Shift in practice: Our design principles for social change

Looking for some principles to practise when designing for social change? Here, Tori Flower shares some of the key principles we embrace in our work at Shift and with our partners.

We hold ourselves to a set of interconnected principles when we structure and deliver work at Shift. They give us a way to reflect what we care about and a shared definition of ‘good’ to aim for.

This is not about perfection, it’s about progress. We certainly do not nail these principles every time. Some of these we’ve made good progress against; others we have good intentions around but our practice is very much still evolving. Our principles represent what we believe in, strive for, and celebrate at Shift.

Our principles are not definitive or discrete. They are emergent, evolving and reflect a direction of travel for our team. It’s also fair to say they’re not very original! In surfacing our principles, we’ve been influenced and inspired by those around us that we admire.

Right now, we’d describe our five guiding design principles as user-centred, equitable, collective, open and adaptive. Here’s what each of them mean to us…

Principle 01: User-centred

Why we embrace this principle

When we’re putting something into the world, we’re having to compete with all the other ideas, content, brands, material that everyone is absorbing every day and vie for people’s attention. That’s why we aim to keep the user at front of mind, and design things that are appealing and relevant.

How we practise it

Things such as user research to understand what people are driven by and are put off by.
We look outwards; taking inspiration from brands, initiatives and cultural material loved by the people we’re designing for. We do concept and prototype testing with people – for example using surveys, interviews, focus groups, role plays. Wherever possible we co-design with our users and talented creators to meet the needs unearthed during research.

Case Study: Scotland on Mars

How could we make sharing opinions about your health and care data being used and shared engaging for young people?

Shift (in partnership with The Scottish Government, Nesta, Shift Design and Dartington Service Design Lab) created an online social game, Scotland on Mars, as a playful, interactive space that young people enjoyed exploring.

Principle 02: Equitable

Why we embrace this principle

It’s important that we question the power dynamics that come with user-centred design. In practising this principle, we ask questions such as whether current research and design techniques are extractive of the communities they are supposed to be helping and whether traditional grant funders are best placed to identify the issues that should be addressed in communities, as opposed to the communities themselves.

How we practise it

We are starting to build a deep understanding of communities and contexts while trying to recognise our own biases. It is our goal to work in a much more participatory way, by running things like peer-led research and design programmes, and communicating our findings back to participants – not just funders and partners. It’s worth noting this is something we are educating ourselves around and these intentions reflect a direction of travel, we’re still very much at the start of our journey.

Case Study: Future Weavers

How can we unearth what young people think about increasing their involvement in solving global challenges?

We recruited a team of creatives aged 18-24 who shaped and carried out research on a global participatory project, supported by Wellcome and UNICEF. The young people were invited to co-lead the project, shape the research questions and methods, carry out the interviews, shape the analysis and define key insights.

Principle 03: Collective

Why we embrace this principle

We believe that complex social challenges are too intractable for a single discipline or organisation to address in isolation. A clear understanding of what others are doing and working in partnership with them allows us to act with an awareness of and in connection with different perspectives, experiences, and expertise.

How we practise it

We lobby for ideas that are in service to the sector not just individual organisations, and aim to leverage and contribute to existing infrastructure, data, networks and technology. Helping organisations consider the role they play in the wider ecosystem (not replicating what others are already doing) is key.

Case Study: Historypin

How can you bring local communities together around the world through sharing stories and old photos?

Over 10 years ago Shift developed Historypin, a communal digital archive for local and personal history, used by cultural institutes, schools and community groups to run local projects in their communities. An open-access approach meant institutions using Historypin had access to free shared resources and tools (created in partnership with Google), equipping them to run their own community engagement projects, allowing all parties to play their best role.

Principle 04: Open

Why we embrace this principle

Even greater social impact can be achieved by sharing insights, methods and data with others addressing similar issues. We aim to work in an open and transparent way, striving to signal what we’re working on and creating open outputs when possible.

How we practise it

Throughout projects, we aim to share what we’re doing publically (via our own site, newsletter, and social channels, and where possible partner and third-party channels). Open outputs (e.g. favouring wikis over PDFs) also help to open the design process to other

Case Study: Parent People Boosts

How can we support parents who gave birth and parented young children during the coronavirus lockdowns?

In collaboration with a network of 16 parent and baby charities, we developed a support package for those people supporting new parents. During the design process we used open online workspaces advertised via social media, actively inviting feedback and sharing our thinking publically along the way.

Principle 05: Adaptive

Why we embrace this principle

Working on big, complex social issues, we recognise that nothing is ever fixed – context and environments constantly change. By learning constantly, we can get an ever more nuanced understanding of of an issue and evolve our ideas based on this.

How we practise it

Our design process is based around iteration and adaptation. We often take a hunch-based approach and aim to test ideas as quickly as possible. We aim to treat user insights as evolving snapshots that will be added to and changed as the context evolves.

Case Study: Healthier food for families

How can families better access affordable, healthier food?

Over the past few years we have worked to widen access to affordable, healthier food. We have adapted our offer from pop-up vendors outside schools, to hot delivered takeaways, to supplying meals to community hubs at scale. We evolved our approach through learning what was feasible, viable and desirable, to be better embedded in local food ecosystems and to ensure social impact by reaching the right communities.

Find out more about Shift’s design principles in this video of a talk I gave recently to the RSA as part of a learning ‘exchange’ around approaches to designing for social impact.


We’d love to hear which of these principles resonate with you. Connect with us at @shift_org or get in touch on