Counter-framing design: Radical Design Practices for Sustainability and Social Change

Lead Research Organisation: Loughborough University
Department Name: Loughborough University in London

Abstract

Socio-political frames (perspectives and values embodied in wider society) are an important concept in social research for understanding how social change happens, yet this knowledge is underdeveloped in design theory. This is a relevant area of study because design has shifted from a focus on tangible products and services to intangible and complex social issues, leading to many new sub-disciplines - such as systemic, social and transition design - concerned with shaping sustainable futures. However, knowledge that can support designers in understanding and managing the political/ideological aspects of change in these contexts is lacking, due to limited integration of theories of social change within design research.
In this study, we understand social change as a process of interaction between actors in a given field, through negotiation, conflict and contestation from different frame positions. A field is an arena of cultural production where power struggles between actors are played out. Dominant or 'institutionalised' frame positions embodied by the most powerful are challenged by 'counter-frames'- values, beliefs and practices that emerge as societies evolve - constructed to gain power and influence to affect change.

Frame positions that perceive and approach issues differently co-exist within the sustainability field, based on different institutional agendas and practices. Limited awareness of what a given frame constitutes may lead to superficial progress on sustainability issues (e.g. technical fixes), meaning designers may reinforce institutionalised frames that have limited capacity for mobilising social change. Knowledge of the relationship between sociopolitical frame positions and strategic action is limited in design theory and as such, understanding of the potential role of design in social change processes is underdeveloped.

The aim of this study is to understand the relationship between socio-political framing and strategic action in the field of sustainability, to develop a novel design approach to support design for social change theory and practice. The following research questions will be addressed:
RQ1. What frame positions can be identified within the sustainability field discourse?
RQ2. In which ways can design practice understand and manage conflict, contestation and negotiation between frames within the field?
RQ3. How can integration of socio-political framing and design theories inform design practice for social change?

The research focuses on UK-based grassroots community/citizen groups whose initiatives are described as 'new economics' and are relevant to the UN Sustainable Development Goals. The study will collaborate and partner with key actors using participatory methods to develop a novel design approach (framework and tools) to facilitate strategic decision-making in these organisations. The design approach will be developed in three stages: Past-Field Mappings, conceptualising a framework informed by field theory and frame creation; Here and Now-Field Interventions, developing and piloting design research tools at three field sites; Future-Field Provocations, validating the approach with design practitioners.
This project will develop knowledge of: 1) the role of design practices in tackling complex social issues through empirical design interventions in social change processes; 2) new practical approaches to design research for social change informed by socio-political frame theory; 3) new critical perspectives on social change processes as the object of design.
The research outcomes will primarily impact the design academic and practitioners' communities by developing a new strategic design approach to enable designers to engage with social actors on complex issues. By using strategic design to foster community/citizen solutions to social issues, the outcomes will also directly benefit grassroots organisations, corporates and policymakers and indirectly civil society.

Planned Impact

The aim of this study is to understand the relationship between socio-political framing and strategic action in the field of sustainability, to develop a novel approach to inform design for social change. The research will directly benefit design practitioners, grassroots groups, policy-makers, corporates and organisations concerned with social and environmental issues. The research will indirectly impact civil society. The research activities are planned to engage the relevant beneficiaries from the outset to ensure maximum value of the research. The project will aim to deliver the following impacts:

Design practitioners will benefit from the development of a new strategic design approach informed by three pilot interventions on social mobilization. This will create novel ways for design practitioners to engage with social actors on complex issues where there is a lack of theory-driven approaches available. This opens up the potential for new types of collaborations between design practitioners and social actors. This is achieved through a design practitioner workshop to validate the design approach and by engaging designers in the final design event. Designers will be recruited from the research team's professional networks, the community of designers co-located at Loughborough's London campus, and from the mentors' networks. Outcomes specifically targeting designers include the project booklet (available in print and online) and the project website communicating the design approach: what it is and examples of how it can be applied in practice.

Grassroots organisations will benefit from design interventions with specific organisations on specific social issues. This will assist these actors with their strategic decision-making through a new set of design practices developed during the study. Specifically, this novel design approach will develop strategic solutions to inform: Citizens UK's work with ethical energy companies to reduce fossil fuel consumption and fuel poverty; ECHO's work to bolster diversity in socio-economic activities through new forms of social relationships (alternative governance/peer-to-peer); Public Work's collective action on the devalued nature of women's work in civic society.

The research will also aid grassroots groups by: building a community of actors that have a shared interest in social progress within the borough of Hackney; developing knowledge on how design can support social mobilisation (relevant to UK grassroots groups concerned with sustainability, equality, inclusivity); enabling access to design capability, which these groups lack and which limits the legitimisation of their practices, hampering progress towards social and environmental aims. This will be achieved by engaging grassroots actors in a practitioner workshop, empirical field studies on design interventions, and through the design event. Outputs targeting these actors include the final project booklet, the design event, and the final design approach.

Corporates will benefit from new understandings on how frame positions hinder or enhance their progress towards strategic goals. This will be achieved by engaging corporates in a workshop with field actors, the design event and the final project booklet.

Policymakers will benefit from the creation of empirical data that can inform local policies for Hackney council and by offering novel ways to achieve the SDGs, by using strategic design to foster community/citizen solutions to social and environmental issues, thereby informing the UK's progress towards the UN SDGs. This will be achieved by publishing a series of blog posts at key stages of the research on how the work relates to the UK's progress towards the SDGs. These will be disseminated to local policymakers with whom the research team have existing relationships.

Civil society will indirectly benefit from a better quality of life through improvements to social and environmental conditions.

Publications

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Sharon Prendeville (2022) On the Politics of Design Framing Practices in Design Issues

 
Title Design Approach (Methods and Framework) 
Description The preliminary findings have developed knowledge of the relationship between social frames and social action which is being translated into a design approach (a framework and tools). This approach will be trialled with partners at their field sites during the next phase of the project during 2022. The design approach includes visualisations, design probes and methods to support organisations with strategic decision-making and the impacts are as yet to be determined. 
Type Of Art Artefact (including digital) 
Year Produced 2021 
Impact The output is at an early stage. Impacts will be realised at a later date. 
 
Description The project is nearing completion and a range of outputs and findings have been realised. Additional work to finalise outputs will elaborate on these emergent results. The original aim of this study is to understand the relationship between socio-political framing and strategic action in the field of sustainability, to develop a novel design approach to support design for social change theory and practice.

The findings demonstrate how we can use design methods to support strategic decision-making and actions by social movement actors and grassroots organisations. Issue-framing is a strategic challenge for action on sustainability and actors mobilising for social justice struggle to articulate effective visions that support alliance building and action. The design methods and practices aid with interrogating the meanings and potential consequences and complications relating to various frames and frame debates. This argumentation has been set out in a paper entitled 'On the Politics of Design Framing Practices (Prendeville et al., 2022) and is elaborated through a critical discourse analysis of various ongoing debates pertinent to sustainability and social change. Specifically, a discourse analysis on the 'new normal' and 'new economics' has been undertaken through the lens of design theory and practice. These analysis have been or are in the process of being published as research outputs.

In addition, this practice and method of complicating through design, as opposed to "solutionism", has been elaborated into a practical usable format and applied process that organisations can work through to better understand their positionality or orientation within social contexts and shape their strategic agendas. This involves a framework and reflective process for interrogating challenges associated with collective and democratic practices of community organising.

The overarching deliverable of a new design approach is still being synthesised and refined by tying together the various elements and findings of the project. This is currently being tested through ongoing partner fieldwork.
Exploitation Route The design methods developed during the project can be taken forward for use in practice by social movements actors and organisations working for social change, campaigning and mobilising collective action. The project team is currently co-developing (with a partner organisation) a pathway to turn the research outputs into a resource for community organisations.

The academic outcomes will open up new pathways in design research by developing new knowledge of 1) new conceptual ways that design research can be married with frame theory and 2) how design parses, reconstructs and reconciles different understandings and solutions to sustainability challenges through its practices.
Sectors Communities and Social Services/Policy,Government, Democracy and Justice,Culture, Heritage, Museums and Collections

URL https://counter-frames.org/
 
Description 'Counter-Framing Design' studies the politics of design practice related to democracy, social movements, community organising, sustainability, policy design and design advocacy, in particular by examining the ways in which design practices institutionalise different social practices and discourses. The project started in February 2020 and was borne out of the experiences of working with communities who perceive, enact and materialise distinct sustainability frames in distinguishable and contesting ways. Counter-framing design aims to distinguish and deconstruct how distinct manifestations of sustainability, which are centred on distinct ideologies and produce their own discourses and sociopolitical frames, are rendered in and by design. Through an emphasis on concepts such as multitudes and collectives, we aim to deconstruct institutionalized and ineffective discourses of sustainability by politicising design frames. The project collaborations include a series of partners and communities of practice. The project activities have included design activities with various community and grassroots organisations, in doing so exposing them to design methods and processes for fostering democratic practices of community organising. The early-stage findings are showing how design methods can be used to assist these groups with strategic decision-making through better framing practices, by dealing with intersecting social issues and building alliances, which then informs their activities and practices. For example, the design research led to the integration and uptake of new forms of documentation practices to foster more open and democratic decision-making within communities. To-date, this has garnered the interest of a wider network of community organisations outside of core project partnership, some of whom are interested to trial and use methods in their organisations. The substantive design approach (framework and tools) being developed by the project will be disseminated broadly amongst community organisations in the UK throughout 2022 and 2023. Additionally, a short spin-out project has been realised which has responded to a partner-led need for new practices of community organising through design for policy methods. This is a £48k EPG funded project aiming to move policy design research into design for advocacy to support citizen-centred design practices (https://policyinnovation.design/). This involved a range of design methods and tools being applied within the context of a live policy campaign centred on settling status of undocumented migrants - activities ongoing and eventual outcome of policy change remains to be seen. This project has led to the development of a citizen-centred design for policy toolkit for social innovators. Further workshops to refine and improve this toolkit will be undertaken during 2022. The uptake of this toolkit will documented and tracked through downloads and case studies. Furthermore, a second initiative is underway to co-develop (with all partners) an educational continuing professional development resource on community organising that would become a self-sustained and shared knowledge commons, as spin out of project. This will be derived from the findings and knowledge generated to-date by the Counter-Framing Design project and team.
First Year Of Impact 2021
Sector Communities and Social Services/Policy
Impact Types Cultural,Societal

 
Description Co-design for citizen participation in policy development
Geographic Reach National 
Policy Influence Type Influenced training of practitioners or researchers
 
Description A Design for Policy Toolkit for Social Innovators: Making Design Research Inform Citizen-Centric Policymaking 
Organisation Citizens UK
Country United Kingdom 
Sector Charity/Non Profit 
PI Contribution This collaboration is set up with Citizens UK to develop a design policy toolkit for supporting design for social innovation. The research team will consolidate knowledge embedded in toolkits already available and translate this into a usable format for trialling with the partner organisations.
Collaborator Contribution The partners will facilitate toolkit testing through providing access to their work practices, context and networks. The project advisor will provide expert advice and guidance.
Impact The project developed a design for policy advocacy toolkit.
Start Year 2021
 
Description Design, Participation and Justice for Undocumented Migrants Citizens UK 
Organisation Citizens UK
Country United Kingdom 
Sector Charity/Non Profit 
PI Contribution Practice-led brief specified by partner organisation for post-graduate students to work on live active campaign issue. Research team support the teaching programme through expert knowledge input, collaboration set-up and guest lectures.
Collaborator Contribution Partner contributes to three student delivery sessions to support knowledge exchange and guidance on the topic.
Impact Student projects.
Start Year 2021
 
Description Modes of Community Organising 
Organisation Public Works Studio
Sector Public 
PI Contribution This activity builds on research work undertaken through the AHRC-funded 'Counter-Framing Design' by developing a framework and tools to respond to the varieties of ways in which community organisers struggle to sustain or maximise a community's potential and longevity, such as through issues of poor governance or deficient practices in community organising. The Counter-Framing Design team will lead the development of a set of continuing professional development (CPD) resources and frameworks to respond and aid with community organising.
Collaborator Contribution The resources and activities will be co-developed in partnership with Public Works and other collaborators.
Impact This collaboration is at an early stage so there are currently no outputs to report.
Start Year 2021
 
Description 'Counter-Framing Design' academic seminar series (annually) 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Other audiences
Results and Impact Two annual seminar series hosted by the project team on topics relevant to the project that interrogate contemporary design research and practice.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2020,2021
URL https://counter-frames.org/collective-praxis-as-designing-radicality/
 
Description 'Counter-Framing Design' academic seminar series (annually) 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Other audiences
Results and Impact Two annual seminar series hosted by the project team on topics relevant to the project that interrogate contemporary design research and practice.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2020,2021
URL https://counter-frames.org/collective-praxis-as-designing-radicality/
 
Description A Workshop on Mapping Frames for Strategic Action 
Form Of Engagement Activity Engagement focused website, blog or social media channel
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact This is a long blog write-up of a workshop hosted during the first phase of the project. The purpose was to explore how a better understanding of socio-political framing can support design for strategic action, through hands-on design activities emphasising the embodied and material dimensions of frames. The write-up summarises the aims, process and key findings of the activity and disseminated it to the participants of the workshop as well as amongst broader social media outlets. The post received 50 views during its first two weeks online.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2021
URL https://counter-frames.org/a-workshop-on-counter-framing-design-mapping-frames-for-strategic-action/
 
Description Counter-Framing the New Normal with Public Works 
Form Of Engagement Activity Engagement focused website, blog or social media channel
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact Blog post summarising the discussion and outcomes of a workshop conducted with a partner organisation and a student group.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2020
URL https://counter-frames.org/public-works-session/
 
Description Framing The Political in Socially-Engaged Design 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Postgraduate students
Results and Impact A seminar delivered by the project lead Dr Sharon Prendeville entitled 'Framing the Political in Socially-Engaged Design'. This was an invited seminar at The New School, Milano School of Management, as part of its Management and Social Justice Conversation Series.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2021
URL https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zdUsfEITxy0
 
Description Kick-Off Meeting with Project Mentors 
Form Of Engagement Activity A formal working group, expert panel or dialogue
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Other audiences
Results and Impact This meeting invited project mentors and partners to a kick-off meeting where we shared updates and progress on the the early stages of the project. Mentors and advisors shared advice and reflections on how to proceed with the project, especially in the context of the pandemic.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2020
 
Description Meeting with Project Mentors 
Form Of Engagement Activity A formal working group, expert panel or dialogue
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Other audiences
Results and Impact This meeting invite project partners and mentors to an interim review and update. The Counter-Framing Design research team shared the latest progress and developments and received advice and guidance from mentors and partners on steps and actions to proceed.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2021
 
Description Workshop with Practitioners 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact The design research workshop to 'Map Frames for Strategic Action', was hosted on 26th May 2021, with invited participants from a community of 'new economy' activists in the UK, as well as academics with expertise in areas of design, economics, sustainability, participation, peer-to-peer, commons and political economy. The purpose was to explore how a better understanding of socio-political framing can support design for strategic action, through hands-on design activities emphasising the embodied and material dimensions of frames. The workshop included a community of international participants and practitioners, from a range of countries. Overall, our design research activities generated insights on a range of practical and conceptual issues and themes. This includes community issues and challenges, including current frame debates (e.g., emerging new economy frame clusters relating to 'wealth'), as well as grappling with the characteristics and nature of frames and framing processes. The workshop outcomes also made recommendations for practitioners and identified a series of conceptual/methodological points for further development.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2021
URL https://counter-frames.org/a-workshop-on-counter-framing-design-mapping-frames-for-strategic-action/