The Intergalactic Design Guide: Harnessing the Creative Potential of Social Design

The Intergalactic Design Guide: Harnessing the Creative Potential of Social Design

by Cheryl Heller


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781610918817
Publisher: Island Press
Publication date: 10/18/2018
Edition description: None
Pages: 264
Sales rank: 533,101
Product dimensions: 6.10(w) x 8.10(h) x 0.80(d)

About the Author

Cheryl Heller is the Founding Chair of the first MFA program in Design for Social Innovation at SVA and President of the design lab CommonWise. She was recently awarded a Rockefeller Bellagio Fellowship, and is a recipient of the prestigious AIGA Medal for her contribution to the field of design. Her clients have included Ford Motor Company, American Express, Pfizer, Mars Corporation, Discovery Networks International, Herman Miller, Gap, Bayer Corporation, Seventh Generation, L’Oreal, The World Wildlife Fund, Ford Foundation, and the Girl Scouts of America. Heller is the former Board Chair of PopTech, and a Senior Fellow at the Babson Social Innovation Lab. She created the Ideas that Matter program for Sappi in 1999, which has since given over $13 million to designers working for the public good.

Read an Excerpt


The Answer to Everything

A BICYCLE SALESMAN ON TENTH AVENUE AND FIFTY-EIGHTH STREET in Manhattan offers practical wisdom to customers who walk into the store to buy their first serious bike. His body speaks with road-tested authority before he does, with quadriceps the size of footballs and calves that look as if they were blown up with a bicycle pump. Tutorials include demos on changing flats, adjusting seats, working gears on tricky hills, and getting out of toe clips in time to avoid toppling sideways toward the pavement, bike in hand.

"I'll give you one more piece of advice," he says. "You're going to be inclined to stare at the pothole or the curb or open cab door when you're out on the streets, thinking that's the best way not to hit it. Don't. Look at the space beside it, no matter how narrow. Because what you look at is where you'll go."

Somewhat more eloquently, the philosopher William Irwin Thompson said that, like fly-fishers, "we cast images in front of ourselves and then slowly reel ourselves into them, turning them into reality." The point is pretty much the same whether you're riding a bike, catching a fish, or trying to imagine a future for humankind.

But it's the concreteness of the bike salesman's wisdom that makes it brilliant, the specificity of it that connects our pothole-level reality with the loftiest universal ideals.

Instead of staring into the dismal picture put out by twenty-four-hour-a-day media and entertainment, trapping ourselves in an endless inventory of what's wrong, can we picture the reality we want to see? That vision would be of a civilization with its best years still in the future: a world in which everyone who wants useful work has it and more than a handful of people have money and power, a world where industries aren't fighting over the remnants of extracted resources and we don't poison ourselves with toxic chemicals. Where we live in a state of mutuality with each other and with nature, not a frenzied destruction of her. Where the reasons to trust outweigh the need to protect.

This is not Oz I'm describing, or a naive vision of utopia, or blindness to the difficulties inherent in maintaining a species as ubiquitous, acquisitive, self-centered, and frequently violent as our own, but a vision that accepts our inherent character and channels its collective creativity in mostly benign, productive ways.

It's a civilization that would have a shot at first prize in any intergalactic design competition.

Unlike the traditional design processes that have formed so much of our modern society, social design is a methodology for changing the human condition. Not changing the world, as so many like to say, because the world itself is not in need of change. Social design is a system, first and foremost, for designing fundamental changes in ourselves: a shift in who we think we are, how we perceive and treat each other, what we believe is possible and can work together to create. It instills a belief in human agency and creativity and builds the capacity for communities to reimagine new stories and new realities for themselves.

"Social design" is a term that entered the lexicon around 2006. The name can be interpreted literally as the design (or redesign) of societies, at either ultralocal or large scales. It incorporates both the physical and the intangible, the human relationships that create communities and form societies.

Within the army of people already working to address social issues of poverty, equity, and their kin, the question inevitably arises (with varying degrees of suspicion) as to how social design is different from what they already do, and exactly what, at a pothole-specific level, it is.

Design has always been in service to what's next and, sometimes, to what is really needed. Social design is, in one way, simply design's evolutionary trajectory in relation to the effects of technology. Yet it is revolutionary. Almost nothing about it is new except its organization into a system and its application to human relationships instead of only artifacts. Yet that has never been done before. It's a particular combination of activities performed in a certain order, informed by a set of principles, and mastered through a combination of hard and soft skills. Yet it turns the established ways of working upside down.

There is nothing magical about it, although some like to make it seem that way. All those willing to invest themselves fully can learn to do it, and while much of it seems like logic too simple to merit study, significant rigor, discipline, and time are required to do it well. It doesn't guarantee success, but it does increase the odds of making things work for more people instead of only a few. Most of all, it changes anyone who practices it: social design puts us in touch with our own creativity, resourcefulness, and purpose.

Unlike designing with physical resources, social design is often intangible, disappearing into the evidence it produces — the polar opposite of making a fancy new car or phone, where there's a solid artifact for all to judge or admire. Yet the invisible forces that are the materials of social design control the way we think, the things we make, the way we act, and whether or not we'll succeed in finding a viable way to live and work together.

Nearly a quarter century ago, David Orr wrote Earth in Mind and called us out on the shoddy design of our industrial civilization. It's an understatement to say that for now, the situation has not improved. Not for lack of awareness, though, since the evidence is everywhere.

The drinking water in Flint, Michigan, poisons the city's residents. The air quality in Beijing poisons citizens there. Five hundred children under the age of five die every day in India from issues of contaminated water and poor sanitation. Babies are born with opioid addiction, costing billions of dollars in health care. Two out of three adults in the United States are either grossly overweight or obese, and the richest 1 percent are wealthier than the "bottom" 90 percent combined. Terrorists drive onto sidewalks in an effort to kill pedestrians. The Amazon jungle is being destroyed at the rate of one and one-half acres per second, and half of all the 22-million-year-old coral reefs on the planet have died in the past 30 years because of climate change. Without radical modification, our current trajectory leads only to disaster — death by the fallout from climate change, epidemic, or nuclear war, each resulting in one way or another from the unsustainable civilization we have built.

We do not suffer, though, from a scarcity of ideas for how to remedy our plight. In Blessed Unrest, Paul Hawken called the widespread awakening of social and environmental activism the "greatest movement on earth." It includes small grassroots efforts everywhere and massive global programs and technologies with the power and scale to transform life as we know it. Inventors have developed renewable sources of energy, and entrepreneurs grow materials from mushrooms that replace those made from plastic. Financial inclusion services have been developed that make it possible for people without money to join the global economy. Dozens of designs for cookstoves don't suffocate the people who use them; fishing nets exist that do not trap and kill hundreds of thousands of loggerhead and leatherback sea turtles and seabirds every year. People everywhere are either working to raise awareness about the things that need addressing or fixing current problems and developing new technologies to circumvent them. The list is endless, and tallying it would be akin to trying to count the number of restaurants in New York City while new ones close and open every day.

This book offers a practitioner's perspective on social design, not a technical, academic, or theoretical one. There are books on design research methods, history, heroes, and contributions. There are beautiful books on the craft of design, its materials and aesthetics. Here, no attempt has been made to include everything there is to know, only enough — and, I hope, plenty — for everyone who wants to practice social design to understand how and where it works. And to see that the only place to begin is where they are.

The examples included are about practitioners, people who learn from doing and act their way to change. They set out, driven by an audacious purpose, but often with no advance plan for how to accomplish it. They make decisions based on evidence, navigating in uncertainty, moving forward one step at a time. Yet they accomplish the improbable, upending accepted notions of "how things are done." Who would expect, for example, that a global business could be built by selling to people who make less than two dollars per day? Or that a grassroots movement could use text messages to curtail violence among people who were fired up to fight? Or that scientists and hotel companies could collaborate to save coral reefs? These are some of the challenges that social designers are taking on.

The social designers included here are remarkable people, not just because they have experience, special skills, and intelligence, but because they are leaders. They are the people who step up, who decide to act instead of only thinking about it, and who engage wildly diverse collaborators in the process, leaving the comfort of their silos of expertise to continually learn and grow. Their stories illustrate how others, compelled by their values and driven to make their work matter, can do the same.

By any of the names used to describe it, including "human-centered design," "impact design," and "social innovation design," social design is gaining traction in expected as well as surprising places far beyond the stories told here. Global corporations use it to ignite creativity and engagement within their cultures; foundations embed it into their efforts to end poverty and improve human health. Institutions in the acronym community, such as the UN, UNICEF, USAID, and DFID, use social design to develop new approaches, erase the boundaries of internal silos, and step around archaic bureaucratic processes. It is used to address crime and homelessness in neighborhoods, to revitalize America's Rust Belt cities, to jump-start economies in India, to connect hundreds of thousands of women to prenatal and infant care across Africa. It is a system that is relevant to any human endeavor.

Each of the stories on the pages that follow opens a window into a future different from the one we see in the news every day. All offer proof that it's possible to change the direction in which we're headed, and all illustrate the process for getting there. Unlike the solitary heroes of the past who decided what was best for everyone else, these collaborative leaders engage everyone they touch. Paul Polak creates new markets and industries where they didn't exist before. He helps people earn their way out of poverty by asking them why they're poor and then doing "the simple and obvious" to help them change it. At eighty-four, he is launching three new enterprises with the potential to reach 20 million more of the roughly 70 percent of the people in the world who earn less than two dollars per day.

Michael Murphy has built a global architecture practice by eschewing the traditional priorities of his industry, hacking what others accept as an inviolate set of rules as to how, and for whom, built environments are created, and by involving the communities where he builds in the plans. He is reimagining the scope and purpose of architectural design and, in the process, redefining what it means to be an architect. Ruth Gates is prodding academia into action and building a network of unusual collaborators to save the ocean's coral reefs by scaling the resilient "supercorals" she's breeding. Rachel Brown reduced violence in Kenya by activating a massive grassroots movement of peace builders, using text messages to infiltrate communities with the information they needed to understand the issues. She is now practicing her methods of defusing hate speech and spreading peace in other parts of the world.

Jeffrey Brown has built a grocery store empire in the poorest neighborhoods of Philadelphia by asking communities what will work for them. He staffs his business with enthusiastic local team members, almost one-third of whom used to be in jail. In Buffalo, New York, the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus has changed the city's image of itself and changed its fortunes, igniting new energy and growth through a networked, collaborative approach to creativity. Erik Hersman builds connectivity to bring education and opportunity to Africa's frontier markets, creating what he hopes will become the continent's first billion-dollar homegrown enterprise. And Interface, a carpet manufacturer based in Atlanta, Georgia, is engaging residents of remote fishing villages, using its supply chain to save precious human and marine ecosystems while maintaining Interface's position as the largest carpet tile company in the world.

Unbeknownst to these leaders, they all follow the same principles and use the essential social design process. Every one of them has turned the conventional processes and fixed opinions of their industries on their heads. They have demonstrated the vision and courage to see, and then act on, instincts counter to what they were taught and told. These are principles and methods applicable to any endeavor that relies on human beings acting in collaboration.

It is not an accident that only two of the projects here are led by people who call themselves designers. Some of the best and most effective exemplars of social design don't apply that label to themselves. They are not designers in the way the term has traditionally been defined.

Because social design is based on creating with others and not for them, the old, calcified distinctions between designers and nondesigners don't count. Social design does not suffer bystanders. It depends on the collective cocreation of a future, and it succeeds when all participants feel ownership of the process. The answer to everything is to stop trying to change everything, to focus instead on transforming ourselves. These leaders exemplify how it's done.


The experience of social design is transformative. It shifts our focus away from searching for solutions in something or someone outside ourselves or searching for the "right" decision that will change things. It builds capacity within participants for resourcefulness and an ability to act on the basis of what is happening rather than what was assumed in advance. It puts everyone in the middle, as protagonists, collaborators, and mediators, instead of on the outside. It forms a collective sense of self that requires people to look more deeply into their own community and place, whether that's a global corporate culture, a rural village of two hundred people, or an urban center of multiple millions. It allows us to see what is unique about every instance and place, as well as the common needs that make us the same. It is a way to hear our own voices in context with the voices of others who are never heard. This is the transformative power of social design to change us, so that we can apply these mutualistic principles everywhere throughout our lives. The same principles that apply to urban food deserts, coral reefs, hospitals, and violence prevention apply everywhere, to everyone.


Common sense is not the same as wisdom. A familiar expression in the systems thinking world is that "every system is perfectly designed to produce the results it produces." In other words, the only way to alter an outcome is to change the system that determines it. Applied to modern culture, this means that the system we've designed will continue to produce outcomes we don't want unless we redesign it. In order to move from helplessly watching what's happening to changing it, we must be able to see, understand, and intervene in the invisible dynamics that drive our behavior.

What systems lie behind our addiction to acquisitions? What prevents us from curtailing our destructive habits? Why do we passively accept unspoken "rules" about what is sensible or right or kosher that we know aren't right when we stop to think about them? When we do see ourselves clearly, why don't we change? Why does our species seem incapable of acting together in our own best interest? Plenty of research has been conducted to investigate these questions. Theories range from the belief that a flaw in our brains prevents us from comprehending dangers in the future, to the fact that since ours is the most violent species ever to walk the planet (the reason we survived), it is therefore simply our nature to continually war with each other and wipe out any creatures we view as competition.

What we accept as common sense is narcotic, a hegemony of shared practices and beliefs we never question because they're all we've known. "Common sense" in business can take the form of blind faith in the predictive power of a carefully written five-year plan. Or it can mean succumbing to the placebo effect of adding committees and departments as a way to solve problems that no committee or department could hope to solve, because the problems are endemic to the organization itself. Outside the workplace, so- called common sense supports our habit of discarding current devices every time a new model is introduced or putting chemicals on our lawns and into the water supply because we want to be seen as responsible homeowners.


Excerpted from "The Intergalactic Design Guide"
by .
Copyright © 2018 Cheryl Heller.
Excerpted by permission of ISLAND PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents


The Answer to Everything
Seeing Edges and Patterns: Scoping and Framing
Past as Prologue
Mastering the System

Nine Stories of Leadership by Design:
Brown's Super Stores: Solutions inspired by people who need them
Ruth Gates: Mixing science and social design to address climate change
The Salvage Supperclub: Navigating with feedback loops
Interface Net-works: Creating new models and solving problems along the way
Erik Hersman: Tapping the power of limits
Paul Polak: The story is in the context
The Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus: Using a network to create a new future for a city
Sisi Ni Amani: Communicating the way to nonviolence
MASS Design: Process is Strategy

Getting from There to Here
Some Things Worth Reading

About the Author

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