AIS/Design. Storia e Ricerche – n.13

Social Design. Design and the “common good”

The new economy we imagine contributes to the material progress and accompanies the individual while it perfects its personality and vocations. Nevertheless, it does not prevent us from turning our minds towards a higher goal, not an individual aim or a personal profit, but a contribution to the life of everyone on the path of civilization. Adriano Olivetti (1951)

Among all the professions, one of the most harmful is industrial design. Perhaps, no profession is more false […]. The most beautiful and most straightforward thing that architects, industrial designers, urban planners, etc. could do in an environment that is altered visually, physically and chemically, it would be to stop working altogether. The designers are at least involved partially in every type of pollution. Victor Papanek (trad. 1973 [1971])

The social, environmental and economic conditions we are experiencing today make it necessary to rethink the reasons of design itself: this phenomenon can be seen as a tension towards social design. A broad area of intervention: through a series of synonyms – ethical design, humanitarian design, community design, public utility design, design for extended users, and sustainability design –, it can be defined as the search for “a way out”, as Giovanni Klaus Koenig already called it in 1970. From this point of view, the designer does not only act as the author of “branded” products used by individuals or small groups of people, but it also shifts its attention and work towards the set of processes, products and services (service design), destined to foster betterliving conditions of the entire community. In other words, for the “common good”. Today we go back to claim a more political and critical purpose of design, as it was in the original principles of the design culture itself.

Since the 1960s criticism of both goods circulation and advertising persuasive techniques has emerged in the national and international context (think of the First things first manifesto published in 1964). As a critique to consumerism itself, it also emerged the need to use design skills in order to reach more inclusive benefits. That was the political goal of design, oriented towards social and environmental responsibility, as underlined by the critical debate (critical design) as well. Through their writings both published in 1971 (Design for the real world and La Speranza Progettuale), Victor Papanek and Tomás Maldonado were among the most influential voices to denounce the drifts of consumer goods’ design, as they wished for an increased awareness of the deep cultural changes of society and environment.

Over the last few years the attention of designers, schools and researchers focused on social changes, sustainable development and public utility, as they tried to regain goals, necessities and ethics. However, the history of Italian design is still substantially made up of single stories of elitist products, design-oriented companies operating in the high and medium-high levels of the market, and brands with a strong visual impact and high cost. Even the debate on public utility graphic design, although advanced in theoretical terms, seems to have renounced to define itself as an overall project.

However, we believe that the paths of a social design history can also be traced in Italy. We can mention the idea of “community” carried out by Adriano Olivetti, who had pioneered a combination of the Fordist-factory model with a psychological insight, put into effect through his political vision of work organisation oriented to the care for the person. We can find other examples of ideas which improved people’s lives in various contexts: from public transport to street or school furniture, hospital equipment, consumer goods for people with special needs (a design area particularly developed by Gianni Arduini) or humanitarian projects (e.g. the emergency housing unit designed in 1972 by Marco Zanuso and Richard Sapper). Mainly starting from the 1970s, we can find a similar variety of examples in the field of visual design, as different communication tools were designed for public institutions and to interact with the citizens. At that time, various types of advertising campaigns and initiatives were aimed at raising public awareness about specific issues of common interest. There were also calls for posters promoted by charity organisations or organized in some particular occasions.

Starting from this premise, call 12 of «AIS/Design. Storia e Ricerche» («AIS/Design, History and Research», the online scientific journal promoted by the Italian Association of Design Historians) aims to set out an historical excavation on the theme of “design for the common good”, to bring out documents, testimonies, and theses in order to update the critical debate in this issue. At the same time, it is a compelling interest to contribute to the need, expressed at international level, of a history of social design (we refer above all to Alain Findeli’s A Tentative Archeology of Social Design, 2018). This is a need reinforced by some recent exhibitions: the retrospective dedicated to Papanek (Victor Papanek: The Politics of Design, Vitra Design Museum, Weil am Rhein, September 29, 2018 / March 18, 2019), and also the ones that underline the urgency of the subject (Social Design, Museum für Kunst und Gewerbe, Hamburg, 29 March / 27 October 2019; Broken Nature, XXII Triennale di Milano, 1 Mar / 1 Sep 2019). The need for retrospective analysis and historical re-reading of this theme emerges in Italy as well, in order to better understand the legacy of past design practices and experiences, and the weaknesses of Italian design to establish itself as a contribution for the common good.


This call dedicated to social design, in its most various forms (product, service, communication and theory), therefore intends to collect contributions with a historical-critical viewpoint that highlight:

  • Which were the most discussed design fields and projects concerning “common good” in Italy. What kind of relationships had the Italian projects in the international arena;
  • Which cases can be considered as founding acts of contemporary social design;
  • The possibility of defining historiographies and geographies of social design at an Italian and/or international level;
  • The actual existence, or not, of a “public utility graphic design” and of its legacy;
  • Which design practices are historically ascribable to the fields of reflection, research and experimentation and which ones had a practical impact on policies and production;
  • Testimonies, contributions, debates which can be defined as the foundations of social design.

Keywords: design history, design for the common good, community design, sustainability design, public utility graphic design, design for weak users, health design, public transport, public services.


Anceschi, G. (1984). Prima Biennale della Grafica. Propaganda e cultura: indagine sul manifesto di pubblica utilità dagli anni Settanta ad oggi. Milan: Arnaldo Mondadori Editore.
Bollini, L. e Branzaglia, C. (a cura di) (2003). No Brand More Profit. Etica e comunicazione. Milan: AIAP Edizioni.
Findeli, A. (2018). A Tentative Archeology of Social Design. Proceeding for the 10th ICDHS “Back To The Future. The Future In The Past” Conference. Barcelona, 29/31 October 2018.
Garland, K. (1964). First things first. The Guardian [].
Koenig, G. K. (1970). Design per la comunità. «La Biennale di Venezia» n.66, pp.19-29.
Koenig, G. K. (1991). Il design è un pipistrello mezzo topo mezzo uccello. Florence: la casa Usher.
Maldonado, T. (1970). La speranza progettuale. Ambiente e società. Turin: PBE.
Olivetti, A. (2014). Le fabbriche di bene. Rome: Edizioni di Comunità.
Papanek, V. (1971). Design for the Real World: Human Ecology and Social Change. New York: Pantheon Books.
Rauch, A. e Sinni, G. (2009). Disegnare le città: grafica per le pubbliche istituzioni in Italia. Florence: Lcd Edizioni.


All submissions (both by invitation and in response to the call) are subject to blind peer-review. Deadlines are as follows:

  • July 15, 2019  September 9, 2019: abstract submission; contribution proposal must be based on the types accepted (max. 300 words); it will include the title, 5 keywords and a short biography of the author/authors (max. 150 words each).The abstract may be in English (or English and Italian).
  • September 23, 2019: abstracts’ notification of acceptance.
  • October 13, 2019: full paper submission, adhering to the journal’s editorial standards and including abstract, keywords, author/s biography/ies, images, and captions (see below “Types of contributions and preparation of the materials); the contributions will be subject to peer review.
  • November 11, 2019: notification to the authors of the peer review’s outcome (changes or additional work may be needed in view of publication).
  • December 9, 2019: final paper, sent by the authors of the final version of the contributions for publication.

All submissions should be submitted respecting the defined deadlines via email to and For questions and relevant communication contact the editors at


All proposed contributions must be original texts. Papers that are beyond the scope of the journal, that have previously been submitted to other journals or have already been featured (in any language), or that replicate texts published elsewhere, will be rejected without peer review.

Final papers must be accompanied by:

  • an abstract (max 150 words or 1000 characters) in Italian and English (regardless of whether the text is in Italian or English);
  • a maximum of 5 keywords, in Italian and English;
  • a short biography (max 150 words or 1000 characters), in Italian and English, of the author (or authors).

The journal’s Director, Editors and Editorial Staff invite the authors to send proposals also in less conventional forms. Besides papers and essays of scientific quality, the journal accepts proposals that adopt various research and output methods.

It is considered essential to reinforce a proper oral history approach, with interviews with main or minor protagonists for framing some of the topics of the call in a specific perspective; or the critical dialogue with a protagonist of specific design experience or theoretical position. These contributions can be returned either in written form or in a video (movie) format. Furthermore, visual contributions are accepted, in the form of visual essays: so to discuss the results of a story, its critical interpretation, or a particular point of view, in a visual-photographic form. A visual essay is essentially a sequence of ordered and organised photographs to construct a critical comment on a defined topic. The visual elements of an essay of this type must be prevalent to develop a topic or clarify the ideas that are intended to be presented, rather than serving as an example, illustration or additional documentation to a concise accompanying text. The images may have been produced for the occasion by the author and/or come from collections, archives, or be the result of specific research. Once the proposal has been accepted, the editors and the editors will agree with the author (or authors) on possible adaptations and modifications for the best output in the journal.

Contributions can be proposed for the following categories.

Essay: contributions presenting a theoretical, critical, and methodological stance that offer an in-depth discussion or re-reading of broad historical arguments and questions (max. 8000 words, including notes, references, captions).

Research study: papers based on studies conducted on primary sources and offering original historical insight into specific topics or stories (max. 8000 words, including notes, references, captions).

Micro-history: papers that analyse particular and specific stories, which have been neglected to date or refer to the border areas of the discipline (max. 4000 words, including notes, references, captions).

– We also accept reviews, translations, re-readings, in-depth studies on research and conservation institutions (from 1 to 4 per issue), as long as they are consistent with the topics of the call (max. 2000 words including notes, references and captions).

– As already underlined, the journal looks for contributions that use various research and output methods, for example interviews, critical dialogues, historiographical articles (max. 4000 words including notes, references and captions).

Visual essay: the editors will evaluate contributions consisting of at least 15-20 images accompanied by 1500 words of text plus captions if necessary (this quantity corresponds conventionally to a text of 4000 characters or 600 words circa). It is possible to propose a visual essay as a single document containing images, text and captions following the editorial rules provided for the other types of contributions. Furthermore, upon acceptance, the author (or authors) must provide the images in adequate quality and resolution in separate files.

Video (short documentary, video-interview) up to 30 minutes. Production, optimization and adaptation to online use are the responsibility of the authors.

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Authors’ guidelines:



To complement their contribution, authors can submit up to 10 images (copyright-free images or images for which authors have obtained the right/permission of publication), accompanied by full captions (including credits).

Questo articolo è stato pubblicato in AIS/Design Storia e Ricerche, Call for papers, news, Open

Chiara Lecce

Chiara Lecce received her MA in Interior Design (2008) and her PhD in Interior Architecture & Exhibition Design (2013; with the thesis: “Living Interiors in the Digital Age: the Smart Home”) from the Politecnico di Milano. Since 2008 she has been engaged in teaching activities, in History of Design classes and Interior Design studio, at the Design School of the Politecnico di Milano, collaborating with professors Giampiero Bosoni and Ico Migliore. Since 2013 she has been managing editor of the scientific journal PAD (Pages on Arts and Design) and member of AIS/Design (Italian Association of Design Historians). She is the author of several articles featured in various design journals. She is currently research fellow and lecturer at the Design Department of the Politecnico di Milano, with a focus on exhibition design history and methodologies. In 2016 she was a tutor within the H2020 European project “Design for Enterprises”. Since 2009 she has been collaborating with the Franco Albini Foundation and with other Italian design archives, while continuing to work as a freelance interior designer.

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