My first exposure to the community of social impact design was the Public Architecture sponsored Design Access Summit.   The summit gathered a group of articulate people with depth in the diverse range of assets required for success in this work.   A range of the topics was explored both in short presentations and in very active small group discussions. 

My first take away was that social impact design calls for a much more entrepreneurial skill set than the usual architectural firm ‘waiting for client to come up with a project’ model.  Working actively in this realm often requires, or provides, an opportunity, for a designer to identify an problem or issue and then go out and identify stakeholders, partners and funding sources.  Or a potential client has identified a need but needs the project to be defined and articulated in order to pursue funding, whether grants or donations.  As in regular practice having a good team of collaborators is an asset, but for social impact design projects a more diverse group of resources is required.  A successful project is predicated on a rich social asset resource base.

A few highlights of the two days:

Perhaps due to the lack of specificity there was a lot of talk about the need for specificity.  Roman Mars, creator of the 99% Invisible radio show, addressed the subject of the story suggesting the motto ‘Specificity is the soul of the narrative’ and demonstrating the same brilliantly in a piece about the Plimsoll line  in the style of NPR’s ‘This American Life’ or ‘Radiolab’.  In a breakout session Roman also said that in order to motivate one’s social assets you need to have a good story, specific ‘asks’, and a common (specific) language or clear goal.  Stated another way Lakshmi Ramarajan from the Organizational Behavior Unit at the Harvard Business school outlined, in a session called Rethinking Service Delivery, the steps for changing external structures as 1)Framing the issue,  2)Mobilizing others, and 3)Engaging the rule makers.

The idea of pro bono itself was batted about.   Brian Healy, a design principal at Perkins + Will’s Boston office, wondered, in another breakout session, if we didn’t devalue our skills by giving them away, a problem acknowledged even by John Peterson of Public Architecture regarding the internal debate at Public over the name of their new book ‘The Power of Pro Bono’.  (Then the graphics designer pointed out all the ‘0’s in the title.)  Ideally people want to do work that matters, is good and pays.  Ideally we want to put our talents and skills to work for clients who share our values.

The question of metrics kept popping up: Would we be more successful in securing work in line with our ideals if we could better articulate/measure the difference design can make?  Or maybe more clearly stated:  Are metrics a valuable tool for better articulating the design’s value?  Can the therapeutic value of design be better demonstrated?  Measurement was seen by some as a tool for justifying an approach and facilitating collaboration.   I continue to be surprised by the way the discussion of metrics with regard to design generates a response that is, by all appearances, is defensive.  I still don’t understand the dichotomy between inspiration and metrics, especially in a field as practical and concrete at architecture.

Julie Eizenberg, of Koning Eizenberg Architects, in her talk in the session entitled “Overcoming Barriers: Successes and Failures”, made an elegant and inspiring case for having every project add joy and knowledge about the world to our community fund of good.  She said that “philanthropists like projects that inspire”.  I would extend that: philanthropists are not the only ones.  The public in general doesn’t know what the design process can offer.  While designers are taught to cast a wide net around a problem, as Julie pointed out, the public isn’t even expecting inspiration, thinking that smaller is better.

If we subscribe to the ethical and political activism of adding ‘joy and knowledge of the world’ to our public dialogue through design we can no longer limit our practice to benefitting only those with adequate means.  The best summation, at present, of my ongoing trip through the public good or purposeful design community, is that we as designers have a valuable skill that could serve the greater good in broad, far-reaching ways, ways that most of us, practicing traditional design in the traditional delivery method, are only just beginning to grasp.


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Cinda Gilliland

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