Towards Professional Recognition
: Social Responsibility in Design Discourse and Practice from the Late 1960s to the Mid 1970s

Student thesis: Doctoral Thesis


This research stems from an examination of the role of design as it was presented
through the definitions offered by design’s governing professional bodies in the
period from the late 1960s to the 1970s, which was a period of radical change in
defining the field. Most notoriously, these definitions show how the discourse of
design shifted from an emphasis on production and the materiality of practice
towards the role it played within society. In September 1976, the Design for Need
(DfN) Symposium, held at the Royal College of Art in London, epitomised this
shifting discourse and general discontent with design’s status quo. While the
symposium was justified through a discourse of social responsibility to counteract
the global, economic and social crisis of this period, it is argued that social
responsibility was also adopted as a mechanism of professionalisation, to
advance the professional status of design and gain legitimisation on behalf of the
wider circle of recognised professions. Studies in the discourse of design show
how the meaning and understanding of design concepts were regulated by a
wider political, cultural and economic context, as they shifted in their alignment to
other discourses circulating at the time. Acknowledging discourses as
interconnected entities, DfN is presented as a landmark in the history of social
responsibility in design, as it facilitated an international space in which a myriad
of discourses on social responsibility, design and institutional agendas came
together. However, whilst design historians have located the symposium within a
‘history of calls for new ethics of design’, or as the ultimate recognition of socialist
ideals by the ‘upper echelons of the design institution’, investigation into the
organisation of the Symposium reveals contributions from a wider network of
people, ideas, technologies and institutions that did not fit the ‘accepted’
narratives of the current design ‘institution’ of the time. Approaching it through a
lens of transnational interconnectivity, the DfN is framed as an entangled event,
or as a ‘node within a network’ that helped shape our contemporary
understanding of socially responsible design. By analysing the various
discourses that were brought together under the ‘design for need’ agenda, this
thesis explores the epistemological foundations that underpin the concept of
need and social responsibility which remain an untapped area of historical design
research, as it also, expands the historical map of social design by analysing this
wider network of institutions. Positioning the DfN Symposium as a social platform
that was shaped by institutional agendas, individual professional pursuits, and
the transnational flow of ideas, the thesis is structured around a selection of
entities from this network, which, the archival research revealed, were key in
shaping the Symposium. This then raises questions regarding the omission of
these cross-cultural interactions and the colonialist tendency of ‘accepted’
histories of design, and the chapters simultaneously touch on debates regarding
the professionalisation and legitimisation of the design profession.
Date of AwardSep 2020
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • University of Brighton
SupervisorDamon Taylor (Supervisor)

Cite this