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It's Time to Find New Opportunities for Social Impact Design

Like many who read GOOD, I’ve been fascinated by the explosion of design projects that explicitly work toward positive social impact. I saw this rise of so-called "social impact design" firsthand as development manager at Public Architecture, where I built programs, wrote grants, and contributed to books highlighting this work. But now that I'm back in school working toward a masters of architecture, I've realized that there are precious few opportunities to actually build a career around social impact design.

There is a critical gap between the enthusiasm of a growing generation of designers looking to make a social impact, and the number of open positions at the handful of nonprofit design organizations and community design centers (CDCs) across the country. Earlier this summer, the Design Futures Forum took an important step forward in working to close that gap.

Held at the University of Texas at Austin's School of Architecture, the Design Futures Forum was unique in that it was specifically structured to help students build a successful career path in public interest design. Forty students from architecture and planning to business and psychology all came eager to learn how social impact can become a sustainable, long-term career.

Most of the twenty five practitioners speaking expressed how engaging in action outside designer's traditional role is essential to social impact. Maurice Cox, Director of the Tulane City Center, described his time as councilor and mayor of Charlottesville and emphasized how placing yourself in the political process affords you great capacity as a designer because it is where many of the most important decisions get made. Marc Norman, director of Syracuse's UPSTATE Center, emphasized that any designer can serve as an urban developer to take a greater sense of agency in new projects.

John Peterson of Public Architecture and Katie Swenson of Enterprise Community Partners spoke together about how social impact design gets funded. They emphasized that most successful public interest design practitioners understand the value design thinking brings to the non-design decision-makers, and leverage that value in ways that most designers would not consider. Lakshmi Ramarajan of Harvard Business School illustrated just how fluid this emerging field of public interest design is, and how a choice to focus on one type or project or another drives everything from staffing to funding to the size of your organization.

Jessica Shorthall of Toms Shoes pointed out in her presentation that "the easiest thing in the world is do a community project and convince yourself you're having an impact." She highlighted how the most sophisticated shared value firms have a method for building accountability and credibility integrated into their business process. Anne Frederick of Hester Street Collaborative shared her organization's set of self questions that ensure they know exactly what their contribution is, whether it's needed, and how to maximize the potential of their community partners.

Tying these threads together was a central challenge posed to all the students. Along with Gilad Meron, Mia Scharphie, and Suzi Sosa of the Dell Social Innovation Challenge, I led a five-day workshop asking students to develop and propose a new project, business model, or community-based initiative.

Teams developed widely diverse projects, from a campaign for water infrastructure in Texas, to a skillshare and community bank for service workers, to a packaged kit that teachers could use to teach middle schoolers about design thinking. Not only did teams tell a compelling stories about why their projects were important and had the potential for impact, but they went further to describe business models, long-term planning strategies, and sophisticated ideas for scaling impact.

These projects brought to light an important insight about what the future of public interest design is—that this emerging area of practice vastly expands the notion of what design is and what designers do. Whether or not these students go on to long-term careers in public interest design, the lessons they learned from the speakers and their peers will go a long way to shaping the future of design's relevance in the real world.

Image courtesy of Gilad Meron

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