When I say to people, “I am interested in the intersection of design and social impact,” I usually get a courteous look of confusion. The eyes look back at me with a soft squint, a flutter of questions seem to arrive inside the individual’s mind, and the one that most often comes tumbling out is, “What do you mean by ‘design’?”
This moment of exchange creates a bit of anxiety for me, as I am in the process of discovering the words that give meaning and access to the term “social impact design.” These are “Venus and Mars” moments for me. I intuitively understand and feel something to be true or directionally right, yet I am short of the language to translate the inside thoughts to the outside world. Usually, when I find myself in that kind of situation, I look to others to learn from or to guide me.
Recently, I had the privilege to spend time with a mentor of mine, Jim Hackett, CEO of Steelcase. His description of the role of design is the simplest I have come upon to date. He said to me, “Mike, design is a problem-solving mechanism. Design methods are the techniques used to solve the problem.”
When Prof. Muhammad Yunus, founder of Grameen Bank, wanted to establish a bank for the poor, he knew he had to learn from scratch. He didn’t identify the problem and go right to a solution. In his book Banker to the Poor, Prof. Yunus never described the formation of the Grameen Bank as moving through design thinking and methods, but in fact that is exactly what he did. For example, here are just a few sentences from his descriptions of starting out:
“I studied how others ran their loan operations and I learned from their mistakes.” Design Method: Observation into Insights
“Slowly my colleagues and I developed our delivery-recovery mechanism and, of course, we made many mistakes along the way.” Design Method: Solution Evaluation
“We adapted our ideas and changed our procedures as we grew.” Design Method: Concept Evaluation
“So when I would go to meet with village women…” Design Method: Field Activity and User Response Analysis
“As an experiment, I abandoned the daily repayment system and moved to the next best thing, a weekly repayment system.” Design Method: Concept Prototype
Grameen has gone on to change the way the poor access money throughout the world. This groundbreaking innovation took place because, in part, Yunus used new methods to solve a complex problem. Moreover, Yunus’s method of development was centered on the individual in need, not the institution trying to solve the problem. I often look at stellar work and ask, “How did they do it?” Increasingly, I am seeing that the power of deep design applied to a complex problem delivered a more enduring and impactful result.
With the growth in complexity and scale of social issues, many professionals in government and the social sector feel ill-equipped to find new solutions. There has been greater focus and intention among leaders and practitioners to address this complexity with methods and practices found in the design community. This shift toward leveraging the intersection of design and design thinking with social impact has led to the creation of the first national conference put on by Public Interest Design and the University of Minnesota College of Design. The main intention is to begin gathering “an array of people and groups working at the intersection of design and service.”
I believe that greater progress will be made in the coming years, as leaders shift towards a new method and practice of solving the problems we face as a society. Increasingly, more leaders will come to the conclusion that the problem isn’t so much a money or people issue, it is a design issue.
If you are using design and design thinking to address social issues, please let me know. I would love to learn from you.
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