Social Design as a Political Act

From Beyond Social

Position Paper Social Practices WdKA
There are many different ideas about what social design is or should be. At Willem de Kooning Academy we do not prescribe one over another, we encourage our students discover and define their own position in relation to this field. Nevertheless, we've designed our education from a specific perspective. Living in a world that faces huge societal issues we approach Social Design as a political act, aiming to stir up the status quo and striving for positive change.

There are new, urgent issues for studying and practicing arts and design in the 21st century: limited resources & sustainable development, new ecologies & economies, new demographics & political struggles. These are not just themes to be addressed and reflected upon, but they redefine the very way artists, designers and educators work. Old hierarchies and traditional notions of authorship and ownership crumble. They make way for new forms of collaboration and transdisciplinarity in which communities, self-organization and networks play a crucial role.

The majority of creative careers no longer exists in clear-cut and predefined professions. Creatives are increasingly required to invent their own, new fields of work along with the new practices and new forms of knowledge they develop. This means that we need to educate students with artistic and designerly competencies that equip them with practical, intellectual and collaborative tools to position themselves in this open field.

In line with these paradigm shifts, Willem de Kooning Academy identifies fundamental changes in autonomous, social and commercial art and design practices:

• autonomous practices transition from studio art within the gallery and museum system to self-organized spaces and initiatives. Some of them are no longer easily identifiable as art or design projects, yet all of them radically experiment with what art and design is, what self-organization and autonomy mean and how they can be achieved;

• social practices transition from art as a means for conventional pedagogy and social work to social design as a political act that challenges and reshapes dispositions of power. In the new social practices, art and design projects become direct interventions into society and politics;

• commercial practices show a transition from designers employed in traditional companies to creatives as entrepreneurs in the “next” economy. Through experiments with making and designing and explorations into untapped markets and unknown audiences, this “next” design aims to create new values for future economic scenarios. In all three practices, artists and designers enter a much larger playing field than the traditional artistic professions.

The difference art schools make to other forms of education (including most university design faculties) lies in the speculative and critical attitude of students and teachers and their artistic and aesthetic competencies. We do not opportunistically embrace the changes described above; we engage in those changes with our own visions, designs and creations. We strive for innovation in the true, radical sense of the word.

Position Paper WdKA Social Practices: Social Design as a political act

Social Practices focus on design that impacts wicked societal or environmental issues. They are not only concerned with the aesthetics, the functionality and the conceptual meaning of their work, but also aim to (re-)design the encompassing social, economic or ecological systems and interactions in relation to political powers in a radical way. Within Social Practices good social design is considered to be a political act: How can artists and designers challenge and reformulate dispositions of power? How to design and make from a position of accountability for contributing to a more sustainable and equitable society? 

Social design as political act

Social design is a political act. Artists and designers change the dehumanizing and polluting industries, challenge issues of representation and suppression, rethink the usage of physical and non-physical resources and empower communities through design. The projects of WdKA Social Practices become direct interventions into society and politics that go beyond art as a means for conventional pedagogy and social work. They do not only visualize, aestheticize or serve social struggles in a subservient and docile way, but aim to innovate them in the true, radical sense of the word by redesigning underlying processes of design, production and interaction. This can take place within the context of design, but might as well take place within other sectors, using the skills, knowledge and attitudes of social designers to redesign processes and ways of production and interaction, with the aim to open up and influence the very systems that are shaping the current and future human condition.

Social design attitudes

Many of the tensions and conflicts which society is facing are socio-historically grown. WdKA Social Practices considers the combination of personal engagement & accountability, political awareness & shared responsibility and creative imagination & expression key to the (transdisciplinary) professional art and design practice. Social designers need to rethink what their own role is, even more to question their own interventions on the same terms as they question the status quo. Social designers explicitly choose to personally experience mentioned systemic changes in order to examine and question them, to alter or reinvent them. Social design is characterized by co-creation with non-artistic audiences – citizens, users, experts, people with economic, political or social power – by empowering each other to think in and to see alternatives, and by setting up critical interventions to catalyze change. Social designers use their capabilities of imagination, creation and expression to make a significant contribution to shaping a different common future by researching, questioning, proposing, visualizing, designing, testing and realizing its alternative possible manifestations which could be framed as utopias for realists. Social design is different from social work and social sciences in so far that it thrives on powers of imagination, creation and expression, is based on involving a broad set of non-artistic, professional disciplines, and it is aimed at longitudinal programmes rather than ephemeral projects.

Social design & the commons

This means that the position of social designers and the complex context in which they operate is the arena in which urgent needs, desires and possibilities of transformation are creatively explored – including the search for alternatives to the paradigm of endless economic growth and for models that actually enrich the planet in its limited capactity. WdKA Social Practices embrace the commons as a new form of citizenship built on a deep attitude of caring for the planet and caring for the human beings who inhabit it.

Nana Adusei-Poku, Iris Schutten, Roger Teeuwen & Peter Troxler

Sources and Further Reading

  • Bollier, D. (2014). Think like a commoner. Gabriola Island: New Society Publishers.
  • Bollier, D. & Helfrich, S. (eds.) (2012). The wealth of the commons. A world beyond market & state. Amherst, MA: The Commons Strategies Group.
  • Dorst, K. (2015). Frame Innovation. Create New Thinking by Design. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
  • Fuad-Luke, A. ( 2009). Design activism, beautiful strangeness for a sustainable world. Taylor & Francis.
  • Helguera, P. (2011). Education for socially engaged art. A materials and techniques handbook. New York, NY: Jorge Pinto.
  • Lacy, S. (1995). Mapping the terrain. New genre public art. Seattle, WA: Bay Press.
  • Margolin, V., Isaacs, K. (1985). The Design of Utopia. Seminar presented at the University of Illinois, Chicago. [Recording]. Retrieved from [accessed 26 May 2017].
  • Papanek, V. (1972). Design for the real world; human ecology and social change. New York, NY: Pantheon Books
  • Raworth, K. (2017). Doughnut Economics: Seven Ways to Think Like a 21st-Century Economist. White River Junction, VT: Chelsea Green Publishing.
  • Sassen, S. (2014). Expulsions. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Key Questions

Upcoming years WdKA Social Practices will focus on the following questions:


  • What is my position as a citizen, artist, designer of educator within society and what is the engagement and purpose of my professional practice?
  • Who is directly or indirectly involved in my practice, and how do I shape this involvement?
  • How does my practice affect others, the other side of the world, society at large, the planet and future generations?
  • How can I keep developing my practice into professional pathway of radical change in existing economic, social or ecological systems?
  • ... more?

WdKA SOCIAL PRACTICES (theory program addresses one of underlying questions, every year new question, outcomes to be published at Beyond Social)

  • What are different ways to analyze and reframe positions of power? (see also Flor Avelino / researcher at Drift)
  • What are different ways to expand and strengthen the commons?
  • What are different ways of making / provoking change?
  • (central question 2017 – 2018)
  • What are different ways to measure or discuss impact?
  • What are different ways to embed interaction with the other (experts, users, people of power) in the design process?
  • What are different ways to embed frame innovation in the design process? (see also Madelinde Hagemann, Kees Dorst, Karim Bennamar)
  • What are different ways to analyse and visualize systems / powermaps?
  • What are different ways to do and visualize embedded research?
  • What are examples of ‘good’ social design and why? (per field 3 different examples per WdKA discipline + 3 outside WdKA-disciplines)
  • … more?


  • What are different ways to analyse and reframe positions of power with art and design? (see Flor Avelino / researcher at Drift)
  • What are different ways to expand and strengthen the commons with art and design?
  • What are different ways to measure or discuss the impact of art and design?
  • … more?


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