ODOM stove prototype for burning smokeless, energy-efficient charcoal briquettes. Photo courtesy Design Impact
In the past few years, considerable progress has been made in bringing design attention to areas of social inequality. An emerging field, however, social design lacks the established educational and career paths that exist for other areas of design. As a professor at the University of Cincinnati and a director of a nascent design nonprofit, Design Impact (DI), I'm often approached by young designers asking: What knowledge do I need to get into social design? What skills should I develop that I didn’t learn for my design degree? What social design opportunities are out there? How do I begin?
Two years ago, I attended the Better World by Design conference in Providence, Rhode Island. There, I was surprised to discover that many of the panelists weren’t designers, but entrepreneurs and realized that young designers interested in this field may find assistance from the well-established field of social entrepreneurship. One source of insight is J. Gregory Dees’s influential article “The Meaning of Social Entrepreneurship,” which lays out the differences between social and traditional orientations of entrepreneurship, identifying a few areas where social entrepreneurs need to have expanded knowledge. Adapting the same concepts to designers — a strategy I use in the paragraphs below — provides some insight into what they need to thrive in the social design arena.
Dees begins his article with an explanation of the term entrepreneur. Among the attributes he lays out is that “entrepreneurs have a mindset that sees the possibilities rather than the problems created by change.”
I would define designers foremost by their ability to communicate visually. However, that is not all they do. Designers have learned to pair visual communication with techniques that stimulate creativity and unearth consumer insight, and to use this understanding to gain an inclusive view of the product, company and consumer. For instance, product designers need to understand how an object will be manufactured, used and marketed within a portfolio of other products. Additionally, designers of various specialties all possess technical knowledge that gives them specific value within a traditional business setting. In the case of graphic designers, such knowledge may take the form of understanding print production or the sourcing of recycled paper. The abilities of a successful designer are also needed in social design, along with knowledge of the social sector, competence in networking and dedication to putting social impact before design itself.
According to Dees, “Social entrepreneurs do not let their own limited resources keep them from pursuing their visions. They are skilled with doing more with less and attracting resources from others.”
Successful social design programs require management, fundraising, design and engineering. Insufficient funding means that there is rarely the structure in place to provide projects with all of these components. While social designers have developed a variety of creative ways to locate funding and organize projects around limited resources, tight budgets often force designers to learn to wear many hats. In adapting to these situations, it is essential for designers to recognize their limitations and network with others to fill project needs.
Sitting across from Anil Gupta in his office at the Indian Institute of Management (IIMA), I found it hard not to be struck by the importance of networking as the space filled with colleagues from IIA, the Honey Bee Network (HBN), the National Innovation Foundation and the Grassroots Innovation Augmentation Network. Representatives of these organizations were working together to identify and develop Indian innovations welling up from the bottom of the pyramid, in a microcosm of the collaborations the groups are trying to foster. HBN has created a matrix of thousands of rural innovators that enables them to support each other and share solutions. Twice a year, the organization brings together diverse inventors, scientists, farmers and students to visit Indian villages, looking for new ideas and technologies. The cross-pollination resulting from the database of these concepts has led to the successful development of many products and businesses.
Attracting resources also means securing funding for social design projects. I have dealt with this struggle firsthand through my work establishing a design nonprofit, Design Impact. After a year developing the idea for DI, I and my colleagues made a pitch to the leadership team at Kaleidoscope, a 70-person design firm based in Cincinnati. We explained that the opportunity to work on social-impact projects would increase Kaleidoscope’s employee morale and that support of DI and the emerging social design movement could be a differentiator with clients. Our presentation resulted in funding for a two-and-a-half-year pilot project. Kaleidoscope also agreed to contribute staff time. Although we did not set a specific monthly target for support, over the first 12 months Kaleidoscope provided 1500 hours. Thus far, the relationship has been deemed beneficial by both sides.
According to Dees, “Profit is not the gauge of value creation; nor is customer satisfaction; social impact is the gauge.” Yet one of the most difficult parts of social design is measuring and understanding the quality and scope of a project’s influence. There is ongoing debate as to how to measure effects and even what constitutes “positive” social impact. These debates are fueled by the ambiguous nature of social impact versus purely financial impact and by the differing ethical and moral values that people bring to projects. Even though there are not universally agreed-upon metrics for measuring impact, it is important for social designers to educate themselves on this topic. Paying attention to the ongoing conversation, reading broadly about development, economics and sociology, and getting to know the local context you’re working in are all important ways to evaluate outcome.
In addition to grappling with impact, social designers will find themselves in areas and partnerships that are different from their traditional surroundings and associates. Those familiar with for-profit structures may now have to know nonprofits. They may also need to understand low-income-consumer trends, which differ greatly from middle- and upper-income consumer trends. Also, social designers may need to know new modes of production, communication and distribution. In order to absorb all of this information, they must rely heavily on advice from the intended user as well as professionals from other fields.
The nuances of understanding impact were apparent last year at the Villgro Unconvention, a conference promoting social enterprise in India. I was surprised to hear a heated debate over the U.S.-based company D.Light, which works to replace kerosene lanterns with safer solar-powered lights. D.Light offers well-developed analyses of the health, economic and education benefits of their products and has received over $10 million in grant and venture funding to implement its designs. Even so, the company’s representative, Mariette Fourmeaux, was heavily challenged by her fellow panelists, all of whom worked for rural electrification in India. They claimed that D.light’s status as a foreign company and mandate to serve social investors detracted from its ability to maximize social impact for rural Indians. This debate showcases how even a highly regarded, well-documented intervention can be challenged due to a difference in ethics and values.
DI’s work in India is pursued through a cross-sector, multi-disciplinary approach, and our partners have taught us new ways of assessing and solving problems. We are collaborating with the nonprofit Organization for Development, Action, and Maintenance (ODAM) to build a rural enterprise around a charcoal-based fuel alternative to wood. The project team consists of a designer, an organizational developer, an agricultural expert, a chemist, a biologist/field researcher, a marketer and many cooks. This diverse group makes it possible to develop an understanding of the varied distribution channels, complicated retail landscapes, science involved in fuel combustion and specific expectations users have for cooking, all of which are needed to launch this product successfully.
Social entrepreneurs, says Dees, “make sure they have correctly assessed the needs and values of the people they intend to serve and the communities in which they operate. In some cases, this requires close connections with those communities.” Similarly, it is vital that social-impact designers put the needs of the community they are serving above all else. This may seem obvious — designers generally work with the user in mind and push their designs to fulfill the user’s desires. But in traditional design, such interests are matched with the needs of the business, producers, and even designers themselves. Social design must step back from that balanced approach and put users at the fore of all design activities. Only then is it possible to honestly make an impact, not merely create a well-designed object.
The biomass stove design team at Prakti Design in Pondicherry, India, has developed an exemplary method for product development that places the user at the process’s core. Prakti’s onsite research center employs local users to test and record their impressions of the stove prototypes. A few expert users cook with a set of six stoves each day and record the experience. Additionally, in home usage trials, a professional researcher regularly checks in with families to record feedback. This multi-level application of user insight, matched with the inclusion of the user as an equal and paid part of the project team, allows for Prakti to design appropriately
At DI we believe that ownership and leadership of any design intervention needs to come from the community. Our process places a designer within a local nonprofit for several months, allowing time to learn about relevant needs and assets. In our current work with ODAM, we’ve spent a great deal of time building the organization’s capacity to manage and assume leadership of the projects, while we’ve provided important design services. This year long-stay, matched with constant community feedback and organizational capacity-building, enables ODAM to implement new, community-centered programs that will benefit the local environment, health and economy.
“Social entrepreneurs are one special breed of leader, and they should be recognized as such.” –Gregory Dees
My elaboration of Dees’s article is just one example of how designers who engage with social entrepreneurship can gain insights into social design. However, this is not the only available model. Just as only a small percentage of the general population exhibit entrepreneurial traits, not every designer can be an entrepreneur. This should not discourage designers interested in social impact from pursuing their goals. Social design will require many types of leaders for it to grow into an established field. Advocates in the corporate sector, agitators in the schools, angels in the consulting sector and many others will need to take part to realize a more socially driven design profession that can sustain itself into the future.