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Designing For Society

A guidebook for designers on how to create a better world with products and services

How can designers or developers use their skills to be of benefit in solving the issues in society?

To me, it's very motivational to use my creativity for a greater cause. My good friend Marc van der Zwan, probably knew this for a fact when he recommended the book to me. My friend heard about the book, as the authors gave a presentation at our University. The book is authored as a cross-disciplinary design collaboration by the design researcher Nynke Tromp and industrial designer Paul Hekkert. Both of them are professors at the Delft University of Technology, The biggest technical university in The Netherlands.

Designing for a greater cause is a task that I have taken on a couple of times during my studies, whether it has been as a part of hackathons, courses at uni, or most recently during my internship at Kintsugi-Design. Designing for Society is a book on exactly that! A guide to creating conceptual ideas for improving the world. But when I read the book, I was surprised that the methods described, differed from my previous experience. Through my studies, the approach to innovation we have been taught has been rooted in human-centered design. With this approach, concepts are developed with a starting point of researching the users/consumers of the end product or service. This has its benefits from a desirability standpoint, as it ensures that the users, truly want the final development. The method described in this book is, at first glance, similar to the human-centered approach. It is based on anthropological qualitative studies of human behavior. Such as initial user interviews, and pilot studies. However, the method recommended for societal design in this book is fundamentally different, as its approach is based on effect-driven design.

In the same fashion, as I have written my other book reviews, my intention with this book review is to give an overview and explain my main takeaways. My goal is to present you, the reader, the book in an easy-to-read format. But this time, I'm especially glad that you are here reading this, as there is even more at stake. I feel this way because it would be amazing if my humble book review could be of inspiration to the creation of more ideas turning out to benefit society. So here goes... My distilled versions of the ideas and thoughts presented in the book. See them listed beneath, to be elaborated later:

My main takeaways

  1. The effect-driven design approach With this approach, you define an effect your design should mediate and generate conceptual ideas on this! This is done through phrasing a certain statement embedded with the sought-after effect.

  2. Focus your design efforts on conflicting concerns Human behavior is complex and sometimes certain behaviors don't align with individuals' morals. Great societal innovation can emerge from finding and solving these conflicts.

  3. The stages of the social implication design method 0. Debriefing (Setting the scope of the project with the involved stakeholders) → 1. Anticipating the future (research the domain of the scope and understand its mechanics and growth) → 2. Goal Setting (define how your invention will benefit society) → 3. Developing the Intervention (Ideate and build a product or service which is categorized to your goal setting.

  4. A great societal design is not just an invention improving today. It also lays a foundation for a better future Previous innovations seemed great at that time. However, some have caused future problems - designers of this day and era should take responsibility for their creations by assessing their concepts thoroughly.

The effect-driven design approach

"If I had an hour to solve a problem and my life depended on the solution, I would spend the first 55 minutes determining the proper question to ask, for since I know the proper question, I could solve the problem in less than five minutes" - Albert Einstein

Just like Albert Einstein's quote, the same philosophy is applied with the effect-driven design approach. For the effect-driven design approach, an area of interest is thoroughly investigated through various means of research. This is done to determine unfavorable behaviors to intervene. Often the designer will find that there isn't a single cause and effect to the behaviors of people but instead multiple factors responsible. But with knowledge of the different factors, the designer is equipped to single one out and interfere through design. That is the reason for it being called effect-driven design. The designer is tasked with defining an effect that, if actualized through a product or service, will generate a preferred behavior.

Thus, I haven't encountered the term effect-driven design through my studies, I have been introduced to a tool very similar to the main tool of the effect-driven design approach. At my study program, we are taught the use of an "innovation question". The question is phrased as an open question in such a way that it defines the problem to solve but with an abstract solution in the form of a metaphor. Phrasing the innovation question in this manner enables the team to focus on solving a defined problem, while not compromising the size of the solution space for solutions.

Likewise, it is a part of the effect-driven design approach to phrase a statement that describes a certain behavior, to either discourage or encourage. A behavior, in the book, is defined as "anything that people do that affects others and/or the planet." They give the following statement as an example:

"To strengthen cohesion in the neighborhood, I wish to encourage people to spend time in public spaces by enabling them to do as they please"

It's important here to notice the key 3 elements of the statement:

  1. The behavior you wish to support through design; In the example: "People to spend time in public spaces"

  2. What the social implications of this behavior are, and how those implications address or contend with collective concerns; In the example: "Strengthening cohesion in the neighborhood"

  3. What meaning this behavior has (or will have) for people, and why this is the case, in light of any individual concerns. In the example: "To enable them to do as they please"

The authors say from experience, that designers will often have an intuitive skill to phrase the statement. But In some cases with very wicket problems, defining the effect and creating the statement can be difficult. Thus they provide three tools to ease this process. These are as follows:

Two lines of logic

One way to form the statement is through one of the following two template statements:

  1. "What-through-what" You know what to achieve, but you need to creatively think of ways to bring that goal to life with an intervention. An example of this goes as follows: Social implication: "I want to strengthen cohesion in the neighborhood." Thought what? Behavior: "By encouraging people to spend time in public spaces" Through...[Finish sentence with creative interventions]

  2. "What-so-what" You know what value to afford individuals and then deduce the societal(collective implications of the behaviors when the intervention is created. An example of this goes like this: "I want people to experience the freedom to do as they please in public spaces." So? Behavior: "People will make more use of public spaces." So? Social implication: "The increased presence of people in public spaces will strengthen cohesion in the neighborhood."


The Underlay is an analysis and communication tool used to assess behavior in a matrix. Applying multiple behaviors and assessing them one at a time, will give the designer a sense of the implications their designs will lead to.

This is my interpretation of the model. As I didn't have the picture file for the exact model depicted in the book, I made my own.


Laddering is a tool to tweak the statement by making it either more or less abstract. Both have their pros and cons. On one hand, a more abstract statement will lead to more ways for interpretation, which is good for bringing out more ideas. But on the other hand, the more concrete the more targeted the intervention.

Another graphic interpretation I've made depicting the model from the book.

Focus your design efforts on conflicting concerns

The authors make an effort to explain how people often behave with conflicting concerns. They might behave in a certain way but have conflicting and opposing morals/values. Examples of this could be that some people may want to save energy but can't get themselves to take significant actions in doing so, some people wanting to exercise more but can't find the motivation to do the hard effort, or perhaps some people wanting to recycle their trash but out of sheer inconvenience still throw everything into the common bin. The list for such behaviors is long and the problems are often wicked and have multiple influencing factors or parameters that can't all be solved with a single design. Much can still be done by eliminating the factors one at a time. The authors, and now also I, believe that it is the task of the designer to understand the social mechanics and behaviors of people. They should use this knowledge in designing, the artifacts that make up our world, in ways that make it as simple as possible to act appropriately. Thus the authors define three types of interventions that can mediate a change in people's behaviors:


The authors state that the best strategy for changing people’s behaviors is using the technique called Resolving. Resolving is defined as a design concept fundamentally changing the behavioral context leading to the preferred behavior following naturally. It's a method that enables people to behave following their morals while eliminating their concerns of not wanting to.

An example of this is the Dutch Goedzak (in English do-gooder or good bag). The Goedzak was created to deal with the issue of people no longer wanting certain belongings but couldn’t be bothered to moving them to the local recycling center to be reused/recycled. The Goedzak was created by two design students in collaboration with the Amsterdam second-hand chain Kringloop Het Goed. It enables Amsterdam citizens to simply drop their functional belongings they no longer wanted, in a bag next to where they put their other garbage. The items in the Goedzak will then later get picked up by Kringloop Het Goed to be reused/recycled.

This is a picture of the goedzak. To see more about Goedzak check out this article by dezeen


Bypassing is the method by which a designed artifact enables a user to achieve something they want in a context that was unrelated before the artifact came into existence.

An example of this is the Piano Stairs made as part of a project called the Fun Theory, supported by Volkswagen. The Piano Stairs is an invention created to make people exercise more. The Piano Stairs is an appliance, turning what before was ordinary stairs into a fun piano. Where people before were using the electric escalator, they now to a larger degree use the physically challenging stairs. Some people are even jumping up and down. The invention utilizes the method of bypassing by turning the boring context of getting from A to B into a context of fun physical movement.

The picture of the Piano Stairs is found in this article from Design Of The World. You can also check out this video from Volkswagen showing the people of Stockholm as they experience the stairs for the first time.


Transforming is the last of the three methods described in the book to accommodate the designer's desired effect. It is defined as an artifact transforming long-term, collective societal desires into short-term individual concerns.

An example of this is the Energy Plant. The Energy Plant is a device created by the Interactive Institute in Sweden. The device visualizes the monthly energy usage by depicting a thriving plant with beautiful leaves. Each month a new plant is being planted. However, If the household can't sufficiently manage its energy, the plant will lose its leaves and slowly die.

A picture of the Power Plant device. See more about the Power Plant on the portfolio website of its creator Loove Broms

The stages of the social implication design method

The stages of the Social Implication Design method are seen depicted underneath in the model. The process shows how the designer is first tasked with understanding the world or domain of interest at the World Level. Next, in the Mediation Level, the designer will define the effect to achieve between the individual and the world. Finally, at the Artefact Level, the artifact, product, or service is developed featuring the previously defined effect.

This is yet again my interpretation of the levels, stages, and steps of the Social implication design method depicted in the book.

I will now proceed to elaborate on what steps are at the different stages.

Stage 0: Debriefing

The authors define debriefing as the preparation stage of the process and expect it to be handled in a matter of days. In this stage, the designer and the project owner will define the realm in which the project is to be developed. Here the first expectations are aligned, as well as the formalities of the project defined. Examples of formalities and expectations are the likes of, budget, scope, time frame of development, success criteria as well as understanding the strategic goals and identity of the client/organization.

Stage 1: Anticipating the future

This stage is spending a matter of weeks or even months. Here the designer will thoroughly examine/research the domain. This means using various research methods to get a context or world view of the realm of the project. Anticipating the future is a matter of guessing but the guess needs to be grounded in current and recent knowledge. This should lead to context factors. Context factors are the individual bits influencing the future. The last, and most difficult step, is to get an understanding of the factor’s influence. These are called context structures. Here the designer should ideally be able to map the various factors and get an understanding of their common influence and relative importance on the future.

Stage 2: Goal Setting

This is the stage most defining to the Social Implication Design process, and also the one I have thoroughly elaborated upon earlier in my book review. This is the stage where the designer will define the behavior and effect to achieve in the scope of the project. This step is created in two to three days and with this, the designer will move on to the next stage.

Stage 3: Developing the intervention

This is the final stage of the project of which the designer will develop the artifact/concept of the project. At this stage, nothing is clear except the defined effect the design should achieve. The first step is to determine the interaction. This is where the designer is to derive a pattern of which the product or service will lead to the desired effect. What meaning will the design have to the user so that the user will be expected to behave in the desired way? Next, the designer is supposed to ideate, prototype, the idea. This is the core competence of any designer! In doing this every designer has their preferred methods. This ranges from writing immense amounts of post-it notes, to playing board games, drawing napkin sketches, building paper prototypes, or perhaps doing roleplay from various perspectives. The only limitation for this is imagination. Finally, the ideas are validated. To assess and test the ideas the authors propose three methods of which I will elaborate on in the next section.

This is a picture of me in my dorm room taken by my lovely girlfriend. In the picture, I'm seen fully emerged in my favorite part of development, namely prototyping. I'm using almost all the methods of ideation mentioned above. I'm making a quick paper prototype from the depictions of my hand-drawn sketches on the table. Meanwhile, I'm note-taking on the online tool Mirro and of course drinking coffee. ☕😂

A great societal design is not just an invention improving "today". It also lays the foundation for a better future

The authors of the book make an effort to discuss the future implications of designs. It is an important consideration to think of what consequences the created inventions will have in the future. They say that it requires one to shift the mindset from what to design and towards what value the design will achieve.

They are strong proponents of evidence-based design, and thus suggest three methods by which the designer can evaluate their concepts. This is to ensure the likelihood that the value of the proposed design is truly achieved.

Pilot study

The pilot study is in the Social Implication Design method defined as “to gather information using minimal resources and seek to obtain feedback about the value of the design proposal from the user's perspective.” The designer is here to define the core mechanics of their concept as "hypothesis" and try as efficiently as possible of time and resources to test these to determine their right or wrong in user trials.


Though the narrative is a less reliable tool, it is significantly superior to the other two methods in terms of cost and time. I could imagine this being used as a preliminary mean to assess the likelihood of the concept's effect, before doing one of the other two more conclusive methods. The narrative is a method where a story is written accompanied by images taken of users using a fake/dummy version of the final product. This way, the designer gets the user’s feedback and thoughts on the concept without having to go through the process of building a possibly expensive and time-consuming prototype.


The experiment is the most extensive but also most reliable test method of the three. It is defined as assessing the effectiveness of the concept with a minimum of one control condition where the intervention is not used. However, it also includes large-scale randomized controlled trials or extensive controlled lab studies. The authors recommend that the assessment of choice is proportional to the size of the project. An experiment would definitely be necessary for a design to be implemented on a national or world scale, such as a new democratic voting system, but for smaller projects, the other two tools might be adequate.

This is the end of my third book review. This book was a bit heavier in terms of academic language compared to the previous two books I reviewed. So I'm glad I didn't lose you through the hard-to-explain concepts, and that you made it all the way here to the end. If you liked the read, it would mean the world to me to hear what you liked about the book review. I would also appreciate suggestions for how I could improve your reading experience or maybe recommendations of other books you would like a summary of. 👍💬 I am making a new book review every month. So if you would like to get more reviews of the books I've found inspiring, then subscribe to my newsletter at the footer of my website 📨👇 Have a nice day! 🧠👨‍🏭


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