Design-led Approach as Catalyst for New Social Paradigms: Social engagement for empowering vulnerable communities and third sector organisations

The value of design thinking (Buchanan, 1992; Martin, 2009 & Brown, 2009) is highly recognised in the field of business and management studies thanks to the growing numbers of successful design practices and interventions. Design is considered by business companies as one of the most important competences to enhance companies’ competitiveness on the market. The different roles of design for companies have been stated by Mozota (2006) as differentiator, integrator, transformer, good business, and this perspective has started to look at the contributions of design at a wider level: for the whole society. She considers design and design thinking as an important factor in transforming organisations’ mindset and features towards a more “social-oriented” model. Based on this idea, the value of design and design thinking is to be found not only in its potentialities to innovate business processes, but also in its human-centered perspective, able to (re)manage and (re)organize problem-solving processes and, more significantly, to catalyse social changes.

The third sector, born with social-oriented missions, is considered as “non-market” sector (Gassler 1986; Mintzberg et al. 2005; Westall 2009) and is hardly linked to design-intensive fields (Dell’Era & Verganti, 2010). However, the emergence of social enterprises requires new mindsets and lenses to witness new requirements and challenges. These forms of economy and organisations provide a great opportunity for designers with a holistic perspective to take an active part in. Since design thinking focuses not only on communication and products, which belongs to the primary levels of design activities (Buchanan, 2001; Golsby-Smith, 1996), but also on systems and strategies through understanding, defining, generating, prototyping, delivering the ideas (Design Council, 2005 & IDEO, 2015) and maintaining solutions to be sustainable. The outcomes of third sector organisations are physical products, communication evidences, service systems with intangible social values, aiming to benefit vulnerable individuals or groups. Instead of using old methods and formats from design in business sectors, it’s necessary to rethink the “process” and the “meaning” of creation and production in situated contexts with the involvement of specific beneficiaries.

The design thinking approach not only contributes to problem solving, but also to making sense of the situations (Manzini, 2015). Designers are described as “broker” (Verganti, 2003) and “storyteller” between different organisational narratives (Zurlo & Cautela, 2014) and their final users. Social innovation studies often look at human beings (especially users) as an “asset” (Manzini, 2015) able to contribute actively to plan, produce and deliver the service systems. Co-creation (Ostrom, 1996; Ramirez, 1999; Joshi & Moore, 2003), is becoming more and more common in the third sector within different paradigms, contexts, and for different objectives.  This idea of collaboration and co-creation is a call for new relationships between designers, organisations and final users and for rethinking the meanings of service solutions. Engage third sector organisations and vulnerable groups in co-creation processes can enable them to know each other’s needs, to negotiate actively and equally, and finally to build win-win solutions together.

The design-led approach could be one effective way to support this collaborative innovation process. To catalyse this, it is crucial for designers to enlarge their conventional scopes of intervention. They need to move from designing “for” final users or “for” the organisations to designing “with” them, involving them in a co-design process. They will participate in learning design thinking knowledge by designing together with expert designers. Designers act as facilitator and interpreter, instead of solution-provider, to build the bridge for communication among all and to guide them carefully towards a solution balanced by different desires. And in the near future, the design skills could even be transferred and distributed to all these “non-designers”, so the final results will be designed and delivered mainly “by” the final users and third sector organisations themselves (Bovaird, 2007; Boyle & Harris, 2009; Junginger, 2010). At the same time, it’s important not to forget that this transformation can’t be easily fulfilled without well-designed supporting tools, in which conventional design skills are particularly required (White et al. 2012). Furthermore, we should also think about how these distributed design experiences and practices could impact at strategic level (Best, 2015) of third sector organisations?

For better understanding the phenomena and answering the questions, my research recounts literature in developing the concepts of engaging design strategy and design management in third sector organisations. Afterwards, the research has generated a descriptive model through case studies, aiming to map and analyse design-led approaches acting in different co-creation paradigms. In the incremental model, design-led approach empowers organisations to manage their process for catering the needs of target vulnerable groups; on the other hand, towards a radical direction, design-led approach is proposing an open platform to realize co-creation: enabling and educating vulnerable communities to actively take part in understanding their own problems and capabilities, in order to transform themselves to be both contributors and beneficiaries. Finally, the research has been conducted through action research for testing, reflecting and supplementing the findings generated before. The aim of my study is to give suggestions for conducting the design-led approach for social engagement and to elaborate different models able to benefit both social designers and organisations working in the third sector.


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Xue Pei has a background in industrial design and product service system design. She is now a PhD candidate in the design department of Politecnico di Milano in the CILAB (Creative Industry Lab). Her work explores the design-led approach in the third sector, especially focusing on the relationships between designers and social enterprises. She took part in design research activities on social innovation in China (DESIS lab in Wuxi) and published several articles in English and Chinese related to service design for social innovation, the role of designers, and design management for social enterprises.

You can contact Xue at


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