Design for social impact. It’s a topic that’s always on my mind, and the more I talk about it, the more I realize I’m not alone. Most (if not all) designers want to make the world a better place with their work, but it’s hard to know how. Thousands of altruistic designers graduate every year, but with no clear path to a successful, impactful and meaningful career, most are forced to accept whatever design position they can find- regardless of the social implications. Designers and design firms alike have the same struggle: how to do meaningful work in a financially viable way.
The Design for Social Impact Workshop, hosted by the Rockefeller Foundation in their Bellagio, Italy estate, was a meeting of minds to discuss this very issue. With representatives from Continuum, Index, Design Observer, Jump Associates, Emerging Market Strategy, and a few other groups, the workshop facilitated 2 days of brainstorming ways to link the abilities of designers and design firms with the needs of the social sector. Although I was initially skeptical of the content (meeting at an Italian estate to discuss problems in the developing world seems somewhat dubious, doesn’t it?), the attendees came up with some interesting, albeit abstract, ideas for change. Here are some notes:
- There is a huge information gap between the social sector and the design world, and it’s a two-sided problem. The social sector doesn’t yet understand the value of design thinking, and designers don’t understand the needs of the social sector. The workshop attendees came up with a Social Impact Operating System concept which would archive and make accessible relevant information for both sides of this equation and create a collective action network bridging the gap between design and the social sector.
- Culturally relevant work is essential to designing for social impact, and the group proposed a network of in-the-field design labs, equipped with “advanced design tools” (ethnographic research and efficient prototyping, for example).
- Clearly there are several sides to the problem, but perhaps the largest is the financial viability of designing for social impact. Historically, such work would have been pro-bono or close to it, but it’s clear that for such work to continue and grow, new business models must be explored for both the social sector and design firms.
- Although this workshop focused on connecting design firms with the social sector, independent designers with altruistic intentions also need access to this kind of information sharing network. Having been thrown into the design world not too long ago, with years of idealistic and altruistic schooling behind me, I had little idea of what path would lead me to the most impactful work. (i guess I still don’t, but I’ll figure it out someday…) independent designers need more clearly defined paths to such opportunities.
- This workshop focused, as I mentioned, on design firms and the social sector. I’m interested to see, though, what potential lies in embedding these altruistic intentions in the formation of private-sector businesses. Social Businesses, as Muhammad Yunus calls them, represent an ideal scenario in which financial incentives are in line with social and environmental benefits. I’d like to see some design thinking put into the development of social businesses…
Continuum’s summary can be found here.