Art Works Blog

Postcard from Intelligent Coalitions: Design & Social Impact

Thursday was an exciting night for the field of social impact design---a term that refers to design work that benefits the broader public good. A year after the Social Impact Design Summit brought together 35 social impact design thought leaders, practitioners, and academics, the Smithsonian’s Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum, in partnership with the NEA and the Lemelson Foundation, released the first-ever federal report on the field. Design and Social Impact: A cross-sectoral agenda for design education, research, and practice frames the historical work in the field and offers recommendations on ways to further build infrastructure and support for social impact design.

To coincide with the release of the report, Cooper-Hewitt held an inspiring event at New York Public Radio’s Greene Space on Thursday, “Intelligent Coalitions: Design and Social Impact.” The room was packed with over 120 members of the public, design practitioners, and students. Many more tuned into the event via webcast. Cynthia Smith, Cooper-Hewitt’s curator of social impact design, kicked off the night by introducing five social impact design practitioners.

The first presenter, Ezio Manzini of Design for Social Innovation and Sustainability (DESIS) Network, framed the conversation in a profound way. He proclaimed that, “ingenious solutions reside in communities we try to serve through design work. It is important to recognize the capabilities in places where designers intervene.” He emphasized the importance of designing networks, versus designing solutions, alluding to the changing role of designers. In the field of social impact design work, designers increasingly play the role of facilitators, empowering the communities with creative skills to design their own solutions to challenging problems, including clean water, safe housing, and infrastructure for informal settlements.

Mariana Amatullo, of Designmatters - Art Center College of Design, took to the podium next to emphasize the importance of storytelling and documentation in design work for positive social impact. Her students have worked on a number of projects with social sector partners, such as UNICEF and the United Nations, by applying the creative design process to pressing problems such as access to clean water and women's health. Her presentation was a call for social impact designers to document both their successes and failures so that the field can continue to develop more effectively in serving the public good. “After all,” she said, quoting Robert McKee, “stories are the currency of human contact.”

Bryan Bell, founder of Social Economic Environmental Design (SEED) Network and executive director of Design Corps, presented ideas for measuring the impact of projects designed in the public interest. He showcased the SEED tool that provides bottom-up evaluations of projects, and highlighted the Public Interest Design Institutes that are training aspiring practitioners to design for the social good. He also stressed the need to focus on developing a legitimate career path for social impact designers.

Nadia Elkordy of International Development Innovation Network (IDIN) provided a thoughtful presentation on the power of networks and collaborative design that happens across national boundaries. A project funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), IDIN brings together academics, designers, engineers, and community members to design products and solutions that meet the needs of underserved communities. The Network’s approach is to empower individuals to become “active creators versus passive recipients.”

Krista Donaldson was the final speaker, which was a real treat. Her organization, D-Rev, was recently recognized as one of the 50 most innovative companies by the magazine Fast Company. D-Rev is “user-obsessed, not just human-centered.” Her work is focused on ensuring that the company's products meet users' demands. For example, D-Rev has developed reMotion, a prosthetic knee that is used by 4,600+ amputees around the world. She stressed two things strongly throughout her presentation. One, that it is important for designers to carefully consider the cultural context of their work. Designing a prosthetic knee for a U.S. user is very different than designing a knee to perform in more challenging climates and conditions. Two, that it is important for social impact designers to focus on unmet needs in the marketplace. Organizations must think strategically about ways to sustain their work, in part by using models that do not depend on philanthropy in perpetuity.

I left New York inspired by the many talented designers who have dedicated their lives towards bettering the world. Design is a powerful tool, one that can have a profound impact on the quality of life of individuals in the U.S. and around the world. The momentum is no doubt growing, and the NEA looks forward to continuing these conversations through a series of webinars over the next few months.

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