Research background and methodology
“Beyond Projects” is an independent design research initiated and led by Shay Raviv with the support of a core team and partners. The research trajectory spanned the entirety of 2022 and has been made possible with the support of the Creative Industries Fund NL and the Dutch Design Foundation.
The context of this research is grounded explicitly in the Netherlands, because this is the context in which Raviv and the core team operate. In addition, the Netherlands is at the forefront of involving the creative industry in social challenges. Therefore, it is important to address these questions when this field is gaining relevance. Finally, as the social design field is relatively mature in the Netherlands, there is the possibility to look back and reflect on work that has been going on for several years.
The parties involved in the research
This research is a collaborative process in which different parties are involved in various capacities. The writing has been done in dialogue, while many people have been involved in interviews and collaborative analysis. That is why, except for a personal introduction, the essay is written from the first plural subject — we.
Shay Raviv and Noor Bootsma
They have been conducting this design research process as independent practitioners. Shay Raviv is a social designer, design researcher and project developer. She graduated from Design Academy Eindhoven (DAE) in 2015 and then worked at Studio Irene Fortuyn and STBY, among others. Together with Pim van der Mijl, she co-founded De Voorkamer in 2016. Raviv is currently the curator of the Embassy of Inclusive Society, a program initiated by Dutch Design Foundation. Noor Bootsma graduated from DAE in 2019. She is currently a master’s student in International Relations and European governance at the Vrije Universiteit Brussel.
What If Lab (WIL)
A programme by the Dutch Design Foundation that creates a space that allows designers to collaborate with partners and clients in a way that would be very difficult otherwise. The WIL is the main research partner, and they hold a few roles: they offer expertise and time investment, provide a case study environment and act as a professional context in which the results can enhance the continuity of social design propositions. WIL is an example of an initiative aiming to empower designers and support collaborations.
A learning community of social designers that reflects critically on the added value of designers in shaping society. Since 2019, the Social Design Showdown has organised events to develop a forum for knowledge-sharing within the field. In addition, they work on relevant themes in Action Teams. This research has formed an Action Team that gathered for working sessions, and the research insights were presented during an SDS event on December 22.
Information design studio in Amsterdam. Karin Fischnaller from The Anderen has been involved from the early phases and participated in different steps along the research process. She translated the research into this visual essay and created an interactive reading experience.
A design researcher, writer and applied anthropologist who supported the writing process of the essay as an editor.
This research is performed using mixed qualitative methods:
What If Lab case-study analysis
The What If Lab played two roles in this research: they supported this research by thinking along, sharpening the questions, co-analysing, and also provided the research with a case study environment and a context to apply the learning of the research. Through case study analysis, interviews and reflections with different people involved in the lab, we mapped and analysed several lab projects and learned more about their conception and realisation processes. We also looked into the relationship between how a lab is established and organised and the results of the projects.
The research results will be further incorporated into the What If Lab collaboration process design.
Realisation & implementation journey mapping through in-depth interviews with designers
In addition to researching within the What If Lab, we inquired and reflected together with several social designers about projects that they did and did not manage to realise. Through interviews and journey mapping, we identified the different steps designers take when they try to realise a concept. This method is grounded in the assumption that we lack knowledge about the different activities, steps, skills and terms that fall within ‘the reception constitute’ of design. Journey mapping helped us better understand what the reception process entails exactly.
Expert interviews and conversations with fellow researchers
This research topic seems relevant at this moment, as a few other researchers and experts in The Netherlands are currently working on related questions. We interviewed and exchanged thoughts with a few of these about their perspectives on the questions of realisation and continuity in social design.
Survey on the current organisational frameworks of social design
Through a questionnaire, we gathered a wider view of how designers define their organisational model. We asked designers about their current and future business models and to what extent those reflect their approach towards realising their concepts.
During the phases of fieldwork and analysis, we held two collaborative sessions. In those sessions, we shared the stories we heard during the interviews and opened up the dialogue to a broader group of people. One of these sessions was held with this essay’s graphic designer, Studio The Anderen, and Dries Van Wagenberg from the What If Lab. Another session was held with the Action Team of Social Design Showdown. These two sessions helped us identify the most important themes and develop insights. In addition, during the Social Design Showdown on December 22, we hosted a breakout session in which we tested the framework we shared in this essay, which helped us to sharpen our outcome.
The limitations of the research mostly concern the number of cases and people we interviewed due to our limited time and resources. We formally interviewed thirteen people and had informal conversations about the research with two more people. The survey we sent out unfortunately had a lower response rate than we had initially hoped, so we cannot draw quantitative conclusions from it. The questions in the survey are an opportunity for further research, possibly by research parties with a more extensive reach in the field. And finally, given the qualitative, experience-based nature of the study, we acknowledge that our own perspective, experiences and background influenced how we understood and analysed the information we gathered.
How to read this essay
This essay is constructed as a non-linear, interactive reading experience open to all. This design choice is deeply intertwined with one of the main conclusions of the research — that implementation should be approached as a non-linear, continuous and creative process. The network-like structure of the site allows readers to make their own connections and learn something new independently, at their own pace. The navigation provides guidance as well as enables explorations. The essay can be read from beginning to end, randomly, or based on the areas of interest and need. We invite the readers to play.
The terminology applied in the essay
The impact of social design initiatives is widely discussed these days. Many researchers and practitioners are working on increasing impact, as well as methods to measure it or make it explicit. As impact discourse deals with the value of social design initiatives for society over time, it is inherently connected to implementation and sustainable continuity. While this essay does not directly discuss the impact of social design initiatives, it is an effort to contribute to this complex topic by examining how ideas can be enacted in the real world over the long term.
While the term “Social Design” is contested, we will continue to use it in this essay for the sake of clarity, and due to the lack of a better term. To frame the context of this research, we have established a set of criteria to identify the design practices we will focus on in this research essay.
Design that emerges from a collaborative process between designers and non-designers throughout its development. Designers, companies, organisations, or a facilitating party such as a design lab or design challenge, initiate this collaborative process around a socially urgent topic.
The design proposition depends on an organisational framework to be realised. Such a framework either requires a new type of organisation to emerge or a shift in an existing organisation. In most cases, this is a public organisation.
The proposition is designed to operate in social spaces. It is often created to respond to a socially urgent problem and is meant to directly or indirectly impact civic society. The partners involved in the design process are therefore usually from the public or non-profit sector.
The output of the design project goes beyond a singular object. It could be a service, a training program, an experience, a cultural event, or an educational trajectory. While objects and images can be part of the output, they are not the core, but can be seen as props to support a specific experience.
Projects vs Initiatives
The word project is commonly used for a framed design trajectory in the design world. Designers are very comfortable with the term project to wrap a design assignment, commission or self-initiated effort bounded by a context and time frame. The term project carries notions of temporality, as it often relates to a process with a clear ending. In this essay, we try to understand how designers could go beyond the temporality of the project; therefore, we use “project” in the following sections to describe the design process before it is set in the real world. Once the project shifts from the conceptual to the practical or contextual phase, we use the word initiative. We see the term initiative as a container term to describe the proposition the designer is developing (product, service, experience, space, program etc) and the system needed around it to ensure it can achieve its goals.
Designers and their partners
This essay covers a wide range of social design practices. It’s therefore only sometimes possible to use precise terms for the type of designer we are referring to. We use the term “designers” to refer to different design professionals. It can be design studios and agencies, design collectives, designers hired by larger organisations or independent practitioners. We also reflect on a wide range of design collaborations in which designers work with other entities in different forms of engagement. The general term partners may refer to clients, initiative partners or relevant stakeholders. We specifically name the party’s role in the question when possible or necessary.
This term is an alternative term for client or commissioner. The traditional client-designer terminology and relationship are not always applicable in complex design collaborations and trajectories. In the examples described in this essay, designers collaborate with various types of organisations, and commissioning models are versatile. The term question-holder is used by What If Lab to describe the position an organisation takes when entering the lab process: one of posing questions with the ambition to contribute to societal challenges. A question-holder could be a company, governmental agency, service organisation, or social/healthcare organisation bringing a question forward where design can make a positive contribution.