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

10 25 50

publication icon
Prendeville S (2022) On the Politics of Design Framing Practices in Design Issues

publication icon
Prendeville S (2022) From Publics to Counterpublics

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

publication icon
Carlton-Parada A (2023) Radical design praxis and the problematics of intent 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 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 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 their goals of alliance building and action. The counter-framing design methods and practices developed aid with interrogating the meanings and potential (unintended) consequences relating to various frames and frame debates. In this project, this method (Prendeville et al., 2022) is developed in relation to ongoing debates pertinent to sustainability and social change. Specifically, we identified how social practices oriented towards change relate to frames of 'new normal' and 'new economics'. Our findings imply that design theory and practice needs to pay more attention to power structures (institutional, positionality) and the social practices that are drawn upon in relation to any potential problem framing of social/public issues.

In addition, the counter-design method and practices 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 how this shapes 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 counter-design approach is still being synthesised and refined by tying together the various elements and findings of the project.
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,Environment,Government, Democracy and Justice,Culture, Heritage, Museums and Collections

URL https://counter-frames.org/
 
Description 'Counter-Framing Design' studies the politics of design practices in the context of social movements, by examining the ways in which such practices institutionalise different social outcomes. 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 interrogate how different theories of sustainability, which are borne out of distinct ideologies and discourses and sociopolitical frames, may be reproduced unwittingly in design practices. Making these implicit assumptions and norms explicit offers avenues for more focused and intentional deliberation on effective use of design strategies for sustainability. For example, in one of the project events a community organised conveyed to us how they hadn't thought about framing in this light previously and that this implied to them that they needed to revisit the strategic effect of some of the practices they were taking up. The project collaborations have involved several partners and communities of practice. The project has designed activities targeting various community and grassroots organisations, in doing so exposing them to design methods and processes aimed at fostering more democratic practices of community organising. The findings show how design methods can be used to assist these groups with strategic decision-making through improved framing practices. This has led to observations of some initial changes in partner practices. For example, the 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 design approach (framework and tools) developed by the project is being further implemented through two spin-out collaborations. This will give more detailed data on the changes engendered to-date. For example, the team has developed two new collaborations with two of the original collaborators on this project. One involves specifically running framing activities on a fuel poverty campaign and the second is developing educational resources for community organising based on knowledge gaps identified during this project. These knowledge gaps pertain to the need for situated models for democratic community governance as opposed to widely taken up generic practices, the effective use of codes of conduct and their limitations, as well as the realities of how leadership impacts community governance in contexts where leadership practices are denied to exist and/or are taken to be effectively managed through community structures.
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 a Higher Education Innovation Fund (HEIF) project set up in collaboration with Citizens UK to develop a design for policy toolkit for supporting design for social innovation. The research team synthesised knowledge embedded in toolkits already publicly available and translated this into a new consolidated and usable format for trialling with partner organisations. The purpose of the toolkit is to support citizen-centric design for policy processes.
Collaborator Contribution The partners facilitated toolkit testing through providing access to their work practices, context and networks. The toolkit was developed by testing the approaches with live partner campaigns on public issues. The project advisor provide expert advice and guidance.
Impact The project developed a design for policy advocacy toolkit. 10.1080/25741292.2022.2141487
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 Migrant Employability Campaign 
Organisation Anna Freud Centre
Country United Kingdom 
Sector Charity/Non Profit 
PI Contribution Design expertise in the co-creation of the campaign, informed by the methodology of the Counter-Framing Design project. Contribution to campaign structure and resources. Future participation in a Migrant Job Fair for migrants who wish to further education as part of their job skills.
Collaborator Contribution Organisation specific expertise (English and skills training, job seeking, mental health services, support for policy change), new contacts with businesses who may be interested in hiring, and continued relationships and feedback from migrant clients and/or participants.
Impact Support of Mayor Phil Glanville as well as the Islington leaders. EETG (East End Trade Guild) has offered support to think through a potential collaboration for employment and/or training. Currently seeking resources for the creation of a Migrant Job Fair with campaign members representing their organisations.
Start Year 2021
 
Description Migrant Employability Campaign 
Organisation Citizens UK
Country United Kingdom 
Sector Charity/Non Profit 
PI Contribution Design expertise in the co-creation of the campaign, informed by the methodology of the Counter-Framing Design project. Contribution to campaign structure and resources. Future participation in a Migrant Job Fair for migrants who wish to further education as part of their job skills.
Collaborator Contribution Organisation specific expertise (English and skills training, job seeking, mental health services, support for policy change), new contacts with businesses who may be interested in hiring, and continued relationships and feedback from migrant clients and/or participants.
Impact Support of Mayor Phil Glanville as well as the Islington leaders. EETG (East End Trade Guild) has offered support to think through a potential collaboration for employment and/or training. Currently seeking resources for the creation of a Migrant Job Fair with campaign members representing their organisations.
Start Year 2021
 
Description Uncommon Knowledge: Education for Local Democracy 
Organisation Public Works Studio
Sector Public 
PI Contribution This project, funded through Higher Education Innovation Funding (HEIF), exploits research undertaken during the AHRC-funded 'Counter-Framing Design' project, by developing tools to respond to the varieties of ways in which community organisers might 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 Uncommon Knowledge project team at Loughborough University will lead the development of a set of continuing professional development (CPD) resources and frameworks to respond to and aid with community organising. The research team will manage the whole project, develop the pedagogical materials, and trial them with partners.
Collaborator Contribution The resources and activities will be co-developed in partnership with Public Works and other collaborators. Public Works provides expert advice to the development of the resources based on its longstanding practices in this space. Outlandish will input advice from a practitioner viewpoint, to ensure the viability of the tools after they have been developed.
Impact This project will develop a set of continuing professional development materials that will be made available online open access.
Start Year 2022
 
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/