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Design Alone is Not Enough to Create Social Impact

How can designers find careers in social impact work? There is no single trajectory. It is a constellation of skills, relationships and opportunities that individuals navigate to create a meaningful life practice.

As the director of operations of Design for America, I get a lot of questions from students about how to find meaningful careers in design and social impact. They ask, “What companies should I look to?” or “How should I present my work?” The truth of the matter is there are still very limited opportunities in this space, and to pursue these careers you typically need to be relentlessly persistent or often carve out your own path. This is no easy task and you most likely cannot acquire all the skills needed from a college education alone.


During the recent LEAP Symposium, a small team and I made an attempt to map out the skills needed to navigate these waters. My team consisted of Anne Burdick, Maggie Hendrie, Marina Kim, Jonathan Erwin, and Alex Cabunoc. Below is a drawing that summarizes our ideas followed by my own expanded version of our 48-hour discussion.

How can designers find careers in social impact work? There is no single trajectory. It is a constellation of skills, relationships and opportunities that individuals navigate to create a meaningful life practice.

In addition to trained design skills like form-giving, rendering, visual communication, and creative problem solving, we found that designers aspiring to create social impact need these four core skills:

1. Research Deeply & Assess: As a fundamental component to the process, designers are increasingly being asked to develop ethnographic skills such as fieldwork, analysis, and evaluation in order to find key moments where design can actually make a difference.

2. Be a Bridge: Things like facilitation, negotiation, systems thinking, and communication are all skills needed to extend beyond your own thinking and assumptions. Being able to reach out to others, understand their perspectives, recognize your place within a larger context, and communicate this to others is an essential part to developing meaningful social impact.

3. Do: The act of doing cannot be overlooked. Creating social impact is not only about having good ideas, nice renderings, or popular videos. It’s about getting into the world and actually doing the grunt work, which is not often the sexiest part of the process, such as creating timelines, managing a team, writing up agreements, doing damage control when something goes awry, and fundraising. Designers must go beyond their art form and continue to do the legwork needed to make an impact, or work with those who can.

4. Understand Different Worlds: There are myriads of sectors that need to be navigated and understood while working to make a social impact. The worlds include:

    \n
  • \nEthics: You are working with real people. They are not guinea pigs. People you will work with have families, lives, jobs, and relationships you will know little about. Humility is of utmost importance, so tread lightly and be mindful of the ripples of consequences that ensue from your presence.
  • \nPolitical: You need to understand both how certain national or international policies may affect your project, and the politics of any organization you may be working with. You must understand what motivates someone to act, how to gain buy-in, know who the decision-maker is and who to garner support from in order to move your project forward.
  • \nCorporate: You’ll often interact with corporations at some point in a project, whether it be partnering with them as a distribution channel, sourcing supplies, licensing your solution, or garnering sponsorship from them. Corporations can be an important variable to bringing your solution to life and, if you take that route, it will be important to understand how to best work with them.
  • \nLegal: Although the legal world seems like it was created to slow you down, it was actually created to protect you and those you work with. Regulations and laws for things such as filing a patent, getting IRB approval, or creating a legal entity or business are put into place for a reason and you’ll find that your projects can actually be enhanced when understanding these legal implications. It’s often a lot of paperwork, but it must simply be done.
  • \nSocial: It goes without saying that you cannot make an impact in someone’s life if you don’t understand the social context in which you are working. Similar to the political world, communities are made of relationships, hierarchies, taboos, and tacit understandings. Communities are the social fabric surrounding your work and it’s important to know how to navigate.
  • \nProduction: You can’t make an impact if you can’t make your solution. Whether it’s a product or a service, know what resources are out there and search tirelessly for what you need to bring your solution to life. Don't assume you need to create everything from scratch or make everything at once, but do understand the world of production to materialize your solution.

If this sounds overwhelming, you are right. It’s important to remember that you don’t acquire these skills overnight. As indicated in the beginning statement, this is a trajectory. Through a constellation of experiences over time, you can build your skill-set and sense of mastery, seek relationships to support you along the way, gain a deeper understanding of your community and the communities you work with, and perhaps most importantly develop your sense of self-awareness to find your place in the world. Be patient. We are in it for the long haul.

Many of these variables feel obvious, but as a first attempt to put these components into words I would cherish feedback, additions, corrections, and thoughts. Thank you to the awesome team I worked with last week who put all these together and the LEAP Symposium for bringing us together.

Photo Credits: Sally Ryan and Sami Nerenberg. Courtesy of Design for America.

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