The Return on Design in the Public Sector Requires That We Analyze Its Effectiveness First

How do we capture the unique value designers bring to the emergent field of social innovation?

As an educator and researcher at the Weatherhead School of Management, Case Western Reserve University, I’ve been deeply immersed in questions that probe how we might better articulate and translate what I like to refer to as “the return on design” (ROD) in the public sector. In Frank Gehry’s Peter B. Lewis building, under the mentorship of design scholars who have long championed the power of design practices to create alternative futures, I’ve surrounded myself with both educators and practitioners to explore characteristics about design, approaches to designing, and understand how these relate to team projects aligned with a beneficial impact to society.

For more than a decade I have experienced design for social innovation projects upfront through the platform of Designmatters at Art Center and the work of our students and faculty. Whether we are imagining new products, systems and services for water and sanitation solutions like Safe Agua's in Colombia or Peru's communities, or helping teachers in Los Angeles' public schools engage teens in a conversation about gun violence through the Where’s Daryl? Campaign, our collaborative process with partners and stakeholders is characterized by complex decision-making and choices that can make a big difference in the ultimate results of the projects we undertake. My research these days allows me to dig deeper into the various dynamics at play in these projects, and try to understand better what might be a perfect recipe for successful learning, collaboration and ultimately more impactful project outcomes for all involved.

For all of the joys of my research journey to date, I have to confess that nothing has been more profoundly transformational, and oftentimes as arduous and humbling than to have to conquer a new language of sorts: that of quantitative research and survey design. Quantitative data analysis (statistical techniques that allow us to simultaneously compute multiple measurements under investigation with powerful software programs) has now become an essential tool in my work. It has been exciting to develop a new framework for analysis in my study connecting social innovation outcomes and learning with important work in our design management literature that has already uncovered that “design attitude” is a multi-faceted concept that can be effective in capturing key behaviors we recognize in designers: e.g. empathy, creativity, tolerance for ambiguity, being open to multiple sensorial inputs and consolidating meanings.

“We are drowning in information and starved for knowledge,” – this well-known dictum of the business expert Tom Peters in Thriving on Chaos, continues to be a truism in the world of design practices today. And it especially can feel that way in the emergent field of design for social innovation—a domain characterized by the cross-sectorial nature of the projects that we undertake.

Despite mastering statistics under the patient mentorship of my advisors, I’m still looking for answers, so I just launched a 15 to 20 minute survey that any designer can take to be a part of my project. The potential implications of this study are many. Just one possible and positive scenario of the findings could be that we suddenly see new powerful relationships between key design attitude factors and positive outcomes in social innovation projects. With that information, we could imagine how we might be in a new position to argue for certain design capabilities and skills in teams in order to facilitate learning and collaboration for example. My central hypothesis is that by gaining a better understanding of the way designers think and tackle issues, we may indeed be better positioned to harness design’s contributions to the field of social innovation overall, and articulate ROD with new confidence.

Who knows if the data from my survey, and the results of my multivariate analysis ahead of me prove me right. But in the meantime, embracing the quantitative paradigm has already given me a newfound concern for precise expression and efficient communication, and shown me that the power of my designerly ways remains to be seen.

Our methods of inquiry are not dichotomous, but reside somewhere in a continuum.

Note: If you wish to contribute to the sample of this study, please consider taking the survey here by March 31.

Mariana Amatullo is a Non-Profit doctoral Fellow at the Weatherhead School of Management, Case Western Reserve University where her research focuses on design and organizational practice, with a focus on social innovation. She is the Co-Founder and Vice President of Designmatters at Art Center College of Design. You can contact Mariana at

Image of The Peter B. Lewis building courtesy of Case Western Reserve University