On 23rd March 2020, we published the manifesto for society-centered design (SCD). It is a vision for a more caring, trustworthy, just and equitable society. This is the story of how we designed the manifesto identity and what we’re thinking of doing next.

Images of three different works of art. The first, Antony Gormley's Lost Horizon I, are 24 life-size cast iron figures set at different orientations on the walls, floor and ceiling. The second, Antony Gormley's Domain Field, are 287 sculptures in a 8000 square feet space. The full body moulds are constructed of stainless steel bars of various lengths. The third, Wolfgang Buttress' The Hive, is a sculpture whose 170,000 pieces of aluminium are a hive-like structure of latticework, controlled by the vibrations of honeybees in a hive at Kew that is connected to the sculpture.
From user to society-centered. Left: Antony Gormley, Lost Horizon I (2008). Centre: Antony Gormley, Domain Field (2003). Right: Wolfgang Buttress, The Hive (2016).

Manifestos should be clear as a shout and passionate AF

There’s a long history of manifestos: they began as a page on a wall and evolved to a page on the web. They acknowledge the past and the present, and suggest a new way for the future.

No one can build the future by themselves, so a manifesto is a rallying cry to inspire others to come on this journey together.

An image grid of different visual manifestos.
Mike Tully, Visual Manifestos Are.na channel.

A symbol for society-centered future

Amongst the uncertainty, we needed a symbol to ground our vision. But how do you represent this society-centered future in all its layered, sometimes contradicting, complexity?

I started with a circle.

The front and back covers of The (Last) Whole Earth Catalogue. Small text on the back cover reads We can't put it together. It is together. Under it, there's a photo of Earth viewed from space.
The (Last) Whole Earth Catalogue.

Even if some have questions about the Earth being a sphere, at least we all agree it’s round. The circle has long been a symbol for wholeness and completeness, infinity and eternity, oneness and unity. It may sound zen and simple, but just like the pale blue dot, that’s only a matter of scale and perspective. Behind it lies the complexity of 7.594 billion people who inhabit it: their lives and loves, their struggles and successes, their expectations and decisions and how they interact with each other:

Society.

12 stills from the Powers of Ten film gradually zooming in: from the Earth viewed from space, to a picnic on a lawn, to an atom.
Stills from Ray and Charles Eames’, The Powers of Ten (1977).

The society-centered design manifesto divides society into 5 layers:

  • citizen empowerment, or how might we give people more rights and capabilities?
  • civic commons, or how might we create shared resources that strengthen communities?
  • public health, or how might we protect the safety and improve the physical and mental health of communities?
  • equity, or how might we design products, services and standards that are fair to everyone, not just the most privileged?
  • the planet, or how might we better care for our world?

These 5 layers and the circle became my building blocks.

Eggs and tapestries

If the 5 layers are part of the circle, how can you make them visible? My first idea was to take them apart, like a medical illustration. By doing it, the circle becomes an egg. Which isn’t bad, as the egg shares a lot of symbolism with the circle when it comes to the idea of wholeness. It also carries a lot of its own symbolism, mostly around protection, the creation of life and chickens. I liked the egg, but it carried too much baggage for its own sake.

Four line illustrations of a circle transforming into an egg. The first illustration is a circle. In the second, the top half of the circle is divided in three lines that come together in the bottom half. In the third illustration, the top half of the circle is divided in 4 lines. In the fourth illustration, the top half of the circle is divided into five lines that come together as one in the bottom half. Its shape looks like an egg.

Next I thought about the idea of a tapestry. You start by giving each layer its own pattern, inspired by its meaning. When you overlap all the patterns a new one emerges: the pattern for society-centered design.

Six different smaller symbols on the left and one larger symbol on the right.
The layers of SCD as symbols (small circles) and the SCD pattern they create (big circle). You’ll notice there are 6 symbols for 5 layers: that’s because we started out with 6 layers and ended up removing one.

There are a couple of hurdles with this approach.

The first one is that it’s hard to represent concepts like civic commons in a symbol that is easy to identify and understand. Case in point: I can only match 2 or 3 symbols with their meaning.

The second hurdle appears when you stack the layers on top of each other. What you see above on the right is a nice pattern created with only two of the layers; add the others and it becomes a busy mess. The layers need to be different enough to be recognisable on their own, but similar enough to pleasantly match when stacked. Not saying it’s impossible, but hard to do well in the short time we had.

This symbol has to balance complexity and unity and to do so it needs…

A new perspective

Left: London Tsai, Invisible Cities (Hopf Fibration) (2016). Right: London Tsai, Hopf Fibration (2004).

The above are representations of the Hopf fibration, a 3-sphere as described in terms of circles and an ordinary sphere. I’m not an expert in four dimensional advanced mathematics, so the science behind it eludes me. Instead, I was attracted by the nesting hyperboloids.

Three studies of nesting hyperbolas.

The hyperboloids become the layers of society-centered design, different but intimately connected and dependent on each other. They exist in harmony: an ideal circle or society can only exist by balancing the layers perfectly.

Symmetry is inherent to a hyperboloid and it contributes to this notion of balance. It also speaks to the idea that SCD as a practice can and should be applied at a small, individual scale as well as at a large, nationwide scale – as above, so below – especially in the age of the web and globalisation, when those 2 scales are so intertwined.

The SCD pinecone is made of 6 nesting hyperbolas of different sizes. It has a round silhouette. The top and bottom halves are symmetrical.
The SCD symbol (we call it the pinecone).

The website

We have the words and the symbol, now it’s time to put them together on the website.

The inspiration came from a book, one of my personal favourites. A publication that also aimed to reframe the discussion, in this case around art criticism and education: Ways of Seeing by John Berger.

Photography of the bold typography used in John Berger's Ways of Seeing.
“The text, set in bold type, was intended to match the visual weight of the illustrations.” Richard Hollis, designer of the Ways of Seeing book.

The SCD manifesto uses the same bold type, but in this case it bridges the gap between the strength of all caps text and readability. At one point we thought about directly referencing civil rights protests by using one of the fonts by Vocal Type for headings. It was not meant to be, but we’ll keep them in our back pocket for a future opportunity.

Animation of the SCD website contracting and expanding with the browser window. The title society-centered design remains left aligned as the SCD pinecone remains centre aligned.

Next steps

We have big plans for society-centered design: as it grows and changes, so will the website. We’re exploring ways for people to contribute and looking to add tools to help people apply the SCD principles to their work.

More often than not in design, the process of creation hides behind its end product – it’s a bit like magic. However, a society-centered approach starts by sharing: our references, to acknowledge the work that has been done before; our process, so other people can learn from it and feedback.

It’s also wonderful to see how the pinecone is inspiring other people to create their own versions of it.

We’re just getting started. Join us by sharing the manifesto and email us to co-sign it.

Thanks to Dan Harvey, Eliot Fineberg and Sarah Gold for their help with designing the SCD pinecone and website.

Thanks to Georgina Bourke, Sarah Gold and Simon Wiscombe for helping me edit this blog post.