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Put Down the Post-Its: We Need to Define What 'Innovation' Really Means

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...

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. For the next eight weeks, MASD students will each share their personal thesis journey. Follow the series at

The last six months have been a relatively short, yet immersive, transplantation from undergraduate educations in sociology and anthropology into the world of social design, i.e. design for social change. Along the way, we’ve picked up on a few buzzwords, some more intuitively understandable than others: innovation, design thinking, human-centered, empathy, impact, multidisciplinary, with-not-for, transdisciplinary, ideate, prototype, transparency, iterative and, our personal favorite, cultural entrepreneurship.
But what do these words actually mean? Sure, they seem incredibly powerful at first glance, but what happens when you take an objective step back and run a fine-toothed comb through them? Without a clear and concise rubric attaching these words to metrics and outcomes, they simply become vague and empty terms left open to interpretation.
For example, transparency of our work is valued in our program, but how much and what kind of information does each project need to share, and with whom, in order to qualify as transparent? Or do we just get to label our work as transparent because it’s a word we’ve chosen to describe social design? Even if we do find ways to measure transparency, we have to then make sure that we’re all using the same ruler. Because through common metrics we can then share, discuss, debate, and improve not just our individual work but also the social design field as a whole. Then how do we do this for empathy? Impact? With-not-for?
So let’s begin to do this. Social design is at a critical point; it’s still in its formative years, which is why moving beyond criticism and into pragmatic solutions is so important. Our thesis work is focusing on what this pragmatic next step could look like. Since we can’t create an entire methodology alone, much less by May, we’re focusing specifically on the research aspect of the social design process. We’re looking heavily at the practices of social science and social work to inform our ideas. We’re beginning to develop a model for research practices that can then hopefully be used in both the educational and praxis applications of social design.
The ultimate goal for our work is not to just hand off a toolkit for research, but to contribute to a critical discourse on the trajectory of social design. We want people who agree with our ideas to help us build them out and those who disagree to be critical and provide alternatives. We want there to be a space for this to happen. Hannah Arendt put it eloquently when she said, “opinions are formed in a process of open discussion and debate and where no opportunity for the forming of opinions exists, there may be moods… but no opinion.”
In the interest of the future of social design, it’s time for us to put down the Post-it notes and the screen-printed t-shirts. It’s time to start creating a solid foundation and framework for social design to build upon and within. If we begin to do this, then we can start to more clearly connect the dots between concept and reality, between the words we use to describe our work and what they actually mean.
Image courtesy of Cinnamon Janzer\n

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