Designers Don't Always Have the Answers: Keeping Our Work Grounded in Communities

This post is part of a series from students in the Master of Arts in Social Design program at Maryland Institute College of Art, which focuses on how design can reimagine solutions to world challenges. Over eight weeks, MASD students are sharing their personal thesis journey. Follow the series at
If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.\n
–Henry Ford \n
We often hear this phrase used within the social design world as supporting evidence of a designer’s ingenuity above people’s self-articulated needs and desires. Of course, designers are makers: creative, solution-oriented problem solvers who can ideate beyond the conventional. But, what we see in the use of this quote is something else, something slightly uncomfortable, something that perpetuates a hierarchy of solution making and values. In a way, it implies that people don’t know what they want (or need), and we argue that this might be a dangerous attitude to have in making social change.
It is important to remember, as designers of social change, that people living in situations that we consider less than ideal are not deprived of the creativity to solve their own problems, likely only the power and resources to do so. It is essential that we remember how insightful, capable, and intelligent our stakeholders are. No matter the approach or methodology, our work should include, incorporate, and reflect the needs of those addressed—because isn’t that the point?
So, how can we avoid letting our good intentions become misguided in imposing projected solutions on communities, and instead use design to empower others? And, how do we form a consensus or set of expectations to ensure that our work is, in fact, as relevant, helpful, needed, wanted, and positively transformative as possible?
In an effort to begin tackling some of these complex issues within the foundations of social design, we have developed a tool (in the form of a matrix) that serves as a potential shared framework for understanding, executing, and evaluating initiatives and interventions. The matrix divides social design initiatives into four quadrants, each characterized by a set of perspectives and goals, supported with suggested research methods and case studies.
We think that the most positively transformative change occurs through situation design where change-makers are deeply embedded in and committed to the community addressed (what we call an “inside attitude”). For example, one of the case studies we share in our matrix is Bicycles Against Poverty (BAP), an organization that designed a system for making bicycles an accessible option for Ugandan communities in order to assist with access to water, employment, and healthcare. Founded by a native Ugandan, BAP also works in collaboration with the local communities who strongly welcome the organization’s efforts and play an active role in informing BAP’s progress.
Conversely, designing a situation with very little cultural and contextual understanding or commitment can yield rejected and ineffective results. One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) is an initiative where laptops were developed in isolation from the end-using communities. OLPC employed Western perspectives and attitudes that were imposed on foreign communities in an effort to change situational contexts of education systems. This initiative was not thoroughly embraced by the communities involved.
We hope that the matrix can be used to guide projects away from design imperialism and towards transformative social change. We do not claim that this tool is comprehensive or flawless. To the contrary, we hope that this framework can be a catalyst for dialogue and further development within the field, improved by collaborative critique and augmentation.
Besides, considering our current situation regarding oil, urban sprawl, and our over-reliance on cars, maybe faster horses wouldn’t have been such a bad idea after all?
If you would like to explore our ideas further, learn more about the matrix, or take a look at our thesis paper when it is finished, visit us at
Image courtesy of Bicycles Against Poverty\n
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