An online resource for designing a better world.

Democracy in Action: Impact Design Education at Malmö

December 2, 2015

As part of our Shaping Design Through Education feature series we’ve been exploring the many different ways impact design education is being practiced around the world. anNa Seravalli is a senior lecturer in product design at Malmö University’s School of Arts and Communication in Malmö, Sweden – a pioneering institution dedicated to pressing the boundaries of design for social impact. anNa spoke with Impact Design Hub about connecting the global and local through education, and how design needs more than magic toolboxes, and more than designers.

IDH: For our education series, we’ve been investigating various approaches to the teaching and training of impact designers – both methods and underlying philosophies. Can you tell us what’s unique about Malmö’s approach and whether it represents any broader regional way of doing things?

The School of Arts and Communication at Malmö University was created as a kind of digital Bauhaus – the political is very important, and we try to focus on how design can be used as a critical force in society. Our program comes out of the Scandinavian participatory design model of the 1970’s. At that time in Sweden, and other Scandinavian countries, information technology was just starting to make inroads into the workspace, leading to tensions among the workforce – since technology was seen as a possible threat to workers’ jobs. So a group of designers started working collaboratively with computer programmers and workers to create technologies and models that would support workers rather than supplant them. It was about democracy in the workplace, about empowerment. The idea was to give workers the ability to have a say in the shaping of their workplace. 

anna_seravalli_sidebarSince then participatory design has been developed in different forms. In the United States it would be called co-design, and its political aspects tend to be less stressed. But in some Scandinavian universities the democratic concern has remained central and over the last 10 years or so – and particularly here at Malmö – we’ve been applying participatory design approaches not only in the workplace, but in public arenas such as city planning and the fight to combat income inequality.

IDH: So what does that look like in action? Can you tell us a little more about the structure of your program and how the philosophy you described translates to pedagogy?

Most of the impact design education we do happens in our Masters in Interaction Design program. We also have two “free-study” courses that anyone can take as long as they have a bachelor’s degree. This is interesting because we get students from different backgrounds – they have to work in collaborative groups and with a diverse range of backgrounds and projects. But in both cases, the push in our educational model is for real-life projects, working with external stakeholders such as municipalities and grassroots organizations.

We emphasize project work over lectures – teaching through practice and having students reflect on their own work. Our approach is heavily influenced by Donald Schon’s ideas on design education, like those he explores in his book, “Educating The Reflective Practitioner.” We don’t work according to a hard and fast plan and we try to avoid providing students with prescriptive methods. There is no magic toolbox.

Students always say the last course they take to complete the masters – Design for Social Innovation – is the most complex. The task is to collaborate with multiple actors: NGOs, civil servants etc. You have to immerse yourself within complex systems and determine how to navigate them. We teach by exposing students to the complexity of these structures. The challenge is that designers are usually trained to work with materials but in these kinds of projects you also work with people – it’s social material so to speak.


IDH: But without a “magic toolbox” or a more defined framework, isn’t every interaction different? How do you define best practices in that context? And how do you define impact?

Impact design education is a real struggle because projects need to be long-term to really be effective – on the scale of years. We spend a great deal of energy exploring the best ways to get students involved in the field. Most of the time we bring them in on an ongoing research project, but try to find a smaller part of it for them to experiment with. The challenge is that the structure of education is semesters and three-month courses, and working with actors in the community requires so much trust and longer time frames. We absolutely struggle with this. Students see only a small part of the process; they often don’t see the outcomes.

Both we and the students are also wrestling with what it means to be a designer in these contexts. These processes challenge how designers think of themselves, and how they get credit for things. Education is about emerging as an individual and the making of something, but here we see increasingly that it’s more important to understand how to support and instill ownership in others; and not necessarily to make something new but to find opportunities to connect within existing systems. Designers can come in with ideas and proposals but it’s more about instilling ownership in community actors, or perhaps finding a way towards co-ownership with them. But this is a kind of work and ability which is difficult to articulate and present. How do you fit that kind of project in a portfolio? To be honest, we haven’t been able to answer this question yet.

I sometimes wonder if design should be dealing with these issues at all. Traditional design education doesn’t focus on social issues for the most part, on issues of power and complex social systems for example. In our courses we provide students with just a glimpse of what working with social issues entails, otherwise the risk is they could get overwhelmed. You can’t just throw students in situations that they are unable to understand and deal with, where the level of need might seem beyond what design can address.

Interaction design masters students running an Arduino workshop with school children in Malmö

IDH: So how do we deal with these wicked problems, with that level of complexity and need? Do you think your experience at Malmö offers any insights into how design education has to change to create more profound impact?

What we’ve discovered is that these are challenges on a global scale. Our masters program in interaction design has a highly international profile; it brings in students from all over the world. The issues we’re dealing with are by no means unique, whether it’s immigration, integration, population shifts, or changes in the patterns of production. We try to get all our students to think about what the big global issues are but also to consider the local perspective and how to work with stakeholders at the community level. We also see the need for design education to connect to other fields with longer traditions of dealing with social issues. It’s not enough to have a bunch of designers. You need people from different backgrounds. That’s why the free-study courses are so useful – it’s harder to manage, but the students leave more equipped to deal with complexity.

That need for connection and diversity is global too. As our students become more international, we grow increasingly aware of how these design and educational challenges are common throughout the world and how we need international collaboration to address them. DESIS – a group that I helped found – is an attempt to try and bring international social impact design educators together, to share knowledge and expertise. We’ve grown to more than 50 affiliated programs at universities on six continents in just a few short years. And what we’ve learned is that it’s not just the social and design challenges that are similar; it’s the educational challenge as well. Whether it’s Malmö or an impact design program at a university in China, Latin America, Africa, or the United States, we’re all grappling with the same question: how do you teach this?

Images courtesy of aNna Seravalli and Malmö University



  1. Compelling story. Very creative approaches here.
    A big yes to the observation that “It’s not enough to have a bunch of designers. You need people from different backgrounds.”
    As an agency seeking better, more durable design solutions for classrooms in refugee camp settings, it would be wonderful to see a team of educators, refugee families (including children), refugee agencies, and designers work together to design the most functional, conducive, safe, secure and environmentally sound structures that can capture solar energy, rain water to be a learning center – an oasis of peace, hope and calm – in the middle of the chaos and uncertain prospects for refugee children. A place where they can be kids with other kids and continue their learning for a more secure future for life after the camp. I am interested in feedback from anyone turned on by this concept.

  2. I am glad that I visited your website. I believe we live in an environment where it is important to understand the other cultures within their own realities. Many problems we live today from political to design are for the most part due to the lack of understanding of other cultures or just others – next door – (The Shon’s deep desire to write about the “Organizational Learning” is just great).
    I am happy to learn about the contributions of Shon thru “Reflective Practice” with your institution’s help. Thank you Malmo, thank you professor Donald Alan Schön.

Leave a Reply

Continue With More Articles in This Feature

Our New Feature Series: “Shaping Design Through Education”

October 14, 2015
Design and education are both, in a sense, about the shaping of things. The lines and contours of our built environment, the elegant curves of our diagrams, the molding of minds. Perhaps what they share... Read More

Impact Education Around The World: The African Design Center

October 28, 2015
Five years ago, Christian Benimana looked all around him and saw disaster. Born and raised in Rwanda, Benimana had just returned to his native country after finishing his architecture studies abroad. What he found was... Read More

The Promise of Transition Design: An Interview with Terry Irwin

November 11, 2015
Terry Irwin is Head of School of Design at Carnegie Mellon University and has been teaching at the university level since 1986. A practicing designer for over 40 years, her studies in living systems convinced... Read More

The Future of Impact Design Education

October 14, 2015
Few of us today have a degree in “impact design,” “social design,” or “public interest design;” though a few of us who are now students may be studying exactly those subjects, some even in degree... Read More

What The Maker Movement Needs To Learn

November 18, 2015
  Vincent Purcell is a Baltimore-based maker who teaches about making culture at the Maryland Institute College of Art. He currently serves as an Open Society Institute-Baltimore Community Fellow, where his work centers on the... Read More

Open Secret: An Interview with John Bielenberg

December 16, 2015
Open Secret: An Interview with John Bielenberg John Bielenberg is a designer, entrepreneur, and imaginative advocate for creating a better world through the application of “Thinking Wrong”. In 2003, he created Project M, an immersive... Read More

The Trailblazers – How Students Are Learning To Make Impact Design Better

December 23, 2015
Social impact is something that many fields work towards, and in some respects, designers are actually late to the game. Disciplines like public health, social work, and international development have long been pursuing the same... Read More

Empathy Is Our Compass – The Power of Design Futures

December 30, 2015
For years, students across the country have been frustrated by the lack of real educational opportunities in community-engaged design. While a handful of programs are gradually emerging to fill that demand, the problem of access... Read More