Bloomsbury Design Library
Developing Citizen Designers
Developing Citizen Designers

Elizabeth Resnick

Elizabeth Resnick is a professor of graphic design at Massachusetts College of Art and Design, Boston, USA. Her publications include: Design for Communication: Conceptual Graphic Design Basics (2003); Graphic Design: A Problem-Solving Approach to Visual Communication for Prentice-Hall Publications (1984); Exhibition catalogue for The Graphic Imperative: International Posters for Peace, Social Justice and The Environment 1965-2005 authored with co-curators Chaz Maviyane-Davies and Frank Baseman; Exhibition catalogue for Graphic Intervention: International AIDS Awareness Posters 1985-2010 co-authored with co-curator Javier Cortás, and Exhibition catalogue for Graphic Advocacy: International Posters for the Digital Age 2001–2012. Author affiliation details are correct at time of print publication.

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Bloomsbury Academic, 2016

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What is Design Citizenship?


Elizabeth Resnick

Page Range: 12–13

In his introductory essay for Citizen Designer: Perspectives on Design Responsibility (edited with Véronique Vienne in 2003), Steven Heller writes: “Milton Glaser often says, ‘Good design is good citizenship.’ But does this mean making good design is an indispensable obligation to society and culture in which designers are citizens? Or does it suggest that design has inherent properties that when applied in a responsible manner contribute to a well-being that enhances everyone’s life as a citizen?”

The title of this book was my first introduction to the term “citizen designer,” a descriptor that clearly expressed what I had been teaching my students from the beginning: that designers have both a social and a moral responsibility to use their visual language training to address societal issues either within or in addition to their professional design practice. “A designer must be professionally, culturally, and socially responsible for the impact his or her design has on the citizenry” (Heller and Vienne, 2003). And yet, the notion of what design signifies to the general public remains passively identified with aesthetics, styles, and trends when, in essence, it could promise so much more—at its best, design can change, improve, renew, inspire, involve, disrupt, and help solve the “wicked” problems of this world.

How can we encourage our students to embrace this notion of becoming “good citizen designers” when design education programs continue to train their students as passive arbitrators of commercial and client-based messages? And why do they do this? Because in an unrelenting and economically challenged vicious cycle to attract tuition-paying students, design education programs have had to cater to those students who want a job in the creative industries. And yet, it is impossible to ignore the seismic and paradigm shifts of the past decade in technology, in our environment and local cultures, in world economics and global politics that have profoundly affected and challenged both traditional design education and professional design practice. Simply put, a change is needed.

How can design educators help students to engage in a world that is considerably interconnected and immediate, yet disturbingly more fractured, unstable, and totally disconnected from what really matters? As the fabric of our societies and cultures continues to unravel at an accelerated rate, there is both a compelling and crucial need for an unmitigated transformation of design education as we know it—design educators urgently need to revisit our ingrained methods and philosophies in order to review and reconsider how we will actually “steward” our future generations of young design practitioners.

Social Design—the practice of design where the primary motivation is to promote positive social change within society—is one possible pathway. As a discipline, Social Design[1] has experienced dramatic growth in recent years, but remains nascent in its teaching, research, and community-oriented practices. Initially inspired by the writings of Victor Papanek and others, its “social” agenda is to encourage designers and creative professionals to adopt a proactive role to effect tangible change to make life better for others, rather than to sell them products and services they neither need nor want—which has been the primary motivation for commercial design practice in the twentieth century.

Nurtured by a fervent community of international professional designers/design educators working both individually and collectively, social design pedagogy has been integrated into the traditional design curriculum by utilizing design-thinking strategies— like collaborative learning and participatory design process—to create engagements with communities or stakeholders for whom a need exists. Within these models and others, students as emerging designers can experience a more meaningful connection to, and impact on, society through their research, analysis, discourse, and creation at local, national, and, in some cases, international levels.

The backbone of Developing Citizen Designers is a selection of forty-two assignment-based case studies written by an engaged group of design educators who directly address the notion that design, and design education, can illuminate a pathway to effect positive change within a social agenda. Each of the case studies is illustrated with actual solutions developed by students working within the parameters of an assignment and in the context of classroom or onsite location, depending on the nature of the project involved.

I grouped the case studies into two main parts, each with three sections. The main parts and their sections reflect the general nature of the pedagogical experience: Part 1, Design Thinking, has sections on Socially Responsible Design, Design Activism, and Design Authorship; and Part 2, Design Methodology, has sections on Collaborative Learning, Participatory Design, and Service Design. Each of the six sections begins with an introductory essay designed to give context and definition to the particular subject and the subsequent case studies. Although many of the case studies could be easily “housed” under multiple sections, these classifications exist for guidance and ease of use. Included with the case studies and their introductory essays are five-question interviews with seven designers who have incorporated social design initiatives into their professional practice or teaching.

Part 3, Making a Difference, contains two sections, Getting Involved and Resources. In both sections, essays were commissioned from educators who teach in a diversity of educational programs, to address crucial aspects of teaching, learning, and putting into practice social design initiatives. The bibliography housed in the Resources section is an anthology of significant texts on the subject of social design, and resources that the case study and essay contributors have cited as important for their teaching and research.

Providing our students—and the generations of students that will follow—with the opportunity to experience making a meaningful and positive contribution to society while redefining what it means to be a designer will surely empower them to play a more empathetic role in improving the way they interact and communicate with each other and within their communities—as citizen designers. As this book illustrates, the effort is already underway.

Elizabeth Resnick

Boston, Massachusetts

June 2015

[1] The field is also known as public-interest design, social impact design, socially responsive design, transformation design, and humanitarian design. From Design and Sociai impact: A Cross-Sectoral Agenda for Design Education, Research and Practice, a White Paper based on the Social Impact Design Summit, held in New York, February 27, 2012; p. 8.