Now what?


The concept of design takes ‘what was’ and ‘what is’ (archaeology) and shifts to ‘what could be’.  Design involves an iterative process of problem solving that includes identifying the practices and most importantly the needs of end users, generating and testing ideas and then implementing them.


We build on the strengths of design-oriented approaches and the strengths of sociological enquiry to make sure that the solutions that are developed are not the (unwittingly) repackaged mistakes of the past. Many organisations have a history of reviews whose recommendations are mirrored in reviews of the same issues decades later. Without understanding the barriers to change, the most expertly facilitated design workshop will amount to little more than dejavu.  

We use design sociology to assist our clients to understand and situate their most intractable and wicked problems within the context of their own organisation.  The approach is underpinned by a number of propositions:


  • Complex organisational problems are difficult to solve because they are held in place by strong forces of people, artifacts and networks that have a vested interest in not solving the problem.

  • Complex problems require a sophisticated understanding of the archeology and context of the forces that gave rise to the problem in the first place.

  • Its crucial to understand all the efforts and interventions undertaken in the past to resolve this problem and why they were not successful.

  • That the same mode of thinking that gave rise to the problem in the first place will not be useful in helping to solve it, and

  • Generic cookie cutter solutions deployed quickly and without a deep appreciation for the problem are bound to end up on a large refuse heap of linear change management journey maps.


We use Design Sociology to envisage alternative futures where organisation’s stubborn problems are on the way to being iteratively resolved.b

orn problems are on the way to being iteratively resolved.

Design Sociology is a cutting edge approach that leverages both Applied Sociology and Design Abduction.  It’s an applied method for solving complex and multifaceted problems of the ‘social’. It has been defined as


“Development of novel modes of sociological inquiry, especially for research that seeks to understand people’s engagements with objects and systems, better engage publics and other stakeholders, work towards social change, and identify and intervene in futures”

It starts with a working assumption that complex social problems within organisations are held in place by the strong forces of social actors, networks (people and artefacts) and interactions between them.  The only way to break these strong force bonds and begin moving the problem towards resolution is through the combination of Applied Sociology – The thoughtful observation (evidence) and reflective sense making (analysis) in an applied context; combined with Design Abduction – deploying user centric design methods and reasoning to design new solutions, and then deploy, measure and learn from fast cycle iterative (prototype) interventions (or field experiments) that achieve sustainable change.


To understand Design Sociology it is also useful to understand certain definitions of the academic disciplines and modes of reasoning used by us.


Sociology is the study of social behaviours or society, including its origins, development, organisations, networks, and institutions. It is a social science that uses various methods of empirical investigation and critical analysis to develop a body of knowledge about social order, disorder, and change.


Applied Sociology is a term that describes practitioners who use sociological theories and methods outside of academic settings with the aim to 'produce positive social change through active intervention'.


Sociological analysis. Like most scientific disciplines sociology uses deductive and inductive reasoning to make sense of observations and evidence.  Deduction is the logic of what must be, that is it reasons from the general to the specific.  We know that Mammals don’t lay eggs and suckle their young, so if I see an animal that both lays eggs and suckles its young its not a mammal (enter the platypus causing much confusion to early naturalists).  Induction on the other hand is the logic of what is operative, that is reasoning from the specific to the general.  If I study obesity in thousands of adults and observe a pattern that the majority of these obese adults were obese children in the first five years of their life, then we can confidently assert that children between the ages of zero and five who are obese are more likely to become obese adults.


Design as a field has been around since the beginning of human endeavour.  However, the more modern application of this as a concept is through Design Thinking, or simply thinking as a designer would.  How is that? This definition is adapted from a definition posited by IDEO CEO Tim Brown;


A discipline that uses the designer’s sensibility and methods to match people’s needs (user centric need or inquiry) with what is practically feasible and what a viable realisation strategy can convert into value and opportunity or sustainable change for the future.


Design Thinking is the most important method or tool in the Designer’s tool kit and in reality is nothing more than a different way of thinking and reasoning, it is a result of abductive logic as opposed to deductive or inductive logic (as discussed earlier).


Design Abduction is a derivative of a strange mode of reasoning first put forward by the philosopher Charles Sanders Peirce, where the goal is not declarative reasoning, that is its goal is not to declare a conclusion to be true or false, its goal is to posit what could possibly be true, where the first step of reasoning is not observation but contemplation. (in Roger Martin).  According to Dorst the starting point in Design Abduction is that the only thing we know with some certainty is the nature of the future outcome desired, we know nothing about what elements make up a solution or how they are connected. Unlike deduction and induction this requires a very painful ‘leap in logic’, often not sufficiently supported by the observed evidence – this tends to make sociologists and scientists in general very uncomfortable.


Enter Design Sociology, which give applied sociologists a powerful way to start making sense of the evidence, or importantly lack of evidence in envisaging and developing new solutions to stubborn and sticky old problems by recourse to new thinking.  Sociologists are ideally placed to study social behaviours of society, including its origins, development, organizations, networks, and institutions.  So it makes sense that they also be a part of the solution design.


Roozenburg and Eekels (in Dorst) have taken the work of Peirce and situated it within the discipline of Design that gives us a clear insight on the potential confluence between applied sociology and Design.  They posit that the world can be considered to be made up of “elements” such as people and things, and connections between these elements, captured in a ‘pattern of relationships’ that we can observe through the interactions of these elements, and the “observed phenomenon (outcome)” of a process in which the elements have interacted. Put simply as an algorithm:


Elements (what) + Pattern of Relationship (how)  = Observed Phenomenon (outcome)