Skip to main content Skip to navigation

Design Thinking for Social Impact (ES99M-15)


“Design Thinking” (Buchanan, 1992; Brown, 2008) refers to:

  • a socio-political movement for empowering people with the capabilities of professional designers;
  • and a rapidly coalescing interdisciplinary academic field, seeking to understand and improve how we do designing and how it can have a positive impact on the world.

This interdisciplinary module provides an induction into Design Thinking as research and practice, with a focus on its uses and limitations in the field of "social change" - especially participatory design and the development of design capabilities amongst communities (designing by communities, as opposed to designing for communities)

The module has developed out of Robert O’Toole’s “transdisciplinary” PhD thesis on Design Thinking in Higher education, and Bo Kelestyn’s PhD research on digital innovation and scaling through patterns (WBS). It will draw upon the synthesis of academic and professional work achieved in this research, and our experiences as design thinking consultants. It will combine theory, creative practice and formal methods.

It will give you a framework, based on experience and research, that can be used to better understand and transform the world through innovation and enterprise. It aims to be a transformative experience. You will develop a powerful set of capabilities through which you can interpret and change the world around you, with positive social and economic impacts.

The module draws upon insights from a broad range of disciplines (philosophy, psychology, sociology, creative arts, technology, history) to address essential questions such as: What constitutes a design? How are designs created? What is successful designing? Who does the designing? How can we analyse designs, their operation and impacts, using qualitative and quantitative means? What are the common challenges in managing design capability?

After completing the module, you will have a powerful and far-reaching “designerly” way of thinking and acting (Lawson, 2005). You will apply this during the module to a series of “design challenges”, collectively exploring the challenges and “wicked problems” (Buchanan, 1992), defining design briefs, and developing design ideas – one of which will be developed into a more detailed proposal with prototypes. Design challenges will be defined by experts from a variety of domains with a focus on social innovation and (most excitingly) the UN Sustainable Development Goals.

A critical dimension runs throughout the module. This is especially essential when considering DT as an approach for social change. Design Thinking and design anthropology will be considered as a critical response to the role of so-called ‘scientific design’ in industrial and colonial capitalism. But is Design Thinking really the emancipatory force that many claim it to be? Or is it merely the latest means through which the newly evolved ‘platform Capitalism’ exploits the free labour of participants? This will be debated as we proceed through our investigation.

Module aims

Having completed the module, students will be able to confidently and successfully undertake participatory innovation and enhancement projects using the design thinking approach with real, diverse communities. They will understand what it means to ‘think like a designer’, supported by knowledge of academic research in design, and will naturally translate this into action. They will have an effective repertoire of techniques and tools. They will also have a critical appreciation of the limits of Design Thinking, and the negative impacts it may have when undertaken without a sound appreciation of culture, power, history and difference.

They will be well positioned to continue their work as design thinkers social enterprise. They might also consider further research in design thinking and its related fields.

Outline syllabus

This is an indicative module outline only to give an indication of the sort of topics that may be covered. Actual sessions held may differ.

The module will explore Design Thinking in two parts to allow you to build your knowledge, skills and confidence when using Design Thinking for social impact:

PART 1: Foundations in Design Thinking
-Empathise: developing an awareness for the importance of empathy and user needs gathering for effective design thinking. In this session we will also explore the need to devise ‘Theory of Change’ and focusing on WHAT, rather than HOW of design. Social impact projects can be riskier due to limited resources and more critical user needs. In this session we will challenge each other to, in IDEO’s words flip Maslow’s Hierarchy on its head, designing not just for functionality, but for impact, joy, delight, and ultimately lasting social impact.
-Define: continuing the thread of Design Thinking process we will then explore the way in which key design questions and challenges can be sharpened using user insights and empathy. We will use case studies from IDEO,org and IDEO to illustrate the value of understanding the need and focusing the efforts and limited resources to make the right impact, and make impact right.
-Ideate: at this point we will begin introducing the value of creativity and working in interdisciplinary teams. We will challenge each other to explore failure, learn from mistakes and uncertainty, and engage diverse stakeholders in the process of design and co-design with the audience we are hoping to make a social impact on. Throughout this and the previous two steps we will emphasize the need to diverge and converge in the way you create ideas and generate impact, aligning with stakeholders and ensuring you are following the WHY and embodying the ‘Theory of Change’.
-Prototype: continuing with the idea of diverging and converging we will encourage each other to select from the pool of ideas and zoom in on those that have the potential to make a greater social impact and iterate on these further.
-Test: working with communities and audience which we are designing for, testing ideas and solutions and so continuing to co-create and creating shared ownership of designs. Throughout all five steps, we will encourage each other to move between the steps in an iterative and feedback loop way, instead of looking at the steps as a linear process. This will allow to connect the various tools and steps into a coherent process and discipline, whilst allowing students to create your own meanings through home disciplines and ambitions.

PART 2: Advanced Design Thinking
-Storytelling for Impact, Influence & Inspiration: introduce key storytelling techniques and its value in design thinking and creating social impact and mobilising action. We will use storytelling dice in this session to to practice the skills in a playful environment and begin developing final presentations
-Humans and Behaviour: explore various strands of psychology and human behaviour, such as nudge theory, to push each other to empathise further and draw on both rational and emotional human nature to create change and social impact. This session will build on your knowledge of all five parts of the design process outlined in Part 1 of the module.
-Leading and Facilitating Design Thinking: one of the key learning outcomes is to coach each other into becoming independent change agents and facilitators of design thinking for social impact. We will introduce various facilitation techniques and leadership skills to create change and impact, such as challenging the devil’s advocate, fostering creativity in organisations, leading teams, gathering user insights.

The module direct you through working on a particular UN Sustainable Goal or any other social goal of your choosing. We will draw on expertise from external speakers who are all making social impact and using various aspects of Design Thinking for creating social value and change.

Throughout the week, sessions will be structured as follows:
-The main content will be released each morning for you to watch, listen and think about individually.
-After you had a chance to interact with the main content, you will break out into teams to take part in a virtual reflection jam. These are open-ended and reflective group discussion, where you will be encouraged to share ideas, thoughts, inspirations, and opinions on the reading set before the session. You will receive an online collaboration guide to support you with team work. Towards the end of the week you might also want to start working on your assessment and there will be plenty of online support available during and after the deliver week.
-After a break, module leaders will run live Q&A and discussion session. During these sessions we will aim to bring various case studies and will challenge each other to seek these out too, in order to ground the techniques and mindset in real world examples. We will also critique design thinking and limitations of approaches associated with it, as well as critically reflect on the UN SDGs. We are hoping to include contributions from external speakers (from UN and Plan International) who will share real life case studies and the use of human-centred design thinking approaches for social impact.
-Each student/group will also have an opportunity to speak to the module leaders and seek 1:1 support. This support will also be available after the module has been delivered.

This module will be taking a blended learning approach, which means most of the content will be delivered online, giving you the flexibility and freedom to explore module content in your own time. We will frequently come together as a group to participate in online discussions and reflections.

Learning outcomes

By the end of the module, students should be able to:

  • Develop theoretical and practical knowledge of foundation and advanced design thinking mindset, techniques and tools.
  • Independently and successfully undertake participatory innovation and enhancement projects using the design thinking approach.
  • Evaluate and apply theory and practice of design thinking to making social impact and translate their design thinking work across a multitude of contexts and challenges.
  • Creative thinking and ability to look at familiar problems, experiences and environments and re-imagine them in a new way.
  • Critical thinking and ability to deconstruct arguments and ideas, avoid bias, create informed arguments.
  • Storytelling and ability to mobilise communities and inspire action with stories that are meaningful and powerful; ability to develop compelling arguments and presentations.


Week 10

Commencing 05/12/2022


Online + Breakout Rooms


Dr Robert O'Toole

Ed Watson

Quick links:

Available on: