Social design has many definitions and the term is put to very different uses across the globe. Some definitions exist within the design world and refers to design in its traditional sense, meaning the shaping of products and services. Other definitions refer to social design as the creation of social reality; design of the social world.
Within the design world social design is sometimes defined as a design process that contributes to improving human well-being and livelihood. The agenda of social design is inspired by among others' Victor Papanek’s idea that designers and creative professionals have a responsibility and are able to cause real change in the world through good design. Papanek writes about responsible design. Designers can contribute to designing more ecologicalproducts by carefully selecting the materials they use. Papanek also remarks on designing for people's needs rather than their wants. Responsible design includes many directions and one of these is design for the Third World. Designers have responsibility over the choices they make in design processes.
Social design thinking within the design world joins developing human and social capital with new products and processes that are profitable. Profitability and ownership of the processes are the cornerstones of sustainability that underpins human well-being. Another author that contributes to the development of this definition of social design is Victor Margolin. He writes in "The Politics of the Artificial" about the "designer's ability to envision and give form on material and immaterial products that can address human problems on broad scale and contribute to social well-being." This ideology is something that social design is built on. In this view social design is an activity that should not be framed with connotations of charity, aid donations, help etc. It is not voluntary work but it should be seen as professional contribution that plays a part in local economic development or livelihood.
Another starting point for outlining social design is strategic thinking of design. Creating policies and implementing them on civil level. The two poles: tradition and the market economy can, in one of the models for social design, be placed in interaction, rather than in competition, with each other. An author that has to be mentioned here is Jacque Fresco and his Venus Project. He proposes that the future of the social systems needs to be designed by the scientific method. Social design can then be seen as a process that leads to human capabilities that in turn contributes to their well-being. As Amartya Sen writes, poverty is seen as deprivation of capabilities. By focussing on capabilities, rather than e.g. income, Amartya Sen suggests that development within various social aspects of life can contribute to general development. Understanding and using social design processes can contribute to the improvement of livelihood.
Another dimension of social design focuses on designing systems that join the elements of communication, new product development and the environment. It is argued that no single area of design is, by itself, sufficient to drive sustainable social development. What is needed is a system of design, one that encompasses all of the areas of design, towards an open system with multiple, self-adjusting and complementary actors that aim for a vision of a loosely defined common set of goals.
Outside the design world social design appears in a number of professional environments. There are a growing number of artists, especially in Scandinavia, that use the term social design to describe their work, though the work is exhibited within the art world. These are artist like FOS and Superflex. They come out of a tradition of social art that can be led back to the Futurists, the Dadaists and e.g. the German artist Joseph Beuys.
The term social design is also increasingly used to describe design of the social world. This definition implicates a perception of a man-made reality, which consequently can only be changed by man, and is changed by man all the time. In this view social design is inescapable, it is there whether people are aware of it or not. The social reality is created as a result of the sum of all our individual actions. There is an emerging discussion of this concept of social design, which encompasses all other definitions of the term.