Art Works Blog

An Inside Look at Practicing Social Impact Design

My journey into social impact design began with architecture. I first studied it as an object, obsessing over the form, materials, and details. I learned how ancient and modern masters like Michelangelo, Borromini, Le Corbusier, Wright, and Gehry created iconic buildings. I even had the opportunity to visit a few of their masterpieces in person. While wandering the spaces, I touched the walls, admired the intricate details, and took thousands of pictures to serve as tokens of my experience—tokens that I hoped would shape my future career. However, in all five years of studying architecture, there was one key element missing: people.

While working as a junior designer in New York City, I began volunteering with a nonprofit on weeknights and weekends. The connections I made with people through sharing skills and stories were much more rewarding than staring at a dark screen filled with CAD drawings. I began to retreat from the traditional architectural role that was laid out in front of me. My infatuation with the container (architecture) was replaced by the contents (people)—and I came to the realization that the contents are why the container exists in the first place.

Through volunteer positions with Architecture for Humanity,Free Design Clinic,and NOMADgardens, I became interested in the inner workings of social impact organizations. I began to realize that the way these organizations operated internally affected not only the work produced, but also the people who were doing the work. The researcher inside of me wanted to dig deeper into how nonprofit and for profit organizations were operating. How did they set up their businesses, firms and agencies? How did they organize teams? What services and skills were they offering to different clients? How were they getting paid? What drove them to establish independently in the first place?

My peers were asking these same questions so I decided to launch my own blog, called Design Affects, to explore these topics. It became a place for me to share these conversations that were occurring in-person and research that was living in my private hard drive. Through blogging, I met countless people who are exploring these topics, leading to opportunities to address these questions collaboratively with people like Jo Ashbridge from AzuKo, Gilad Meron from Proactive Practice, Andrew Goodwin from PUBLIC Journal, and even John Cary from

Today the questions about why people are doing the work and how they are realizing it threads through all my initiatives. These are the driving forces that get each of us up in the morning—so these questions matter.

Currently as the editor of Impact Design Hub, I’ve had the rare opportunity to dig into these questions and work with practitioners on communicating their intentions behind the work and the methods they use to achieve it. It’s been eye-opening to see the variety of approaches, methods, scales, and mediums in which social impact design is practiced. The boundaries that I had originally set around the field have been stretched and expanded beyond architecture. Services, systems, products, communications, and landscapes can all achieve social impact in a unique—and sometimes even more impactful—way.

I was thrilled to receive the invitation from the NEA to host An Inside Look at Practicing Social Impact Design because it provides another medium to explore and share why and how leading designers follow their visions each and every day. People are taking many different approaches to practicing social impact design—sole proprietorship, collectives, networks, for profits, nonprofits, and government agencies. On April 8, three designers representing this diversity in approaches will join me for an engaging discussion. LATENT DESIGN’s Katherine Darnstadt, verynice’s Matt Manos, and San Francisco Planning Department’s Paul Chasan will share their origin story, business model, and insights into future prospects in the field.

During the hour-long webinar, we will have the opportunity to hear answers to questions about the inner workings of each practice: why did you start? How do you fund your work? What services do you offer? How do you select and work with clients? Not only will they share how they operate today, but we will also dig into the challenges, failures and mistakes they made along the way. What happened when times were tough? What did they wish they had known when first starting out in social impact design? What have been the biggest learnings? Each practitioner will also have the opportunity to share their secret to success. 

We will hear about what worked well and what is working for them now and hear insights on what they see is most important for continuing to grow and develop the field of social impact design.

We’d love to have you tune in April 8 and join the conversation. Bring your questions and comments to contribute to an insightful conversation on practicing social impact design!

Register for the free social impact design webinar with Katie Crepeau here


Submitted by Barbara Marvin (not verified) on

Looking forward to the webinar. Thank you!

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