product designers

Designing for positive social change

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Business can be a powerful force for good in the world and product designers have a unique role to play in ensuring that new products contribute to positive changes in society, writes Joanne Ward of Collective Change


You would have to be living in a very remote part of the world not to notice the recent renewal of focus in the media on sustainability and social impact. What was once the realm of community activists has now become one of the top agenda items for decision-makers.

As Social Enterprise UK CEO Peter Holbrook CBE recently said: “Procurement is changing, and in choosing the kind of business you want to work with, you help create the kind of world you want to live in.”

By adopting a more conscious and purpose-driven approach, product designers have the opportunity to shape solutions that address critical issues: sustainability, accessibility and social equity

The mood is changing fast and social impact is now regarded as an essential part of business strategy. Product design has a significant role to play. It’s a powerful tool that extends far beyond aesthetics and functionality.

In an era of pressing global challenges, designers have a unique opportunity to contribute to positive social change. By adopting a more conscious and purpose-driven approach, they can shape solutions that address critical issues: sustainability, accessibility and social equity.

One of the most significant ways designers can drive social impact is by prioritising sustainable materials and production processes. The extraction and manufacturing of materials often have far-reaching environmental and social consequences.

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By opting for sustainable materials and considering the entire lifecycle of a product, designers can reduce resource consumption, minimise waste and mitigate environmental harm. Incorporating recycled or upcycled materials not only conserves resources, but also contributes to a circular economy, promoting sustainability in the long run.

Second, inclusive and accessible design can be at the core of every product designer’s ethos. Creating products that are accessible to all individuals, regardless of age, disability or background, is crucial for fostering social equity.

This might involve designing user interfaces with clear, intuitive navigation, or developing products with adjustable features to accommodate a wider range of users. By prioritising inclusivity, designers can contribute to a more inclusive society, in which everyone has equal access to products and services.

Third, product designers have a unique role to play in addressing humanitarian and crisis response needs. From designing easily deployable emergency shelters to creating innovative medical equipment for disaster relief, designers can directly impact the lives of those affected by crises. By focusing on practical, durable and easily transportable solutions, they can contribute to saving lives and providing essential support during times of adversity.

Diversity and design

Also, cultural diversity is essential for creating products that have a positive social impact. Considering the local contexts, traditions and preferences of distinct communities ensures that products are valued and sought after, while avoiding cultural insensitivity.

Designers have the power to influence education through the creation of educational products and tools to make learning more engaging, accessible and effective. Products that empower individuals by enhancing their skills, independence and economic opportunities contribute to positive social change. For example, designing low-cost, easy-to-use agricultural tools for small-scale farmers, can improve livelihoods and wellbeing.

Product designers can act as advocates for social causes by using their platforms to raise awareness about pressing issues.

Designers have a unique ability to communicate complex ideas and inspire action through their creations. By designing products that serve as symbols or convey powerful messages, designers can spark conversations about important topics.

Finally, by demonstrating accountable, traceable and transparent corporate social responsibility, a business can appeal to those who share its vision, mission and values, and who care about the social impact of their choices. This can lead to attracting and retaining the best talent and securing new customers and building customer loyalty.

By embracing a holistic approach that considers sustainability, inclusivity, humanitarian needs, cultural sensitivity, education and advocacy, designers can create products that generate meaningful social impact.

Through the generation of innovative and purposeful designs, they have the potential to contribute to a more sustainable, equitable and inclusive world. As the guardians of creativity, product designers hold the key to unlocking solutions that address some of the most pressing challenges of our time.

In the words of Mary Portas: “The change ahead is not about contraction or limitation. It’s about creation, innovation and imagination. It’s not about putting off our Net Zero goals to supposedly help the economy get back on its feet. A carbonneutral economy is the new economy.”


About the author:

Joanne Ward is an experienced and passionate advocate for social businesses. In 2020, she set up Collective Change, with a mission to help purposeful organisations attract investment, support and customers by defining, measuring and effectively communicating their impact.