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

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


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.


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Sharon Prendeville (2021) On the Politics of Design Framing Practices in Design Issues

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Sharon Prendeville Design Politics of Deep Participation in CoDesign

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 fieldsites during the next phase of the project. The design approach includes visualisations, design probes and methods to support organisations with strategic decision-making. 
Type Of Art Artefact (including digital) 
Year Produced 2021 
Impact The output is at early stage. Impacts will be realised at a later date. 
Description The project is early-mid stage underway and as such most of the findings are yet to be realised.

The early-stage 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 policy change on sustainability struggle to articulate effective visions that support alliance building and action. The design methods under development translates understandings from ecological debates and frame theory, into usable formats for practitioners to shape their strategic agendas.
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 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,Creative Economy,Environment,Government, Democracy and Justice,Culture, Heritage, Museums and Collections

Description The early-stage findings from the grant are beginning to be used by social innovators (charities, community organisations, activist groups) and design practitioners. 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. The findings are currently being translated into a design method, which has so far been preliminarily trialled in one workshop with practitioners. This design approach will develop use the findings to inform: Citizens UK's work on climate mobilities 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 public place-making. Specifically, with Citizens UK, we are using the early-stage results to co-design, develop and implement policy-solutions in partnership with its network of stakeholders and informed by the broader research insights. The method uses different framing of social issues to inform (interdependent and competing) design-led future scenarios to support decision-making on policies. The trialling will continue through two near-term practitioner workshops. Once fully developed, the design method will be disseminated to a wider community of design practitioners and agencies and social innovators.
First Year Of Impact 2021
Impact Types Cultural,Societal,Policy & public services

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 Project kick-off stage, none to report to-date.
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 Early-stage, none to report to-date.
Start Year 2021
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