Don’t ask what a building is, but what it does

Heini Lehtinen
RWII by Raven & Wood Agency
6 min readFeb 10, 2019


Ukumbi / Komitu Architects, Koukh Kleang Youth Center, Phnom Penh, Cambodia, 2010–14. Photo Susanna Alatalo.

Social and societal design, which focuses on well-being of individuals and the society, has rapidly gained interest in the past years. Michael Johnson from London-based graphic design agency and Michael Murphy from Boston-based architecture office MASS Design Group have successfully looked for novel solutions for the design of common goods.


When Japan was faced with a massive earthquake, a tsunami and the Fukushima nuclear catastrophe in 2011, designers from all over the world responded with a wave of posters. The poster campaign attempted to help the victims and the reconstruction of the disaster-torn regions. That wasn’t the first time for this kind of a response — poster campaigns have been used in the past as well to raise funding for the victims of natural disasters. This is what graphic designer Michael Johnson also did some 20 years earlier. In his poster, the US President George Bush was smiling with an ozone hole in his head.

Designing a political poster wasn’t, however, enough for Johnson. “It’s possible to raise 10.000 pounds, but how to raise 10 million? How to raise the bar so that it would enable real change?” he asked himself.

Now Michael Johnson’s London-based design agency Johnson Banks works for clients such as Disaster Emergency Committee, an umbrella organisations for charity organisations; Acumen Fund, which directs investments to developing countries; lung disease organisation Cystic Fibrosis Fund and Save The Children, an organisation focusing on well-being of children. The agency has designed brand identities and strategic design for these and many other NGOs.

Johnson Banks, visual identity for Acumen, 2013

Changing the world with graphic design might sound challenging. Michael Johnson admits that it was precisely that in the beginning. The situation is changing though.

“In my generation, a lot of people I grew up with and went to college with, there was no sense of the better world, a better society. When I learned graphic design in the 1970s and 1980s, you worked on magazines. If you were lucky, you worked in fashion. And if you were really, really good, you worked for Coca Cola. That was the height of your profession. Now the research shows that anyone born in the past 20–25 years are really concerned about societal issues.”

Design looks for meanings

Michael Johnson’s statement reflects on the wider trend, in which designers increasingly want their work to have societal impact.

However, what is meant by ‘societal impact’ varies. There are as many definitions of societal and social design as those intending to define it. For one, it’s user-oriented design. For another, it’s participatory design. It’s also about bringing societal grievances into daylight and making proposals to fix them. It’s about improving well-being in environments for individuals, and re-designing societal structures.

Depending on the perspective, it can be related to designing neighbourhoods and improving well-being in urban environments, or working in the world’s conflict-stricken areas.

In Finland, the so-called social design or social impact design sector is so young that it doesn’t have an established term in the Finnish language. That doesn’t prevent designers working in the sector, though. These designers and companies include, among others, Tikau, which produces interior accessories in India; design and communications agency M4ID, which works on healthcare projects in developing countries, and Ukumbi, an association which designs schools, safe houses and youth centres in developing societies.

“It’s great that for a Finnish architecture firm, designing a school or a daycare facility is an honour. This is different from developing countries or in the USA, for instance, where daycare facilities are, to a degree, even designed as volunteer projects, as pro bono”, says architect Inari Virkkala, who has worked on several social impact design projects through Ukumbi. She also works on the board of Architects Sans Frontières International.

MASS Design Group, GHESKIO Cholera Treatment Centre, Port au Prince, Haiti, 2015

Collaboration and locality as cornerstones of architecture

Boston-based architecture firm MASS Design Group constructs buildings in developing areas. For them, using local materials, techniques and labour are essential elements in each of their projects. MASS Design Group has designed and built hospitals and schools to Rwanda, Kenya and Haiti, to mention some.

“In Haiti, for instance, many architects coming out of architecture schools and studios tried to come up with strategies to solve the huge crisis. There really was an attempt to do more with the discipline. One of the things that really emerged was the strategy to build pre-fabricated shelters that can be constructed really quickly and simply, sometimes with almost no labour at all, in effort to give people more housing quickly”, states Michael Murphy, architect and a co-founder of MASS Design Group. “What the [phenomenon of the] pre-fabricated [buildings] missed is the crucial lesson that I learnt in Rwanda: leveraging the value of labour. Pre-fabrication is the solution if labour is expensive and materials are cheap. But, in Port Prince in Haiti, labour is cheap, and materials are expensive.”

For Murphy, using local skills and enabling the local craftsmen to learn is a different, and often forgotten, way of thinking architecture.

“We call this lo-fab, not pre-fab. I consider lo-fab as a slow-food movement for buildings; something that tells a deeper story for richer intimacy of culture that creates the world.”

In Port Prince, MASS Design Group facilitated local metalwork craftspeople. All the 36.000 metal cuts of the façade of the cholera hospital were made by local metal craftsmen, who usually produce decorative metalwork made of materials such as used oil barrels. Local craftsmen and craftswomen also made the precise and beautiful masonry of the hospital building in Rwanda.

Participatory processes and using local labour enable the local community adopting the project from the beginning. Using and developing one’s own skills and using them for the local community also empower both the individual and the community.

Johnson Banks, visual identity for Disaster Emergency Committee, 2013

Added value of design

What can design, then, bring to societal projects that political decision-makers or NGOs can’t?

For MASS Design Group’s Michael Murphy, it’s not a question of what buildings are, but what they do.

In developing societies, a prototype of a hospital can impact the development of the whole healthcare system in the region. A hospital building can also enable healing. A school building can impact how construction or architecture will be taught to future generations in the region.

“If architects and designers offer poorly designed projects to promote a social mission, it is a great miscalculation. Those most undeserved deserve the best design and the best designers, not the least experienced or the ‘good enough’ ones”, he emphasises.

In the end, it’s about dignity.

“If we don’t accomplish this as architects, we continue to bifurcate the discipline instead of demanding an improvement across the boards. And we threaten to take away the dignity creation that is possible from great architecture.

Michael Johnson from Johnson Banks states, that the clarity of the message and the visual identity make NGOs more easily understood, more approachable, and more credible in the eyes of donors, municipalities and organisation boards. For him, the aim of design is to clarify the message of the organisation to funders and other stakeholders, and by doing this, improve the functioning of the organisation.

Like Michael Murphy, also Michael Johnson emphasises that societal projects should be in the same position with other — such as commercial — clients. They have the right to receive as good design as others, despite smaller budgets: well-functioning strategic design, visual design and solutions.


The article is a part of ‘Beauty in Exile,’ a research project by design and research agency Raven & Wood Agency. ‘Beauty in Exile’ looks into the meanings of beauty, design and architecture in societal contexts.

The article was originally published in Helsinki Design Weekly in May 2015.



Heini Lehtinen
RWII by Raven & Wood Agency

Specialist of societal impact of architecture. Co-editor of book ‘Studio Time: Future Thinking in Art and Design’ (2018).