This textbook is designed to weave together with your own projects. To see what that means, I'll show how it worked for one student, Stephany. This helps to see if it will work for you, and what we might need to customize.
This also serves as an overview of the material and method.
Stephany has a few social design projects:
- She has a vision for improving community practices around death, in the modern world.
- She makes organizational processes for a company in Kenya, and
- She wants to organize unusual dinner parties in various cities, to help her decide where to live next and to build community.
Her interaction with the school starts with an interview about those projects: What population does she want to make meaning with? How could the projects go wrong? How could they go even better than she hopes? What values might guide her design of death rituals, dinner parties, and organizational practices?
Here's what we found:
- With the death rituals, she thinks families who have someone with a critical illness are underserved, and so are children, when siblings or family members die. She has a theory that rituals around
continuing the practices of the dead or dying personmight help.
- With the dinners in various cities, we found two potential values: one about
networks that increase their members' capacity to engage with one another, to be vulnerable, to spread agapic love, and to make things more meaningful for others; another is about
guests at an event feeling held, supported in a structure designed by the host, knowing they have a role.
NOTE: Stephany makes intimate rituals and events. Other students make larger-scale things, like voting structures, alternatives forms of land ownership, and social networks. There's a surprising amount of overlap. I'll mention how we help larger projects as I go.
Other design methods focus on goals (Jobs to Be Done), feelings (“calm” design, “delightful” interactions), or life situation (personas).
We practice a kind of design based on understanding values: what people find meaningful; how they want to live and relate with others.
This is a specific sense of the word values. People often use "values" for abstract ideological commitments (equality, freedom, inclusiveness, security, decentralization). But we mean something different: the ways of being and relating which feel meaningful to a person (like being held, being vulnerable, being creative, taking stage, and so on).
It's this sort of values that we collected from Stephany in the interview.
A Woman, A Plan, A Canal
Based on our interview, we make a rough plan for Stephany. This plan involves
- gathering values from populations she wants to serve
- various design imagination and prototyping steps
- writing-up her best ideas, and
- conversations with experts in her field
Step 1 Values-Articulation
We start by helping Stephany get much more specific about her own values and others', so she can harshly evaluate a particular design, to see if it supports a particular type of meaning. She'll learn:
- Methods for writing out and interrogating her own values.
- An interview process for gathering values from populations she cares about (like the recently bereaved).
We'll organize practice sessions for her (1-3 hours per week), so she can get good at the interview process with other students, teachers, and friends. Then, for her death ritual work, we'll support her as she interviews people who've experienced loss, about the meanings they found in it, and about what community responses could have helped.
This step is just as important for students with larger-scale projects. For example, Will from even.com led a major redesign of his app, away from the goal of providing loans, towards a set of articulated values around being financially empowered. Our methods allowed even.com to name what financial empowerment means for users, to make their redesign testable, and those values monitorable in user surveys and dashboards.
Step 2 Design Imagination & Prototyping
Often a social design will seem good for a set of values, but, in practice, it won't serve those values well. Even very talented designers run into this. One of our main goals is to help people avoid this.
We do this, first, by helping designers identify what keeps people from living by a value in one context vs another. We call those things—what gets in the way of living by values—the "hard steps" of a value.
Consider Stephany's value of
guests at an event feeling held, supported in a thoughtful structure, knowing they have a role. What are the hard steps of this? What must a party guest be able to do, to relax into a plan in this way?
They may need to be able
to asses the hosts' plan roughly, without knowing the details. They made need
to recognize that the host has taken their personality and situation into account, in giving them a role.
In our plan for Stephany, we'll teach her to find the hard steps of the values she designs for, to avoid unintentional values-misalignment.
Read more at
Another way we'll help is to broaden her imagination. Every designer has a background which leads them to imagine some kinds of solutions, but not others. (For instance, blockchain and mechanism designers tend to focus on incentives but miss other ways to support their values, like relationship structures, theatrical elements, and legitimation processes.)
In Stephany's case—she already has a good instinct for the theatrical aspects of event design, and has little to learn from us there. But we can help her develop her imagination in new directions:
- Imagining Relationship Structures—buddy systems, mentorship structures, etc in her rituals and org processes.
- Imagining Legitimation Processes: How do people decide what to share about the deceased? How should guests be chosen for a dinner?
So, in our plan for Stephany, she'll take a value she cares about and make many separate prototypes and designs. Some will focus on the kinds of relationships that foster that value; some, on what settings and timings support it; which kinds of social network shapes and legitimation processes support it; and finally, which incentives support it and which might undermine it.
Students who work on larger systems also need to broaden their design imagination. Those designing new democratic structures, for instance, often start with a focus on incentives, equilibria, etc. They think less about what settings would lead to more thoughtful votes, or which relationship types (aside from voter and proposer) could be useful. We help them think in terms of legitimation, rituals, and relationships, and also to approach incentives design in new ways.
By helping Stephany explore the hard steps of her value and extend her design imagination, she'll come to a broader view of what rituals, organizational practices, and dinners might support the values she found.
Step 3 and 4 Write-Ups, and Conversations with Experts
Towards the end of our program, Stephany will document her most promising ideas. By then, she'll have collected values from the populations she cares about, and turned them into new ideas about death rituals and dinners. She'll have prototyped some of those ideas, and will be able to argue for them—explaining why her structures support those values better than alternatives.
At this point, she has something worth sharing and spreading!
So we'll arrange conversations with relevant experts. Some private conversations, and maybe some podcasts. She'll meet other social designers who've dealt with death, grieving, and end-of-life care, and experts in stranger-to-stranger connection like leaders in authentic relating and Strangers for Tea.
We expect these people will find Stephany's designs exciting, and these meetings will help her inventions to spread.
Resources & Timing
Immediately after her interview, we wrote the plan above, and gave Stephany a chance to poke at it, question it, and decide whether the course really seems worth it to her. Only if she's convinced our plan is good for her, does she pay for the program.
Stephany joined before our wingman program. Newer students can take a friend along for these early steps (a "wingman"). This friend will ask tough questions about the program and plan, on behalf of the potential student.
Stephany liked our plan and paid for the course. As soon as that happens, she gets a personal guide, who she meets with regularly.
Her guide has a few jobs:
- To set her up with meetings and group sessions, to arrange mentors for the relevant skills (just in time for her to use them), to pick excerpts from our textbook, and to adjust her plan as her projects evolve.
- To understand how Stephany works best, and how the whole process can be deeply-rewarding for her.
- Possibly, to develop a "transformative experience of values" for Stephany.
Transformative experience of values
For some students, we try to set them up with a "transformative experience of values" (a powerful, direct experience of what values are) towards the beginning of the course, to sharpen their sense of what designing for values is all about.
We want our students to have a visceral sense of values—so they feel how designing for them is different than design around the abstract ideologies I mentioned above, or user goals, or from normal experience design.
We didn't actually do this for Stephany, because she didn't need it.
The guide's ultimate goal is to make Stephany well-equipped, not just for the projects we collect in her interview, but for all social design projects she'll take on in the future, and to give her lasting connections in the areas she's likely to work in.
Each student's schedule is a bit different, but here's a common sequence.
First month: Values-articulation. Weekly meetings with your guide, a few group sessions, 2-3 meetings with mentors, and possibly a transformative experience.
Next six weeks: Extending your design imagination, sketching, and prototyping. Meet with mentors to try other design directions. Test prototypes that help with particular hard steps.
Final two weeks: Talks with experts.
Each student can come to Joe's office hours each week with questions about the material, and will meet regularly with their guide and other topic-specific mentors.
Ready for Your Plan?
Whether you're redesigning death rituals (like Stephany), academic lab meetings and conferences (like Adam), tech products (like Louise), blockchain investment structures (like Kash), etc... your plan might be similar to Stephany's.
Or, become a "wingman". Help a friend critically evaluate
- Join your friend for the first sessions, in our intake process.
- Be a kind of "defense lawyer" for your friend: ask us tough questions to make sure your friend will be treated right. Before they pay for the course.
- Your friend gets a $300 discount for having a wingman. And has your help to make a good decision.
Fill out this form to wingman your friend.
This textbook draws from much prior work in philosophy, sociology, economics, and urban planning. This work is listed in the