Social design and participatory research: Transforming the curriculum in higher education

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingConference contribution


In this contribution, we reflect on the pedagogical and theoretical underpinnings of an undergraduate course that we developed in the School of Design, Edinburgh College of Art. A means to extend the learning opportunities for tackling societal challenges through the design curriculum, the course was also designed with the attempt to overcome the still common divide between theoretical and studio courses in design education. Employing an integrative and reflexive approach to learning and teaching, our intention was to blend critical understanding and practice through a participatory approach to research. Therefore, we argue for the role of active engagement with communities as a means to transform and empower students' understanding of complex social challenges. Moreover, we explore the potential of active engagement to meet the challenge of delivering a curriculum that introduces students to a range of social issues in a theoretically informed way while also equipping them with the critical facilities to apply multidisciplinary approaches within design contexts.

Participation has played an important role in the development of social design (Triggs, 2016:140). However, and despite the impact that we are witnessing, little and sustained reflection can be seen at the level of design education. It seems that greater emphasis has been directed toward a discussion of the role of participation in the act of design itself without however probing the role of participatory design research as a means to engage and transform design students and communities. We believe that research itself has overarching implications for student engagement and learning but also for the communities that design students interact with. Our key argument is therefore that more importance should be given to the lessons that can be learned from participatory research.
As a backdrop to our presentation and discussion, we will also argue in this contribution that while design education in the UK and more broadly is increasingly turning to a social and participatory design methods, there is a tendency to approach mix-method research in a pick and mix fashion, which often lacks the necessary connection to a theoretically informed contextualisation of the issues addressed in the design brief, or even a methodological understanding of the methods employed. Therefore, this paper will explore how this gap can be bridged by: (1) rethinking the role of participatory design research in design education and (2) by highlighting the importance of exposing design students to participatory research as well as to key epistemological positions within social science. This last point will support a critical discussion of fast track social science research methods in design education.
In response to this year’s call for the development of “humanistic approaches in design based inquiry”, we will finally explore the potential for an integrative and reflexive approach that employs participatory research while providing students a critical, theoretical and historical foundation in the analysis of their investigations and work.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationDesign and Power
Subtitle of host publicationProceedings of the NORDES 2017 Conference
Place of PublicationOslo
ISBN (Electronic)1604-9705
Publication statusPublished - 30 Jun 2017
Event7th Nordic Design Research Conference: Design + Power - The Oslo School of Architecture and Design , Oslo , Norway
Duration: 15 Jun 201717 Jun 2017


Conference7th Nordic Design Research Conference
Abbreviated titleNordes 2017
Internet address


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  • Designing Alternatives

    Sonia Matos, 2012, (Unpublished).

    Research output: Contribution to conferenceOther

  • Footprint

    MacDonald, J., Gieben-Gamal, E., Rossi, C. & Matos, S., 26 May 2012.

    Research output: Contribution to conferencePosterpeer-review

    Open Access
  • Designing Alternatives

    Matos, S. & Rossi, C., 2011

    Research output: Other contribution

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