Designing with Society: A Capabilities Approach to Design, Systems Thinking and Social Innovation, 1st Edition (Paperback) book cover

Designing with Society

A Capabilities Approach to Design, Systems Thinking and Social Innovation, 1st Edition

By Scott Boylston


240 pages

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Paperback: 9781138554337
pub: 2019-05-09
Available for pre-order
Hardback: 9781138554320
pub: 2019-05-09
Available for pre-order

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This book explores an emerging design culture that rigorously applies systems thinking to the practice of design as a form of facilitating change on an increasingly crowded planet. Designers conversant in topics such as living systems, cultural competence, social justice, and power asymmetries can contribute their creative skills to the world of social innovation to help address the complex social challenges of the 21st century.

By establishing a foundation built on the capabilities approach to human development, designers have an opportunity to transcend previous disciplinary constraints, and redefine our understanding of design agency. With an emphasis on developing an adaptability to dynamic situations, the cultivation of diversity, and an insistence on human dignity, this book weaves together theories and practices from diverse fields of thought and action to provide designers with a concrete yet flexible set of actionable design principles. And, with the aim of equipping designers with the ability to drive long-term, sustainable change, it proposes a new set of design competences that emphasize a deeper mindfulness of our interdependence; with each other, and with our life-giving natural systems. It’s a call to action to use design and design thinking as a tool to transform our collective worldviews toward an appreciation for what we all hold in common; a hope and a belief that our future is a place where all of humankind will flourish.


"This book is an impressive account of design’s relation to capability theory. I recommend it to anyone interested in how design can inform strategies of social innovation."

— VICTOR MARGOLIN, Author of World History of Design

Professor Emeritus of Design History, University of Illinois Chicago

"Scott Boylston imagines something very exciting: the insights and creativity of designers unleashed not in the service of consumerism but instead of a working planet. Given the crisis we are now enduring, we have an unprecedented opportunity to design something new, if we work together. This book gives some clues about how to do just that."

— BILL MCKIBBEN, Founder,, and author of Falter: Has the Human Game Begun to Play Itself Out?

"There are several good reasons to read (and to study) this book. And one of them, in my view, makes it unique: it’s the first book that really helps designers understand the meaning and the design implications of the capabilities approach: That is, to recognize that their role is not to offer pre-defined solutions, but to enlarge people’s freedom to be what they want to be and act as they prefer. And, at the same time, to offer them motivations and concrete possibilities to choose to do it in a sustainable way."


Author, Design When Everybody Designs, and founder, DESIS Network

"Scott Boylston provides a thoughtful and necessary path for designers to contribute to social innovation. This is an important book for those seeking to design ways to change the world for the better and create a more sustainable future."



"Written in an articulate and accessible prose not often found in academic books, Scott Boylston offers his reader a very compelling analysis of how social innovation and design for sustainability can work together as change agents shifting existing paradigms of everyday life, to empower and transform our thinking about design’s purpose and future potential. A must read for designers, design management and design students."


Professor Emerita, Communication Design, Massachusetts College of Art and Design, and Author, The Social Design Reader

"The next generation of design practitioners are now asking the question of how we can develop new capabilities and mindsets to tackle complex social challenges. In Designing with Society, Scott Boylston provides us with a comprehensive guide to a new systemic and holistic design ethos which integrates the frameworks and approaches of the leading thinkers in this new field with his own extensive experience in innovation and environmental design."


Co-author, Holonomics: Business Where People and Planet Matter

"It is a profound truth to say that humanity is on the verge of self-destruction because we lack the design capabilities for entire cultural systems. This book comes as a spiritual cry to the design schools of the world that we must pull back the facades of grandeur and look ourselves in the eye, see ourselves with warts and all, and do the internal work to bring the best science and design ethics together for the transformation of every domain of human existence."


Founder + Executive Director, Center for Applied Cultural Evolution

"Scott Boylston’s Designing with Society offers a deeply integrated and deeply felt revisioning of the powerful ideas, practices and underling theories driving social innovation at its best today. The book is highly readable and detailed with the author’s concepts of relevant systems thinking models and social change processes. As a living systems approach to social change, the book encourages the reader to expand their viewpoint as to what’s possible. Designing with Society gives sage guidance that connects the best wisdom of design knowledge with profound approaches to social change."

— Peter Jones

Director of Research, sLab, OCAD

Co-founder, Systemic Design Research Network

Table of Contents

INTRODUCTION SECTION ONE: Interdependence, and Why Social Innovation Matters 1: Understanding the Interconnectedness of our Challenge 2. Society’s Interdependence with Ecological Vitality 3. Appreciating Social Systems through a Living Systems Lens 4. An Emerging Era of Social Innovation 5. Seeking a Moore’s Law for Social Innovation SECTION TWO: Designing with Mindfulness, Balance, and a Commitment to Justice 6: Rejecting the Short for the Long 7: Rejecting the Shallow for the Deep 8: The Power of Capabilities 9: The Challenge of Power Asymmetry SECTION THREE: An Emerging Design Agency in Social Innovation 10: Pathways for Design in Social Innovation 11. Seeing More of What’s There 12: Dispositions and Opportunites for Diffusion 13: Design and Managing Change 14: Design and the Unfolding Movement 15: A Fifth Stage of Competence APPENDIX INDEX NOTES

About the Author

SCOTT BOYLSTON is professor and graduate coordinator of the Design for Sustainability program at SCAD (Savannah College of Art and Design), author of three books, and founder of Emergent Structures.

Subject Categories

BISAC Subject Codes/Headings:
ARCHITECTURE / Design, Drafting, Drawing & Presentation
ARCHITECTURE / Professional Practice
ARCHITECTURE / Sustainability & Green Design