Designing for Social Impact

  • 2023

  • Design Research

Commissioned By:

Monash University

Designed In:


The Designing for Social Impact project articulates the integral role design can play in amplifying the potential for research to lead to positive social change. The research-on-research project website shares the research findings, actionable outputs and creative methods for reframing research impact and shifting research practice.

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  • Academic research is a massively untapped resource for social impact. Although universities are committed to research that makes a difference, a core challenge lies in getting researchers to unlearn practice habits that better served the advancement of disciplinary knowledge over social impact. There were two phases in the practice-based design and ethnography project. Initial participatory workshops surfaced the challenges and later informed the design of the translational research materials. The project outputs support the transformative shiftwork required for individuals to recognise the implications of their current practice, unlearn professional habits and embrace practices that will advance responsible, impactful research.

  • Assuming we can drive significant and sustained social change by telling researchers to run engagement activities, track evidence, and write impact narratives is disingenuous and potentially irresponsible. We need more than another methods toolkit. This project takes a multi-faceted approach to preparing people for the specific demands of researching in complex social systems. To ensure our research project leads to sustained changes in research practice, it moves beyond disseminating findings. The translational research outputs on the website mobilise the conceptual practice shifts and research principles to practically support the challenging yet rewarding shiftwork of transforming one’s research practice.

  • The project’s early indicators of prospective impact lie with a strong interest in the research uptake and implementation across multiple sectors. The high demand for workshops with universities in Melbourne, and invitations to facilitate sessions in Sydney, Edinburgh, Glasgow, and Copenhagen signal broad relevance. We are discussing with philanthropists committed to responsible impact to provide bespoke training for grantees unprepared for working in complex socio-cultural contexts. Additionally, Emerald Publishing’s interest in our field guide has led to ongoing ambitious discussions of how we might partner to commercialize and scale our designing for impact resources beyond the academic sector.

  • The first phase of our research resulted in the conceptualization of eight principles for research impact and five practice shifts that enhance a researcher's ability to drive social impact. These principles acknowledge the expertise of design practice and ethnographic methods in navigating the people and place-based considerations of social impact research. The Impact by Design diagram highlights the role of design in the engagement/translation research phase by emphasizing the need for relevance and targeted solutions. The diagram showcases design's potential to co-evolve problems and solutions through action-oriented, speculative, and reflective engagement. We utilized these principles to develop the research, modelling co-creative practices, prototypical thinking, evaluative mindsets, multi-modal forms, and futures-focused activities to demonstrate impactful ways of gathering insights and proposing change to workshop participants and strategic partners. Our project website documents these insights and invites further engagement through the following content: - Defining Designing for Social Impact Research Principles, including bringing integrity, ensuring relevance, privileging context, embracing uncertainty, deepening connections, seeking equity, taking action and observing patterns. - Conceptualizing core Practice Shifts, including shifts in purpose, audience, activities, evidence, and evaluation. - Research Translation Artefacts, including a 70-page Field guide, Designing for Social Impact diagrams, Impact cards, Transformative Learning activities, and bespoke workshops.