It has been a month since my post about the apparent absence of social design from academic literature. Since writing last, I have noticed several opportunities for social design: In my local coffee shop; at my office at school; the assisted living facility my aunt recently moved into. Now that the principles of social design are on my mind, I keep wondering whether current or potential users were consulted about function, satisfaction, or ease of use in the places I find myself.

For example, I’m sure the corporate arm of the chain coffee shop I visit every day consulted design literature before remodeling the store. Undoubtedly, public focus groups were held and feedback was considered. In contrast, my office was constructed without much effort to engage graduate students about workspace needs or wants (I’m sure temporal and cost constraints were predominant in that particular design process). My aunt’s home in the assisted living facility is a different story altogether. Spaces like this—or, at least its occupants—may be most deserving of social design. When I visit, it is clear that humane elements of the setting—those that comfort and protect occupants and visitors—were intentional. Social design is evident there—whether its designers called it that or not.

To recap my last post, Robert Sommer intended building users’ needs to be accounted for in the design process. He notes in his book about social design that an architect can best encourage this during smaller scale, human-oriented projects. Using inclusive, democratic approaches when dealing with building owners and users helps, too. In his textbook on environmental psychology, Robert Gifford outlines six goals that social designers aim to achieve during a project. The first is to match the needs of occupants to a physical setting. This is known as habitability, congruence, or goodness of fit and is the overarching goal of the social design philosophy. The second goal is to satisfy building users. This is important because occupants spend much of their time in the finished space. Third, social design aims to change behavior. Depending on the context of the project, this may mean increasing productivity in office staff, encouraging pro-social behavior in an assisted-living facility, or decreasing aggression in prison inmates. Fourth, enhancement of personal control within a space is key. When an occupant can alter a setting to suit his or her needs, greater satisfaction and stress reduction is generally experienced. The fifth goal is to facilitate social support among occupants. Enhancing cooperation among those who live or work in a space is often desirable. Lastly, the sixth goal is to employ imageability. This occurs when a building helps occupants and visitors navigate the building efficiently and successfully.

These goals sound idyllic but, as my last post outlined, new research using the term "social design" is difficult to find. However, “evidence-based design” has become a popular way to link planning and design research with user attitudes and behaviors. Like social design, the intention of evidence-based design is to improve architectural and human outcome measures (e.g., thermal efficiency, worker productivity, occupant satisfaction, and stress reduction).

The rationale behind evidence-based design is that developing best practices becomes simpler when there is evidence that something works well in a real-life setting. For example, a knowledge base about lighting, ambient temperature, or air quality in particular environments, such as hospitals or schools, can ensure the efficient construction of future buildings, leading to higher occupant satisfaction and longer building lifespans. Or at least avoid the mistakes of the past. Presumably, designers must ask building users about these elements to form a knowledge base from which evidence is drawn!

At first glance, it seems that evidence-based design is remarkably similar to social design. Although, the two concepts differ insofar as the goals of social design are not strictly driven by evidence. Also, evidence-based design may or may not incorporate user input in its process. Perhaps these subtleties are not noted in practice, allowing social design and evidence-based design to merge into the same concept among researchers, theorists, and professionals?

Then there is the term “participatory planning” (or “participatory design”). In his book, Robert Sommer often used these interchangeably with social design. Like social design, the principles of participatory planning are rooted in social action. A participatory planner behaves much like a social designer in that he or she enables stakeholders to assist in making decisions about the design process. Another analogue to social design is the fact that participatory planning works best at the local level. Clearly, the intent of the concept is similar. Both allow users of a space—be it a building, neighborhood, or larger urban network—to make value judgments during the design process to enhance the outcome.

Moreover, participatory planning is a social practice in which individuals or groups take part in the planning process to ensure outcomes match the occupants’ needs. This bottom-up approach is also what defines social design in theory and practice.

It seems to me that social design, evidence-based design, and participatory planning share a common bond: To make sure those who use a setting are consulted during the design process. Each modality gathers occupant input in different ways, but the intended outcome for each is the same. And so, regardless of terminology, when environments are created with users in mind, they may be enjoyed over the long term with as few physical, social, and environmental challenges as possible.

About the Author

Lindsay J. McCunn

Lindsay J. McCunn, Ph.D., is an assistant professor in environmental psychology at the University of Washington Tacoma.

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