In the early winter of 2007 my partner, Kate Hanisian, and I would recap our work days over a glass of wine in the window of our apartment in the Over-the-Rhine neighborhood of Cincinnati. She was working as the Development Director at a local non-profit that focused on criminal justice reform and I was working as a Lead Designer / Project Manager at a local product development firm. Our days were very different. Kate worked with a small group of people who attempted to effect big social change. And I, on the other hand, worked with a large group of people to create comparably small change. At first this dichotomy frustrated us, but with time, we began to see it as an opportunity.
We saw that design was a powerful tool which businesses used to understand users, generate ideas, and create competitive advantage. That it was a great process for improving existing solutions and discovering new ones. We saw that design was expensive and that while businesses could afford it, often non-profits and other socially oriented organizations could not. So we developed a strategy to align design with social organizations at affordable rates. This plan, called embedded design, meant that designers could engage organizations as partners, working over long term periods to complete projects and build capacity.
We polished this idea in conversations, through academic study and partnership with Kaleidoscope—our original funder. But the ideas needed to be tested, so we quit our jobs and moved to India to implement them with a partner in Tamil Nadu. There we worked as team members at a grassroots non-profit (ODAM) to develop two small social enterprises aimed at improving health and generating income in the rural areas that they served. While working, we published our work, eventually attracting other organizations that wanted to partner and designers that wanted to contribute. In 2011, after two years on the ground in Tamil Nadu, we were ready to implement our first projects and grow our organization through a new fellowship program.
The fellowship program’s goal is to connect high quality design to innovative organizations that can support the design process, but not afford it in its traditional formulations. The program cost is distributed between the fellow (working well below market rate), the organization (covering room, board, and stipend), and Design Impact (covering training, travel, and health). This shared funding model enables great design at flexible and affordable prices. We completed the first fellowship in May of 2012. It was a great learning experience that we’ll unpack and explore in later columns, but it was also very successful and will continue to be a focus of our organization.
As we look forward into the next few years we see an opportunity for Design Impact in developing human capacity for social innovation. We’ve already explored this through our fellowship, and have seen some fellows and organizations gel to create new spaces and processes that improves their outputs and outcomes. We believe that investing in people, through design, is an effective long term way to create social change. To increase our efficacy in this space and have formed partnerships in the leadership development field to enhance our ability to apply design as a capacity development tool.
The path we’ve taken since 2007 has been steep. At every turn we think we’ve come through the hardest part only to realize that the next hill is even steeper. These years have taught us many lessons, deepened our understanding of each other and of the world around us. In future columns, we’ll dive into more specific issues and challenges we’ve faced, reflect on how these have forced us to change and grow, and connect these to larger themes in social change. I hope you’ll read along and join in the conversation!