non-profit design studios and non-profit branches of for-profit firms. I found myself looking up quite a few of his endnote references.

All in all, Andrew Shea has assembled an ambitious set of design principles that he supports with graphically rich case studies of their use in real life projects. He uses his own book at Parsons School of Design in New York— the ideal context for a book that has all the right ideas but needs additional input.

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