How can designers really make a difference?
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How can designers really make a difference?

Ways in which design can cross cultural boundaries to solve problems in an array of areas and socio-economic levels

How can designers really make a difference?
By Redazione The Plan -

The call for submissions of Design for Social Impact of The Plan Journal (TPJ), vol.1 [2016], no.2 [Fall] asked:

How do we leverage the power of design to actually, as designers, make a difference? What does it mean “designing for social impact” beyond socio-economical analysis and reporting, or before it becomes political activism and advocacy? How do we grow our design intelligence and sharpen our design tools to make our projects more relevant for society? And how do we assess social impact for design interventions?

Then, TPJ’s call for submissions of Design for Social Impact explains:

Often through new models of professional engagement, designing for social impact can remain a way to practice, and research in, architecture centered on the fundamental principles of the art: simply, by also addressing the needs, aspirations and resources of many, vis-à-vis ever more complex socio-economic, political and cultural issues. It can also mean to bring the “cultural beauty” of architecture (that is its power of offering synthetic solutions to highly complex problems) to those who would not normally afford to enjoy it. 

The TPJ seeks contributions, analyses, explorations, reflective practices and case-studies from a variety of perspectives, on these and other related questions, capable to cast a meaningful light on this massive transformation impacting architecture and its related design fields.

In his editorial “Stretching Design Intelligence to Make a Difference” Maurizio Sabini Editor-in-Chief of The Plan Journal wrote:

Designing for social impact has a long history and a recent phase of renewed awareness and interest.
For the former, one could go back to the social concerns of the Modern Movement and its research and experimentations for affordable housing and a “functional city.” 
Regarding the more recent phase of renewed awareness and interest, the 2016 Venice Biennale “Reporting from the Front” certainly represented a culminating point. (137)


We invite you to learn how such complex political, economic, cultural, technical and environmental issues and challenges represent real opportunities for our design intelligence, if properly stretched, to make a difference in the world.”
(Sabini, 138)

We are presenting some of the ideas and visions contained in the Design for Social Impact issue of the journal that resonated with us. The first three are projects. In “Temporary Houses for Post-Disaster and Social Emergency,” the author Mariagiulia Bennicelli Pasqualis’ “research focuses on the theme of the resolution of the problem of emergency housing in urban and metropolitan areas.” In “Walk the Line. Architecture as a catalyst for Socio-Spatial Connectivity,” the authors Tatiana Bilbao and Nuria Benítez aim to improve the safety of the neighborhood of Miravalle which suffers from high rates of violence. In “S House n.3,” the author Vo Trong Nghia describes a “prototype house for low-income classes designed in response to housing shortages in countries struck by natural disasters” that was constructed in Ho Chi Minh City.

The next two articles involve community engagement design. In “Many Voices, On Project: Participation and Aesthetics in Community-Built Practices,” the author Katherine Melcher explains “aesthetic qualities — in particular, quality craftsmanship and unified design — may be challenging to realize within participatory processes, they also contribute to the overall project goals of strengthening people’s relationships with place and with each other, which is, ultimately, the goal of community-built work.” In “Designing with Dignity: Health and Design Research for Underserved Communities,” the authors Yvonne Michael and Diana Nicholas explain that “Designing with Dignity” is a course in which students study “how health and design research can inform problem-solving for underserved communities. Finally, we share with you the status of education and career opportunities for designing for social impact.

>> We encourage you to browse The Plan Journal and explore its issue dedicated to Design for Social Impact for yourself.


What do temporary houses, walkable environments and adaptable structures have in common? They are healthy and safe urban solutions to real life problems in real time.

In “Temporary Houses for Post-Disaster and Social Emergency,” the author Mariagiulia Bennicelli Pasqualis’ research proposes a “model of open residential building system, based on high density and reversibility strategies.” The typology is defined by an “elementary module” that consists of four elements: 1) envelope system; 2) living space unit; 3) vertical connection unit; and 4) structural “core.”

Possible external view of the SATOR project, depending on the shell definition.

Pasqualis shares that “one of the central points at the base of the present study is primarily to show that through a symbiotic relationship among the authorities in-charge, universities, civil protection agencies, contractors and industrial suppliers within the building sector – along with a careful design activityit is possible to realize comfortable, sustainable, agreeable interventions of temporary high-density building systems.”

>> The article can be found here in TPJ (in English)


In “Walk the Line. Architecture as a catalyst for Socio-Spatial Connectivity,” authors Tatiana Bilbao and Nuria Benítez explain how a team of architects working alongside community stakeholders were able start the process of “transform[ing] the main park of the area and neighboring communities into a walkable and safe recreational area.”

Conceptual diagram of the original project.

Bilbao and Benítez suggest that “if a safe line crossing the park could help diminish the insecurity and strengthen the connections between people and space within the neighborhoods, then architectural interventions as a stead for social development” are ensured. They continue to raise moneys to finish the project. The scope grew from a simple lit path to an all-inclusive masterplan for the park sparked by the idea that “the prerequisite for city life is a walkable urban environment.”

>> To learn more, read the article that can be found here in TPJ (in English)


In “S House n.3,” Vo Trong Nghia explains that “starting from the Mekong Delta, the S HOUSE project is aiming to be disseminated to the entire Vietnam, South East Asia, India and African countries, and to the rest of the world where low-income people are suffering from poorly built environment.”  

The S House 3 measures 31.6 sq m (340 sq ft) and has just one large interior space inside. © Hiroyuki Oki.


Nghia points out that “the S HOUSE project is designed to be flexible and adaptable to expansion or new uses as the next prototypes will showcase.” Their most recent protype that is in progress [S House 4] will be larger than its predecessor and as a result can accommodate in-demand user types such as schools or clinics.

>> The article can be found here in TPJ (in English)


How are communities being engaged when designing for social impact?

In the article “Many Voices, On Project: Participation and Aesthetics in Community-Built Practices,” the author Katherine Melcher claims that “in architecture and related design fields, there is a perception that community participation in design requires a compromise with aesthetic quality. Alternatively, community-built design (the practice of involving local residents in the design and construction of places) values both participation and aesthetics.” The professional designer’s role is not only as “a facilitator, a community organizer, and a social scientist,” but s/he is also an expert in “developing a creative synthesis that is expressed in a beautiful or inspiring form.”

The use of local history to inspire a themed mural. The Imagineers, Mural, Newton KS, USA. Artist: David Loewenstein.

Melcher posits that “community-built practices suggest that designers in fields such as architecture, landscape architecture, and urban design, should not think of participation and aesthetics as trade-offs but, instead, consider participation as an opportunity to bring new ideas into their work and to develop an aesthetic that reflects the richness and complexity of the participatory process.

>> The article can be found here in TPJ (in English)


In “Designing with Dignity: Health and Design Research for Underserved Communities,” the authors Yvonne Michael and Diana Nicholas explain that “one important element in the course [“Designing with Dignity”] that was essential for success was the intentional building of community among the course participants.” The current educational environment recognizes that students need to not only learn how to utilize multi-disciplinary viewpoints of community members when problem-solving, but also to have opportunities practicing this skill in various conditions.

Students presenting and discussing their initial prototypes.

Michael and Nicholas “hope this course will be a model for inter-professional courses at the intersection of design and health.” 

>> The article can be found here in TPJ (in English)


The good news is that there will be more career opportunities for designing for social impact!

This is a critical time in the professional environment for designing for social impact. Designers are now called to act as intermediaries, innovators, synthesizers and suppliers of social and sustainable solutions at a strategic level. Organizations are realizing that designers bring a unique skill set for creating human-centered artifacts, services, systems, structures and environmental landscapes. 

In response to the strong demand for such forward-thinking individuals, new curriculum and social design programming is being developed at the undergraduate and graduate levels across America. Transformative creators who are committed to social and economic justice through design are needed now more than ever. The Plan Journal, vol.1 [2016], no.2 [Fall] has more articles that share telling examples of projects, research, reflective-practices and investigations by professionals of this kind who design for social impact. 

>> To learn more about career opportunities, check out the reference: LEAP Dialogues: Career Pathways in Design for Social Innovation, by Marianna Amatullo

>> Again, you can learn more about Design for Social Impact here


Why support + read TPJ?

The Plan Journal is intended to disseminate and promote innovative, thought-provoking, and relevant research, studies, and criticism related to architecture and urbanism. The journal grew out of an awareness that academia is all too often engaged in research that’s disconnected from the real-world challenges that face different professions, and that research is only possible for a small number of professional organizations, and, even then, with limited platforms for its dissemination. The overarching aim of TPJ is therefore to enrich the dialogue between researchers and professionals so as to foster both pertinent new knowledge and intellectually driven modes of practice.


How does it work + why does it matter?

Prospective contributors are encouraged to submit proposals or complete manuscripts to the Editor-in-Chief. Subject to positive feedback, proposals can then be developed into complete manuscripts and submitted for review, using the dedicated portal on the TPJ website. 

After preliminary approval, manuscripts will be forwarded to suitably qualified people for commenting. TPJ is committed to following a rigorous double-blind peer review process using at least two reviewers. The Editor-in-Chief may also occasionally invite recognized academics, critics, or professionals (including members of the editorial board) to contribute to the journal without going through the peer review process, if warranted by the author’s reputation.


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