Design can do so much for social and environmental change

So, how many times have you been consumed by a conversation where it is so evident that your present company of ‘others’ fails to understand the invaluable impact that design has on their everyday life? How many times have you ground your teeth or bitten your tongue because you had to endure comments like "design is only for the elite"; "design is frivolous"; and "design cannot benefit society"; "design has no link to innovation, technology, science or the development of entrepreneurial skills"; and my ultimate favourite: "design has no theoretical content or academic value," until you finally lose your cool.

Which really brings about a number of questions. How many ‘others’ have been educated to know that designers are actually taught how to apply their design thinking and innovative skills to effectively communicate complicated ideas or to solve problems? And how many of their complicated ideas do you, as a designer, communicate effectively every day?

Design can do!
The fact is, as we know, designers have become experts in finding and identifying new markets by applying creative and innovative skills in order to reinvent products which continues to secure existing markets for many companies and investors, contributing greatly to the economic landscape anywhere in the world.
How many of the ‘others’ have enough knowledge of you as a designer, to understand that a design skill-set empowers you with the ability to identify, profile and understand the audience your client wants to connect to, and enables you to strategise a way forward for their business? Not exactly activities that suggest low cognitive input! To possess this ability is far greater than just exercising creative skills. Design skills, developed through education, training and experience, as well as those misunderstood facilities of creativity and imagination, develop one’s sensory awareness and understanding of people different from us and environments unknown to us. And if we really tap into the development of this skill, it progressively stretches our ability to have a far greater and holistic understanding of basic human needs at any given time. Further to that, designers are sensitized to the social, economical and environmental impact of world events regardless of their cultural, religion or political orientation. This collective intelligence then informs those visionaries who go on to add value to existing conventional business structures and models. A kind of universally valuable commodity in the business world today – or so I heard!

I guess one could say that this heightened level of sensory awareness in this complex world can give us a slight glimpse of the barometers used to measure the political, environmental and social atmospheric pressures that inform world renowned trend forecasters and future predictions.

So what exactly can design do?
According to the book Made You Look, written by Stefan Sagmeister one should start by asking the following very simple questions:

"Can design do more than sell products for our clients?
Can design move someone enough to change the course of events?
Can design play a bigger role in solving societal problems?
Design can do so much more.
It can inform, delight, provoke, support and simplify someone's life"

If conventional ways are not working in your place of work or living, why not embrace a new way of thinking?

"Design Can Do is a social design organisation and workshop set up with a can-do attitude to tackle current social issues around the world with an interdisciplinary and international team of professionals" explain co-founders Jiwon Park and Yoon Bahk.

By taking a huge spectrum of expertise, life experiences and expectations and throwing it into one pot, Design Can Do not only educates but acts as a vital leveller that creates a neutral and mutual space that attracts individuals to confidently make their valuable contribution as a collective.


In collaboration with a city, district or community, Design Can Do channels an informed brief that positions a current concern, issue or problem and kicks off the dialogue with real stuff, real people and real places. This presents the participants with the opportunity to tap into their own expertise and life experiences so that they can add to this refreshing new social conversation for social change.  It is really as simple as that! If this conversation is your kind of dialogue, this experience will leave you feeling completely revitalised, energised, and motivated with a new-found focus to channel your collective expertise and experiences towards shaping social change for the greater good.

First piloted in Seoul, the creative heartbeat of South Korea (WDC2010), Design Can Do (DCD) was recently launched in Cape Town by its SA partner Rock City Foundation (RCF).

In the spirit of Ubuntu and with the RCF team that continuously identify and collect the building blocks for the WDC2014 agenda and beyond, Design Can Do was not just a great project and event that the team from Cape Town keenly wanted to participate in, but also a strategic one. Just the fact that in South Korea Design is positioned within the Ministry of Knowledge Economy, presents us with great opportunities for learning how to make sure that design is understood as part of South Africa’s knowledge economy.

"The importance and added value of integrating design thinking across industries has never been this evident. The role of the designer in society has changed dramatically over the past few years, and it is not good enough to design yet another luxury item for an exclusive few. An inclusive, vibrant and healthy SA economy that successfully addresses the triple bottom line is achievable and desirable", explains the Rock City Foundation team.  "Because we strongly believe that WDC2014 is for the continent and not only for Cape Town, we felt that Design Can Do has the correct ingredients to develop value adding content, coupled with integrity and social and environmental values to educate and ultimately empower where greatly needed".

"Coupled with the vision of DCD to 'infest' the world, and our strong connections in Africa through the ICSID board and the Network for African Design, we believe that the collaboration with the Design Can Do team has the ability to successfully mobilise action for social impact throughout Africa" explains RCF. This of course will give all DCD participants and communities / cities the opportunity to join the global Design Can Do revolution for social impact and give us all the opportunity to contribute on a much wider scale.

I think one of the most extraordinary elements that contributed to this successful 36 hour design marathon, is the fact that it brought together 36 of Cape Town’s top experts in the fields of design, urban planning, architecture, anthropology and design education to tackle a social integration brief. The Fringe district as the focus area presented a very interesting and thought-provoking challenge. The eclectic mix of these 36 extraordinary participants have now formed the Design Can Do Cape Town Collective and will continue their good work as change makers in Cape Town.

Thomas Burns, an award-winning cinematographer with a deep interest in design and the narrative experience, produced this magnificent documentary. A beautifully produced piece that truly captures the thought-provoking questioning and deep level of involvement of participants. The textural "grunge" of the location in the Fringe, the DCD structured process and the holistic vision and passion of the participants and even the stakeholders themselves set the tone and rhythm of this documentary.

Rock City Foundation, in collaboration with Cape Town Partnership, is currently exploring the implementation of the outcomes of this event in The Fringe. For more information about Design Can Do please visit

Design Can Do @ CT (Full Version) from Jiwon Park on Vimeo.

Produced & directed by Thomas Burns

Original music by Nathaniel Smith
Additional music by Chris Zabriskie and Sigur Ros


Contributor Name: 
Suné Stassen