Design Thinking for Social Work? Is there a Connection?What is Design Thinking?

Design thinking “is a methodology for creative problem solving.” It emerged in the last 20 years from a long history of innovators working to solve “wicked problems” in a variety of fields through highly creative approaches and methods most commonly used in design firms. The basic idea is that design can be applied to all sorts of problems and challenges, and because those problems are complex and multi-faceted, creative approaches to solving them are needed. Tulane University’s Taylor Center for Social Innovation and Design Thinking defines design thinking as “a human-centered approach to generating social innovations.”

How do Design Thinking and Social Work Fit Together?

Social work and design thinking share a common goal: social change. This is evident in brief descriptions of each field. From the National Association of Social Worker’s (NASW) Code of Ethics, “the primary mission of the social work profession is to enhance human well-being and help meet the basic human needs of all people, with particular attention to the needs and empowerment of people who are vulnerable, oppressed, and living in poverty….Social workers seek to enhance the capacity of people to address their own needs.” And from the Taylor Center’s Rough Guide to the Fast 48, “Design research IS about fulfilling human needs and enhancing their capabilities to do and be what they want.” Thus, there is a clear commonality in the focus on human needs, capacities, and social changes needed to enhance human lives.

While there are many different ways to create change in society, the social work profession and the design thinking methodology profess complementary perspectives and principles for social change work.

These include:

  1. Human-centered – The social work profession aims to be client-centered, where “client” is an inclusive term that can refer to an individual, family, group, community, or organization. According to the NASW Code of Ethics, “Social workers promote social justice and social change with and on behalf of clients.” A client-centered perspective grounds social work practice to ensure that treatment plans and interventions are tailored to the strengths, needs, and capabilities of a specific client, rather than taking a more general approach. Similarly, design thinking is often referred to as a “user-centered” or “human-centered” approach to innovation. The at Stanford University’s bootcamp bootleg resource states: “As a human-centered designer you need to understand the people for whom you are designing.” Thus, both fields position a real human at the center of the work to take place.
  2. Developing empathy – Developing empathy for the client, user, or human at the center of our work is vital to both social work practice and design thinking processes. In order to meet the needs of a particular human, we must strive to understand their unique perspectives, recognize their strengths and capabilities, and learn what they value and care about. Building deep empathy for clients is an essential social work skill, as recent research has shown: “Empathic social work practitioners are more effective and can balance their roles bette.” Empathy has long been considered foundational to social work practice, as additional researchers highlight: “empathy as a means to interpersonal understanding seems essential to know how to begin practical work with clients.” Empathy is also a vital mode of design thinking. According to the, the empathize mode is “the centerpiece of the human-centered design process,” for in order to design for someone, you must make an effort to “understand the way they do things and why, their physical and emotional needs, how they think about world, and what is meaningful to them.” In design thinking, empathy is essential to re-framing issues from a user perspective. The Taylor Center’s Rough Guide to the Fast48 reminds us that design thinking is about building “empathy muscles – the ability to understand and share users’ feelings and employ these insights appropriately.”
  3. The importance of context – An oft-used adage in the social work profession is the “person-in-environment” perspective; that is, the importance of recognizing contextual factors in a person’s environment that impact the way they function in society. Contextual factors, like economic resources, the country one lives in, and social status can act to enable or constrain a person’s options in navigating life challenges. As the NASW Code of Ethics puts it: “A historic and defining feature of social work is the profession’s focus on individual wellbeing in a social context and the well-being of society. Fundamental to social work is attention to the environmental forces that create, contribute to, and address problems in living.” Similarly, the design thinking methodology places a clear emphasis on understanding humans and problems within their specific social context. Immersive research techniques, like participant observation, are used to “view users and their behavior in the context of their lives.” Context is crucial to understanding not only the person for whom you’re designing, but the real-world environment in which your design will come to life.

Challenges for Implementing Design Thinking in Social Work Practice

The modes, mindsets, and methods of design thinking for social change are well aligned with an ethical approach to social work practice, and offer social workers a pathway to innovation in the social work profession. Design thinking encourages practitioners to think of themselves as designers tackling complex social problems using a creative and collaborative human-centered approach that focuses on empathy and recognizes the importance of social context. However, there are some points of divergence between social work practice and the design thinking process that bear mentioning as potential challenges in incorporating design thinking into the field of social work.

Design thinking is inherently experimental with a bias toward action. In the design thinking process, things happen quickly, often with purposefully-imposed time constraints to promote rapid idea generation and iteration. Ideas are tested out without precise and careful planning and preparation in order to gain feedback and constructive criticism that will enhance the idea and its execution throughout the process. In the field of social work, practitioners are often constrained by funding stipulations, insurance and billing requirements, and agency guidelines that tend to leave little room for creative experimentation and changes to programs and interventions as they’re being implemented. Rather than a bias toward action, social work has a bias toward evidence-based practice, which means the profession relies on lengthy and rigorous research processes to inform our work with clients. While being guided by the evidence base is, of course, vital to ethical social work practice, the more fluid, adaptable, and experimental approaches encouraged in design thinking also offer a valuable path toward developing programs and interventions that meet client needs.

Additionally, the privacy and confidentiality of clients must always be considered and protected in social work practice, which potentially limits the ability of practitioners to solicit feedback from a variety of perspectives that might enhance our work. While repeated rounds of feedback from people in real-world contexts who test our ideas provides an invaluable source of information in design thinking, client’s rights to privacy and confidentiality must take precedence in social work practice, thereby limiting practitioners’ ability to test ideas in a real-world context and seek feedback from outside sources.

Finally, the iterative nature of design thinking has obvious utility in continually improving the design of a product, service, or experience, but in social work practice, we must be careful to first do no harm. Beginning a program or intervention in an experimental phase creates risk of harm for participants, and social workers must make every effort to minimize that risk.



It is through social innovation that our most pressing social problems will be solved, thus social workers should consider embracing applicable elements of the design thinking methodology in our efforts to work creatively and collaboratively toward social justice.


Design Thinking for Social Work? Is there a Connection?
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Design Thinking for Social Work? Is there a Connection?
Social work and design thinking share a common goal: social change. The social work profession and the design thinking methodology profess complementary perspectives and principles for social change.