In June 2008 I attended a workshop called “Design for Social Impact” sponsored by the Rockefeller Foundation at its center on Lake Como in Bellagio, Italy. In this unusually bucolic setting in the southern Alps, twenty designers from a dozen countries pondered the question of whether design could be an avenue for poverty alleviation, and how such efforts could be organized into effective and impactful initiatives by design practitioners, firms, and organizations. This meeting marked the beginning of a personal journey that changed both my life and my work.
In previous years, most of my friends and peers participated in what was commonly referred to as “nonprofit work.” We might make our living producing branding for large companies, but we carved out a portion of our design practices to do “good work” — occasionally in our local communities, often for cultural organizations, and frequently with the sense that this was where our most creative opportunities lay. Such work was often done for no money or negligible fees: it was, quite literally, “nonprofit” work. Yet, this was the work that we entered in competitions, retained for our portfolios, and displayed proudly at conferences, forming the basis for many a creative reputation. It was graphic design doing good; Robin Hood stealing from the rich to help the poor; even a form of tithing, a ritualized percentage of our practice given back to God.
This approach to nonprofit design, whether engaged with ballet companies, local food banks, or voter registration initiatives, had another, darker side. It was often about the work we could showcase, not the people we were helping. It was often amateurish — designers making forays into education or health care with little practical knowledge or meaningful experience. It privileged the teacher, not the student; the client, not the user; the provider, not the person in need. It was too often design about design, design for the sake of design, designers preaching to one another about design’s capability to create impact.
At that Bellagio workshop I realized that design for social change could mean something very different. The participants talked about working with social enterprises, NGOs, foundations, corporations, and governments. We argued the vocabulary of social innovation, collaborative systems, and systemic change. We envisioned designing methods for poverty alleviation, social justice, and sustainable environments. And at every turn there were nagging questions, challenges without obvious answers. How do we capture innovations and replicate them? How do we move from effective programs to sustainable systems? Can we collaborate across the spectrum of design methodologies and genres to generate deeper, larger, longer-lasting solutions? How could such collaborations be organized, funded, and implemented? How could we measure our effectiveness, learn from our failures, and implement metrics for gauging sustained impact? How can we create programs and solutions of a scale commensurate with the scale of the actual problems confronting us?
I have since come to believe that social design defines a new kind of designer. It needs to be expansively conceived beyond trained designers to include end users and social participants. Social design cannot be a subspecialty of the design profession (like graphic design, package design, product design, service design, and so on), but is a larger activity that depends upon design in all its forms — thought, processes, tools, methodologies, skills, histories, systems—to contribute to the needs of a larger society. It implies at once an attitude and an approach to life: as such, it can help us frame how we want to live in the future. It is therefore inherently pragmatic and results-oriented, simultaneously humble and ambitious, and fundamentally optimistic and forward-looking.
So where do we start?
Designing for Social Change is one place to begin. It’s a toolkit of strategies, case studies, and stories, offering new opportunities for approaching social design in our communities. It presents students and schools as active participants, designers and design firms as social innovators, and communities as both rich laboratories for experimentation and receptive locations for creative approaches and new ideas. It includes successes and failures, and, with thoughtful reading, offers both evidence and learning that can inform future social design work and projects. Importantly, it suggests that collaboration between designers, and across schools and communities, has the potential to generate even more compelling future initiatives — and the potential for deeper design engagements that successfully impact the quality of life in our towns and cities. Designing for Social Change should be the guidebook of a youthful, nascent movement, one that is changing the definition and the role of design. As a designer, this is an exciting place to start.
This essay appears as the forward to Designing for Social Change: Strategies for Community-Based Graphic Design by Andrew Shea, published by Princeton Architectural Press earlier this month.