Social Justice, Economic Development and Environmental Conservation: The SEED Network® and The Public Interest Design Movement

By Lisa M. Abendroth, Communication Design Program Coordinator
Metropolitan State University of Denver

“Designers have let [these] market forces alone determine whom we serve, what issues we address and the shape of all our design professions… How can we expand the practice of design to provide for the rest, the great number currently underserved, and [still] play an active role in responding to social challenges we face in the world?”

— Bryan Bell, Expanding Architecture: Design as Activism

There is great synergy in the public interest design movement today — a movement shaped by the needs of underserved audiences and propelled by designers committed to a community-based practice. In graduate and undergraduate studios, students are developing solutions to humanitarian and social justice problems. Motivated to create positive change they are driven to pursue solutions to these problems, problems that require a new set of “design” skills. Social entrepreneurship is softening the edge of design practice and new opportunities in the field abound as a result. The discussion of a socially informed practice is certainly not a new one: In 1971 industrial designer and educator Victor Papanek touted the benefits of a balanced approach to design practice that served the greater need of people first and foremost through reflective, appropriate and functional solutions. In his book Design for the Real World: Human Ecology and Social Change, Papanek spoke of the moral and social responsibilities of the designer while expanding on the economic and environmental effects of our work. In the late 1980s I had the pleasure of hearing Mr. Papanek speak at Virginia Commonwealth University where I was an undergraduate design student. During those early years of my education I had no idea what an influence he would later be — in my own practice and in the pedagogy of my students today. While the ideas Papanek represents are not new to us in our contemporary design context, somehow the focus and energy associated with this movement feels fresher and more pressing than ever.

SEED Award for Excellence in Public Interest Design 2013
Maa-Bara: Catalyzing Economic Change and Food Security by Designing Decentralized Aquaponics Production
Team: Maa-bara Organization, Lenya Primary School, Lenya Community Leaders, Bolena Fish Farms, Anthony Dunn, Obadiah Owiti, MIT’s IDEAS Global ChallengeHampton University- Department of ArchitectureMIT Sloan Africa Business ClubMIT School of Architecture + PlanningDr. Calestous Juma (Mentor), Mr. Julius Akinyemi (Mentor), andDr. Siyad Abdullahi (Adviser). Learn More:

As a contributing author and founding member of the SEED (Social Economic Environmental Design) Network I believe accountability, participation, transparency and an informed process can fundamentally change the trajectory of design practice today. These are the basic tenets of SEED. Both a principle-based network and a generator for public interest design education and evaluation tools, SEED is ideally situated as a source for best practice in this growing movement. First proposed during a 2005 meeting at the Harvard Graduate School of Design, architects, designers, and other experts in the public interest design movement convened to evaluate how design could respond to the interconnected triple bottom line issues of social justice, economic development and environmental conservation. Since then SEED has embodied the public interest design movement, evolving a unified global effort that responds to the imperative for understanding the impact of design that serves underserved communities and marginalized audiences.

SEED’s Mission is to advance the right of every person to live in a socially, economically and environmentally healthy community. With its mission, SEED is built upon the following five guiding principles:

1)   Advocate with those who have a limited voice in public life.

2)   Build structures for inclusion that engage stakeholders and allow
communities to make decisions.

3)   Promote social equality through discourse that reflects a range of
values and social identities.

4)   Generate ideas that grow from place and build local capacity.

5)   Design to help conserve resources and minimize waste.

While I contribute to the formation and evolution of SEED through my research, I also rely on it as a resource to guide pedagogy in courses I teach including Community-Based Design and Design Research Methods. Courses that seek engagement with social, economic or environmental issues are well suited to interface with the SEED methodology and tools — all available for download. The knowledge-base found within the SEED Network can be leveraged in the classroom serving many different functions that can be of aid to educators from across the disciplines of design. I have outlined a few of these here:

Tools. Methodology. The SEED Evaluator® metric was developed exclusively for the purpose of helping guide a design process that is informed by the SEED mission and principles. As a co-author of this tool — and as a communication designer — I am committed to finding synergistic ways of enhancing ethical design practice through improved understanding of design that serves distinct needs. The SEED Evaluator does this and more as it offers standards and a structure for pursuing collaboration-based, issue-oriented design projects. It is comprehensive and requires descriptive responses to phases of project development with the addition of project documentation that aides in revealing evidence of project accomplishment and challenge. First released to the public in 2010, the SEED Evaluator version 3.0 will be released by March 2013 and can be accessed online at

Infographic Design: Ryan Glaze

Participation. Accountability. SEED provides the means for pursuing a public interest design practice that emphasizes inclusivity and audience/community participation. The SEED Evaluator guides a design process that engages participatory research practices while documenting the goals, process and results of a project — ultimately demonstrating the value of design that addresses diverse issues. Completion of the SEED Evaluator can lead to an optional third-party SEED Certification process (for projects which are funded and implemented). Functioning as a communication platform, the SEED Evaluator process allows communities, audiences and stakeholders to develop their decision-making from within while using a proven method of success to document and understand results of the work.

Issue-Based. Triple Bottom Line. The SEED Evaluator uses issues embedded within the triple bottom line social, economic, environmental framework to identify how design is serving distinct needs. The issue database is one that can help identify opportunities and often helps address solutions to multiple concerns embedded within a seemingly singular problem. The SEED Evaluator nurtures a design process that is open to resolving more than one issue at a time within a comprehensive design problem. Through its structure, this methodology motivates accountability through qualitative and quantitative measures.

Evidence. Proof. Public interest designers need to be especially aware of the vulnerability of their audiences and communities when pursuing this line of work. Demonstrating evidence of best practices through benchmarks and documenting concrete, tangible results through phases of project development is necessary for the work to be understood as impacting positive change and potentially necessary for funding purposes. The SEED Evaluator requires designers and their stakeholders to document the project over the life of its development and implementation. For some projects this may require many years while for others only months. In either case, the need here is to detail exactly what was achieved and where there is room for redevelopment. This is part of an evolving legacy in the public interest design movement, which imparts knowledge through evidence of accomplishment and definitive outcome.

Assessment. Evaluation. An important focal point of SEED and demonstrated through the SEED Evaluator is evaluation. Understanding how a product, service or experience has met a need is implicit today. Designers must better communicate the results of our actions and even more so on the behalf of underserved problems where funding and resources for the work are likely scarce or at best highly competitive. Developing a critical discourse on design measurement and evaluation will directly aide the public interest design movement in translating best practices. An aligned function of the SEED Evaluator is to document these results and make them accessible to a broader public where education of how design resolves conflict is needed. If design is to grow as a discipline in the future, it needs to prove itself. SEED can assist in this process.

Education. Networking. An active engagement, educational outreach component of SEED is found in the Public Interest Design Institute ( The Institute has been in place since 2011 and is hosted by invitation at colleges and universities where there is a commitment to advancing the practice. Multi-disciplinary in nature, these two-day events feature a blend of presentations (using the Harvard Case Method), discussion, critique and instruction on how to implement the SEED methodology in a variety of design contexts. The Institute culminates with an exam that certifies knowledge gained in use of the SEED Evaluator tool and the SEED process. Presenters and educational leaders at the Institute are assessed on their ability to meet the stated learning objectives:

• Finding new clients

• Learning about new fee sources and structures

• Understanding public interest design and how is it re-shaping the design professions

• Pro-actively finding a public interest design project

• Using a step-by-step process of working with a community as a design partner

• Leveraging other partners and assets to address project challenges

• Maximizing a project’s positive impact on a community

• Measuring social, economic, and environmental impact on communities

This assessment feedback loop allows the Institute to continue to expand educational offerings while targeting participant need in furthering the public interest design movement. This along with the Structures for Inclusion conference, hosted yearly by Design Corps and upcoming this March at the University of Minnesota College of Design as part of their Public Interest Design Week 2013, expand opportunities for practitioners, students and educators to enhance an existing practice. Additional resources such as case studies — projects that have used the SEED Evaluator to assess outcomes — can be found on the SEED Network website and are useful educational supports. Additional resources include video documentaries of recent SEED Award winning projects. These SEEDocs (located on YouTube) reveal the nuanced relationships between designer and stakeholders and discuss how a “from the ground up” process was maintained in the project.

With the seemingly simple mission to advance the right of every person to live in a socially, economically and environmentally healthy community, SEED offers comprehensive tools, methodology, educational opportunities and resources that make pursuit of public interest design tangible for many designers. The critical nature of project evaluation and assessment further the mission and help design practitioners and project stakeholders understand the value of the work produced and how it created change through documented results. Ultimately, the SEED Network offers a community of practice for like-minded designers and others looking to shape their work, evolve their practice and build relationships with project participants in a meaningful way that directly impacts outcomes.

Learn more:

SEED Network

Public Interest Design Institute (PIDI)

University of Minnesota College of Design, Public Interest Design Week 2013

To discuss hosting a PIDI at your institution, contact Lisa:





By Lara McCormick
Published February 14, 2013
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