Change Agents: Designers Interpreting ‘the Social’ and ‘Social’ Interpretations of Design

Research output: Chapter in Book/Conference proceedings/Edited volumeChapterScientific


Designers are a positive breed, and many scholars studying the extensive field of design and its professional history – including some involved with Cumulus Antwerp 2023 – seem to agree that designers can contribute to positive ‘societal impact.’ In this paper I investigate how these optimistic views of designers’ alleged ‘social agency’ are actually constituted, by describing how – over time – different notions of design have been mobilized in relation to various understandings of ‘the social.’ In current times of complex, layered, and interrelated crises especially, designers and design theorists need to get their vocabulary straight in order to specify what design can actually do – as well as what it can’t. I therefore argue that to articulate relevant and meaningful roles design might play concerning various problematic entanglements, it is essential to differentiate problems that can be fixed, from issues that can merely be stabilized (Marres, 2007), and approach both phenomena precisely for what they are. Moreover, by acknowledging that both problems and issues are not a given but rather need to be constructed, ‘designerly agency’ in relation to ‘societal change’ can be understood as consisting of both the framing, setting and solving of problems, as well as the articulation of issues, through the creation of objects, environments, services and systems.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationConnectivity and creativity in times of conflict
EditorsKristof Vaes, Jouke Verlinden
Place of PublicationGhent
PublisherAcademia Press
Number of pages5
ISBN (Print)9789401496476
Publication statusPublished - 2023
Externally publishedYes


  • Design theory
  • Sociology
  • Social theory


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