Social design in action: Perspectives from the field

Ninety-nine percent of the designers are designing for the top one percent. But several social designers and organisations like Splash, Xeno Co-Lab, and Going to School are taking on the mandate to apply design innovation to solve social problems.

Not everyone is aware of how design can impact the social sector. The role of design in the social development sector is still not a mainstream concept in India and hence it's challenging to convince social sector organisations to invest time, money, and resources in designers.

There are many challenges including the lack of awareness about the value of design in the field. However, organisations like Splash, Xeno Co-Lab and Going to School (GTS) are using the same challenges to open new windows of opportunity in WASH, public and education sectors, respectively, and striving to make the case for design in the space. 


Splash is a safe water company focused on children with a mission to clean water for kids. The organisation’s goal is to provide clean drinking water in terms of quality, quantity, supply issues as well as handwashing and sanitation. It doesn’t stop there; their work is more complicated than the three areas of traditional WASH – water, handwashing, and sanitation because they don't stop at the infrastructure, which includes installing filtration systems or building the toilets, they have a team of behavior change experts who focus on positively influencing children behavior to increase handwashing outcomes holistically and at a systemic level.

Splash believes that by following such a multi-layered approach, trying to solve for clean water, hygiene education, and sanitation efforts along with hand washing all at the same time, schools in Kolkata and Addis Ababa can have much better student health and learning outcomes.

“Following an iterative process, it has taken us 10 years to get the handwashing station right,” says Splash’s WASH Infrastructure Manager Nick Ellington. Splash has learned that the design of the physical object itself can lead to improved or changed behaviours.

The design for the handwashing stations has built-in behaviour change nudges that help guide children to the right behaviour. “By being involved with Splash and these schools I have a firsthand perspective and sight of the great need there is for good design for water, sanitation, and handwashing in these schools,” Nick adds.

Splash plans to roll out its newly designed drinking and handwashing stations to nearly 1,600 schools in India and Ethiopia through Project WISE, reaching one million children by 2023. The first batch of stations, which are manufactured in Coimbatore, India, were recently transported to its Kolkata office. They will also be field-tested in the coming months in Kolkata. Through the design process Splash has seen the benefit of locally developed solutions, led by Indian designers and engineers. Splash’s design process has relied heavily on its Indian staff in Kolkata to lead the process in to identifying needs and gaps.

Xeno Co-Lab

Just like Splash is advocating for the role of a design approach in WASH, designers Swar Raisinghani and Nikhita Ghugari left their cushy jobs, adapted and are taking risks while embracing uncertainty to make huge strides in infusing a human-centered design methodology to public sector challenges.

Swar and Nikhita went to school in India for graphic design and product design, respectively. They both found traditional product and graphic design jobs but realised that they were looking for something more. As a result, Nikhita started working at Turian Labs that focused on design research, and Swar went on to do a Master’s in Design for Social Innovation at the School of Visual Arts in New York and eventually worked with  Veryday. They both learnt a lot on the job and got exposed to different industries, in turn gaining knowledge in the human-centred design approach. This approach resonated with them and seemed more meaningful than anything they had studied while in design school in India.They realised that there’s more of a human-centred design approach used in corporate sector but comparatively less in the social sector. They also identified that there are not many people bridging the gap between service design and social innovation in India and saw an opportunity in this space, and Xeno Co-Lab was born.

Xeno Co-Lab is a social innovation and service design company based in Pune, India that uses human-centred design approach to projects in sectors such as Healthcare, Agriculture, Financial Inclusion, Public Sanitation, Digital Services, and Education sectors in India.

“One project that we are proud of is called Project Kish. It is a financial inclusion project that we are working on with the Bharat Inclusion Initiative. The goal is to make financial contracts accessible to all communities especially for those in economically backward areas with low literacy levels.” Swar and Nikhita explain.

Project Kish

As part of the project they did intensive research with people in rural villages from Maharashtra and Gujarat and gained an understanding of users’ mindsets. They spent time understanding the background of the user, their financial and educational backgrounds; and worked on simplifying complicated contract terms. There were a lot of fraud cases where farmers from Rajasthan and from other parts of the country were cheated by company agents saying that their money can double in a couple of years and as a result of which the people lost a huge amount of money and in some cases their entire life savings. Project Kish that aims to address their primary question– How might we empower people from this community to make decisions on their own and not to let fraud cases happen again? Nikhita and Swar have created a visual design solution to simplify contracts and are currently testing them with users for another round of validation.

Going to School

It's easy to think of designing boxes – design for crafts, design for products,design for services, but we don’t necessarily think of design as problem solving and ultimately a way to transform. We often see 99 percent of the designers designing for the top one percent.

“Young people who might not be able to afford the best still deserve the best, not inexpensive copies. If you are designing for a community of young people in India, let them define it, let them decide,” says Lisa Heydlauff, Director of Going to School.

Going to School (GTS) is an organisation that creates design-driven stories to teach the poorest of kids on the planet, 21st century skills at school. They believe in storytelling and use design thinking to create stories based on research with children, teachers, parents, and young sustainable entrepreneurs.

Image: (1)Going to School– Scrappy News Service (2)Going to School– The Good Food Challenge

Going to School uses books, digital games, graphic novels, movies, and nationwide television shows as ways to communicate stories. They follow an iterative process of prototyping to make things out of nothing, and their new project, The Children’s Scrappy News Service takes prototyping to a whole new level of ‘being scrappy’ - Going to School believes anyone can make something out of nothing to change the way things are.

“Design is about how people can come together, how people communicate, how people share, how people understand something, these are all functions of design and it is probably the super power of the planet. If you want to design for social change, then make it; don’t talk about ‘this is what I will do’. Someone will only essentially understand what you actually show them,” Lisa adds.

There are more designers today than ever before. In order to bring change, we need to think of positive feedback loops and thinking of ‘Social Design’ beyond just corporate social responsibility and volunteerism and find ways of using design in ethical problem-solving careers. Lisa says, I think the opportunity for designers in India is everything: go for replacing plastic, then solve for clean air and then water, figure out what you are going to do with ocean plastic from this side of the ocean. We don’t live in a time anymore where we can predict what will happen. Climate Change is the biggest challenge of our time, designers and young people with design-thinking problem solving skills and the courage to take big risks to transform entire communities, cities, are the only hope we have.”

In conclusion, we believe in the potential of design to create a positive impact and solve social challenges. But be warned that this work is not for someone who is not interested in working within difficult and constrained environments. This work is definitely for you, if you -

●    Think of the end to end experience of your design

●    Don’t get disheartened by the fact that social problems are so wicked; instead, realise the potential of design in solving the problem, scope down

●    Understand that while you play a very critical role, you are not the only ones who can solve social problems, and be humble and collaborative

●    Up for getting into the field and into the places that you are designing for

(Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of YourStory.)