We’d like to introduce you to the Socially Engaged Design Process Model, pictured below. What is a process model and why is it useful to design? Keep reading to learn how we think about it at the Center for Socially Engaged Design (C-SED).

What is Design?

Sometimes the word design is used as a noun like “a design — a particular product.” But when we use the word design at C-SED, we mean it as a verb, as a process, something you engage in, with others. So if design is a process, it means that anyone can be a designer. It also means that it is a path you can use to create impact and to change the world. 

What is a Design Process Model?

Design process models are essentially maps or diagrams that designers or teams of designers can follow in order to give them a plan for their process and a structure to guide the decisions they make. Process models show us — like a map — where we’ve been, where we’re going, and all of the different routes to get to an impactful outcome.

Socially Engaged Design Process Model.

In the socially engaged design model, we organize the process like this:

Moving from left to right, you’ll notice that there are five stages: Explore, Define, Ideate, Develop, and Realize.  There are arrows throughout that point back to previous steps and ahead to future ones as a reminder that this process can be winding and should be iterative. All design challenges start somewhere. 

EXPLORE: In explore, designers ask questions and gather information. For example:

  • What individuals, institutions, and organizations affect or are affected by the problem? 
  • How have people historically attempted to solve these problems?
  •  Where can you look for the root causes of the problem or challenge? 
  • What information would be helpful in better understanding the context this challenge lives in? 
  • Whose voices are included vs. excluded? 

DEFINE is a moment to converge, collecting all of the information and context gathered in the Explore stage to find patterns, recognize constraints, and determine a way forward. In Define, engineers take the larger more complex problems they started with and synthesize them into smaller, more concise challenges that they can start generating tangible solution ideas for. 

IDEATE is the time to take your learnings from Define and get creative with ideas that could potentially address the challenge. It might be a specific idea or a process or simply a promising path forward –  ideate is about possibilities – The goal is to create possibilities for moving forward, with the idea that the end goal of ideation isn’t to pick the best one, but to present yourself with a variety of options of ideas that you can develop further and get feedback on.

In DEVELOP engineers hone in on a particular solution or path forward, refine that solution based on data, feedback from stakeholders, secondary research and start to try those solutions out. Designers use what they develop, build, sketch, code, or construct to test with users and get feedback – letting that feedback (both good and bad) inform future iterations.

REALIZE is purposely broad, recognizing that the “realization” of a design process could mean many things. Sometimes this might look like validating a physical product with users and bringing it to a specific market or community. Or maybe you are implementing a system, service, curriculum, or other intervention. In some cases, through the development that happened in the last stage, you may “realize” that you need to revisit previous stages in the process, for more ideating, to redefine the problem, or perform further exploration.


In the socially engaged design process model, these 5 stages sit along a line that looks something like a wave. This acknowledges that while you are moving through these stages in a linear fashion (left to right) there will be ups and downs in the process. because no design process is ever the same, the path is not necessarily straight or uniform. 

Decision Points:

Between each stage of the process model there are also breaks that act as your stop signs or decision points. Before moving from one stage to the next, you’ll want to pause and reflect. Different decision points will require different kinds of reflection, but generally you may ask yourself: Do I have enough information to move forward? What information is still missing? Is this meeting the needs of my stakeholders? What questions do I need answered? How can I get answers to those questions? Are there biases or assumptions that might be influencing my decisions?


These ripples in each stage are a reminder to consider the ripple effects or potential unintended consequences of your decisions, as well as recognizing the levels of complexity that you will experience in the process.

For example, as you begin exploring a challenge, you may think what you are working on is really straightforward, but as you explore it will likely feel more complicated and there are many layers of complexity to contend with. As you approach defining, you will be required to synthesize that complexity in order to arrive at a decision point.


While these five steps are foregrounded, there’s an undercurrent that runs through each stage. While the stages represent specific actions in specific parts of the process, the undercurrent represents the things that engineers and designers are doing THROUGHOUT the process, no matter the stage they are in.

REFLECTING & ANALYZING POWER, PRIVILEGE, IDENTITY, & MOTIVATIONS: Understanding what you bring to the process at any stage is a key element of socially engaged design. Ask yourself: What are my motivations for doing this work? In what ways might my own motivations be influencing the process? What identities and privileges do I bring to my work with and are they different from the people involved? What does power look like in these spaces? How do all of these considerations impact what I understand to be a “problem” or “not a problem”?

SKETCH & PROTOTYPE: While “Develop” remains its own distinct step in the design process where you refine and get feedback on ideas, socially engaged design encourages engineers to find ways to use sketching and basic prototyping to gather valuable insights at each step, whether it is crafting interview questions or sketching a service model to get feedback on. The main idea is that you can visualize and test your assumptions and ideas early and throughout the process.

GATHER INFORMATION — SOCIAL, TECHNICAL, STAKEHOLDERS: Since you are always analyzing your own relationship to the problem and always sketching and prototyping, you will always be gathering new information — about yourself, history, users, context. This information may come directly from stakeholders or from secondary research, but new information is always useful and always welcome.

SYNTHESIZE — INFORMATION & RESOURCES: Because you will always be gathering new information, you will always have to figure out what to do with that information — how to synthesize and make sense of it in the context of the information you already have and the stage you are at in the process – even and especially when that information seems to conflict what you already think you know. Remember, the integration of new information into your process may require you to revisit a previous stage.

Join us.

This model is core to how we work at the Center for Socially Engaged Design. We invite you to apply this design process to your work. Join us in workshops, courses, programs, and open hours.

Please cite as: Center for Socially Engaged Design (2020). Socially Engaged Design Process Model. Available at:

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International LicenseCreative Commons License

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