ads 560 // design for social innovation

university of kansas 2014–15

the notion of “designing for good” has been a developing trend over the past decade, utilizing the tools and methods of creative thinkers for positive influence in communities. this course explores the range of ways we can empower others by initiating or co-authoring projects through direct engagement with the community. in the process we become socially and politically active as designers. this class will use readings on theory, history, and key players to inform its work with local community activists in identifying and proposing solutions for the real problems their communities face.

view online course documents: course syllabus // course blog


as a result of this course, students will…

  1. describe at an advanced level what design for social innovation is, and apply it through your own work in this class;
  2. hold a perspective on the value and roles of the audience in visual communications projects; 
  3. verbally demonstrate a basic understanding of, and perspective on, course readings;
  4. synthesize ideas across theory and practice into a holistic perspective on design’s role in society;
  5. apply critical thinking skills to making, speaking, reading, and writing about design issues at an advanced level;
  6. research and apply multiple design research methods in the generation of knowlege about a given issue;
  7. actively engage with various stakeholders and audience members in the pursuit of audience understanding, empathy, facts, motivations, desires, contributing factors and problem-finding;
  8. use design thinking and form-making to synthesize information into a audience-focused and cohesive communication system or narrative.

this course, with the goal of reducing the dropout rate of lawrence public schools to zero by 2020, was conceived as the first in a three-phase design education process.

  • phase one (spring 2015) – design research
  • phase two (spring 2016) – continued research, site visits, and creative proposals
  • phase three (spring 2017) – program implementation

under advisement from the KU center for civic & social responsibility, i established a connection with the united way of douglas county, it was determined that reaching students before their high school years would be important. this led to connecting with the principle of south middle school in lawrence, and a student-initiated connection with boys & girls club of lawrence, both of which served as sites for service learning research. 

this course is the recipient of a $500 service learning mini grant from the KU center for civic and social responsibility, spring 2015. 

in the classroom

each week was split between a reading/discussion day and a project day. readings covered a range of contemporary issues in the realm of "design for social innovation", from historical precedents to "design imperialism". project days were spent developing and engaging in the design research process – secondary research, cultivating community contacts, designing and refining creative research tools and utilizing those tools during site visits. 

"think wrong" workshop

a lecture and workshop by ryan clifford of the maryland institute college of art introduced students to a creative exercise whereby thinking of the most "wrong" solution (with a healthy dose of free association and fun) might subvert assumptions and expectations and yield a memorable and engaging solution to a problem. 

design process

students worked to make all aspects of the research process as visual and engaging as possible, including their own proposal to brand and name their group "think tank 2020". students were tasked with transferring knowledge from research into practice through the design of creative research tools and documentation of their findings. 

final outcome

all primary and secondary research results were edited into a final group-designed magazine that went to our community partners and is available for students in future phases of the course. view a low res pdf here.