Social design pedagogy and the UN SDGs

Bridging theory and practice to foster critical agency for sustainable futures


  • Melinda Gaughwin The University of Sydney
  • Sarah Ellice-Flint The University of Sydney


UN SDGs, Sustainability, Criticality, Social design


This paper reflects on designing, coordinating, and teaching into a third-year unit of study, Design for Social Impact, at The University of Sydney, Australia in 2020 and 2021 during the COVID-19 pandemic. It specifically comments on how the United Nations 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are used to scaffold student projects in social design spaces. What we are interested in extracting from the entire unit of study is the ways in which design pedagogy for social change combines design theory and practice to deepen enquiry into what, how and why student social designers design. To do so we pay specific attention to what constitutes social design, and the role of a “social designer.” We discuss how design theory and practice might underpin a student’s understanding and application of critical agency over their practice of design. Further, we draw specific attention to the unique challenges and complexities of the practice of social design for students in the context of COVID-19. The intention of this paper is to contribute to critical discussion of social design pedagogy and offer insights into the ways in which the SDGs might contribute to this pedagogy.

Author Biographies

Melinda Gaughwin, The University of Sydney

Melinda Gaughwin is an Associate Lecturer in the Design Lab, located in the School of Architecture, Design and Planning at the University of Sydney. She has a Bachelor of Arts (Film), a Bachelor of Design (Honours) (Communication Design) and a PhD in Design Studies. Melinda’s research investigates Apple’s shaping of contemporary consumer culture by design, through the lens provided by Foucauldian thoughts on power. She is especially interested in the ways in which design politically shapes peoples material and immaterial everyday lives, and how critiques of design can uncover this shaping.

Sarah Ellice-Flint, The University of Sydney

Sarah Ellice-Flint is an academic tutor at the Design Lab in the school of Architecture Design and Planning at The University of Sydney. She is currently in her third year of a BA in Design and Philosophy also at the University of Sydney. Sarah was invited to join the Dalyell Scholar program for high academic performance and, with a team, secured 25k funding in the Genesis Accelerator program. 





How to Cite

Gaughwin, M., & Ellice-Flint, S. . (2021). Social design pedagogy and the UN SDGs: Bridging theory and practice to foster critical agency for sustainable futures. DISCERN: International Journal of Design for Social Change, Sustainable Innovation and Entrepreneurship, 2(2), 79–94. Retrieved from