Social Design Lab

Social Design Lab positions social and cultural issues as highly relevant in contemporary design research

Student work formed in the Social Design Lab, a dress that lights up, a wooden set of drawers, a person dressed in Pacific Island like costume, and a rack of lamb made of soft toy material


The role of design and designers within society has been described as an ambiguous one. Over the past decade the roles design and designers play have become more challenging and complex than ever. Hailed, on the one hand, as possessing number of the competencies that can help solve many of the issues we face, design has been also been apportioned with some of the blame for if not causing, fuelling these problems. In response, design has evolved as a discipline by constantly re-evaluating its contribution to society in response to shifts in cultural, social, political, economic, technological, and environmental paradigms. Design as a discipline has historically privileged a primarily Western perspective, but today’s designers are having to broaden their knowledge and understanding of the world and consider more diverse and as importantly inclusive approaches to their thinking and practice. It could be said that design is no longer in the artefacts business but the consequences business. Designers are now required to understand and appreciate the complexities born of what are highly diverse and often contentious cultural, societal and global issues and contexts. Design practice and thinking are now expected to play pivotal roles within these. This responsibly demands new, sustainable and empathetic approaches that can navigate the complexities of these scenarios towards positive solutions.

SDL positions social and cultural issues as highly relevant to contemporary design research and situates them as central points of departure for our investigations. The research projects cultivated in this stream employ critical, creative approaches to their explorations of indigenous culture, society, politics, economics, technology and the environment. A distinct feature of this research stream is the connectivity between individual research pods. The pods have identified specific aspects of Social Design as their focus but share fundamental commonalities around the cultivation of socially responsible design thinking and practices.

Pod 1

Nan O'Sullivan and David Hakaraia - Renegade approaches to design

Pod 2

Dr Anne Galloway and Dr Catherine Caudwell - More-than-Human Design

Pod 3

Anne Niemetz - Media & Wearable Technology as social commentary

Structured within the framework of the Social Innovation Lab are projects that require theoretical, critical and creative research projects. These projects aim to result in meaningful outcomes that have a positive impact on socially focussed issues. The results from these research projects will also have the capability to advance contemporary design discourse and practice. In support of VUW’s graduate profile attributes, through the development of student’s skills in critical and creative thinking, communication and cross-disciplinary collaboration, SDL will prepare students to become effective, socially responsible citizens and leaders in the global design community.

Research aims & objectives


  1. To critically assess contemporary design research practice, pedagogy, and/or theory in regards to defined issue(s) as they relate to design and culture, society, politics, economics, technology and/or the environment
  2. To develop skills in critical and creative thinking, communication (via creative, verbal, and/or written outcomes), and cross-disciplinary collaboration
  3. To generate high-quality critical strategies and solutions (via creative, verbal, and/or written outcomes) regarding defined issue(s) as they relate to design and culture, society, politics, economics, technology and/or the environment.


  1. Identify relevant historical and contemporary design/ theoretical/ pedagogical precedents in relationship to social issue(s)
  2. Analyse relevant precedents, and employ critical and creative thinking, communication and cross-disciplinary approaches in the development of strategies and solutions (via creative, verbal, and/or written formats)to address social issues
  3. Develop high-quality outcomes that effectively communicate critical strategies and solutions via creative, verbal, and/or written formats

Postgraduate learning objectives

  1. Justify value of research goals within the context of design practice/research/pedagogy/theory
  2. Analyse available information, theory, and creative outcomes as they relate to the defined research problem
  3. Devise critical strategies and innovative solutions according to a defined research problem
  4. Apply skills in critical and creative thinking, communication, craft, and collaboration in the execution of high-quality final outcomes
  5. Identify and critique research methodologies and outcomes of peers and of work produced personally


Renegade approaches to Design Communication and Production

Design as a discipline developed in the mid twentieth century, resulting in it being dominated by a working model that privileges a very western approach. This research pod proposes a change in where we seek new knowledge from. Renegade knowledge is knowledge produced by those who look beyond the accepted discipline practices and seek new ways, new answers. In all parts of the design discipline; game design, graphic novels, film, illustration, animation product and product branding, there is a growing demand for cultural knowledge. A particular focus to this pod is indigenous knowledge. Many of the visual and ideological practices embedded in this knowledge offer design the opportunity to grow, empathise, communicate and impact on social issues.

Cultural Narration is the first research project offered by Renegade Approaches. Maori and Pasifika peoples are known as great visual storytellers. Their narratives challenge notions of self and truth and engage with issues of individual and collective importance. By engaging with the strategies and ideologies embedded in indigenous methods of storytelling this research project will critically review historical, contemporary and speculative methods for the design, production and dissemination of new socially focussed narratives. This new knowledge will enable students to become creative, responsible arbiters of social design through visual storytelling.

This research places significant importance on indigenous cultures and the unique practices embedded in them as a guide to researching critical issues that impact society. Building on previous research undertaken in this pod, Cultural Narration invites students to investigate culturally distinctive methods of communication and making, identify parallels and differences to current design processes and offer strategies that enable the integration of these into design practice. All design outputs will undergo a comprehensive design process towards prototyping and/or production and be supplemented by written outputs with the aim of being published in reputable academic journals or exhibited internationally.

Contact: Nan O’Sullivan and David Hakaraia

More-than-Human Design

What if we refuse to uncouple nature and culture? What if we deny that human beings are exceptional? What if we stop speaking and listening only to ourselves? The More-Than-Human pod combines ethnographic and creative research methods to explore human/nonhuman entanglements and ways of thriving on a damaged planet.

Reimagining design along these lines requires a fundamental shift from viewing the world as a source to be exploited and manipulated to our own ends, to a position that explicitly acknowledges the interconnectedness and interdependence of humans and more-than-humans: animals and plants; land, water and air; materials and technologies.

In 2017 postgraduate research within the More-Than-Human pod will be dedicated to moving beyond human-centred design, finding ways to challenge technological solutionism, and decolonise design research and practice.

Contact:Dr Anne Galloway and Dr Catherine Caudwell

Media & wearable technology as social commentary

How can we use interaction design to create rich and meaningful sensory experiences? How do we express identity, insight, criticism and visions through new media and cross-disciplinary investigation?

As contemporary designers and media artists we do not only utilise digital media technology for creative expression, but we also investigate the characteristics of the medium itself. What does it mean to enhance the human body through technology? How do these technologies change our behaviours?

By experimenting with, using and mis-using technology we can uncover new perspectives and insights.

Research in this area includes the search for unique expressions in Wearable Technology, Interactive Performance/Installation and Audio-Visual Design.

Contact: Anne Niemetz