Why Not? Conference Explores Design for Social Impact

Jennifer Busch

The 2013 Why Not? Conference, presented by Interface and Universal Fibers in late July, invited an elite group of 30 architects, interior designers, and design students to explore the core values that design practices will need to embrace in order to be successful today and into the future. The conference, which took place at Cavallo Point in Sausalito, Calif., featured thought-provoking speakers on the topics of Design Innovation, Expertise, Sustainability, Social Impact, and Leadership.

Designers anxious to leave more than physical structures as their legacy are increasingly embracing socially impactful design as a way to “give back” to society. Far from the notion of merely donating design services or products to those in need, however, there is a growing body of evidence that socially responsible design can also contribute to a robust business model. Why Not? Speakers Nick McClintock, Mia Scharphie, and Gilad Meron, graduate students or recent graduates of the University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Architecture, Harvard Graduate School of Design, and the School of Design and the Department of Design and Environmental Analysis at Cornell University, respectively, discussed their research into how design firms can profit at the intersection of design and social justice.

Proactive Practices: Emerging Models of Social Impact Design

By Gilad Meron, Mia Scharphie & Nick McClintock

How Social Impact Design Is Different

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Nick McClintock, Graduate School of Architecture at the University of Pennsylvania

In recent years the term “social impact” has come to the forefront of design practice. There have been prominent exhibitions at MoMA, Cooper Hewitt and the like, dozens of publications and a growing cohort of conferences that specifically address this emerging area of practice. While the past decade and a half has seen an explosion of interest in social impact design (or public interest design), there has been a critical gap in research into exactly how this work is being done. Our research aims to begin filling that gap by documenting how leaders and pioneers in the field today are building new types of design practices that explicitly address social and environmental impact.

Before diving in, it’s important to explain why the firms we’re examining are so unique. Our initial research led us to recognize a polarization of efforts in social impact design, with large firms taking on pro-bono projects on one end and small nonprofits working diligently at the other. The problem is that neither represents true career paths for aspiring social impact designers. To be sure, both are critical to the growth of social impact design as a whole, but pro-bono programs engage only a fraction of a firm’s staff while nonprofits typically provide very few positions for full time designers. Our research focuses on firms and organizations that break out of this dichotomy, and examines the strategies, methods and approaches that they use.

Incorporating Nonphysical Outcomes

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Mia Scharphie, graduate of Harvard Graduate School of Design

Although Emerging Terrain in Omaha, NE, describes itself as “a nonprofit research and design collaborative,” the organization has developed a unique strategy that allows it to expand its capacity far beyond that of a traditional nonprofit. Through giving talks, hosting dinners and putting on exhibitions, Emerging Terrain has built a network of supporters and gained tremendous visibility. This process of constituency building is not typical of a design firm, but Emerging Terrain has used it to drive new project opportunities to the organization. Essentially by acting as a nonprofit and a mediator, the firm has been able to position itself as the ideal organization to take on large complex design challenges at the intersection of social impact and the built environment.


Expanding the Scope of Design Services

On the for-profit side, the Boston-based firm Utile takes a different approach. As a design firm, it began expanding its scope of services, helping government do research and write RFPs. These activities are typically outside the scope of a design firm, but by engaging in them Utile was able to gain key knowledge and insights, and build connections that positioned it as the ideal firm to take on larger public-sector projects that the city of Boston wanted to pursue. Essentially, by expanding the process to include activities that come before the typical design process, the firm was able leverage the expertise it gained to win new projects that specifically address social impact through design.


Gilad Meron, a graduate student in Design and Environmental Analysis at Cornell University

Implications & Insights

The most exciting part about our research has been the immense number of firms and strategies we continue to uncover. At this time last year we thought there were maybe two dozen “true” social impact design firms; now we know there are hundreds, and equality as many strategies for making those practices both profitable and impactful. What we believe we’re seeing is a combination of market forces and social sustainability in a way that has the capacity to transform the design industry. Much more research needs to be done to gain a better understanding of how firms successfully accomplish this, but the more we learn, the more we realize that as the scope of design expands so does the capacity for designers to use their skills and expertise towards social impact. This may be merely an emerging area of practice right now, but this is only the beginning.

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