When we attempt to answer any why? question, we embark on an effort to explain emergent phenomena that we may not yet be able to confidently name. That process of elucidation—one that is often iterative and generative—is important because it represents an opportunity of approximation to new knowledge: the ability to grasp patterns with new clarity, find causal relationships of substance, and discover underlying dynamics that may account for practical and consequential problems we had been previously confronted with. In other words, these are the beginnings of good theory generation: one that starts with inquiry in the real world and seeks to explain something meaningful about it.
In design for social innovation, this process represents the pursuit of a continuum of understanding rather than a definitive set of generalizable answers. The ideas and concerns debated between the practitioners in these pages build upon a sequence of perspectives and lived experiences that—despite inconsistencies and contradictions—allow us to progressively uncover the repositioning of design in new places of engagement and action within the framework of a contemporary cultural context in profound flux.
When designing graphics, furniture or a typeface, one directly designs the thing. Type designers, for instance, directly manipulate the curves of letterforms and the spaces between them to produce desired outcomes: legibility, well-roundedness—perhaps a certain flair. When done well, a beautiful typeface stands alone, crystallized in the form of a type sample—a work of art in its own right and nearly devoid of all other meaning (except to those few who dare to wonder why the quick brown fox really jumped over the lazy dog).
By contrast, social impact design is more akin to architecture or, as suggested in the subsequent essays, entrepreneurship. One can design products, services, initiatives and organizations, but these alone do not create social impact any more than an architect’s blueprints keep out the rain. A product has to be used (and used as intended) to lead to positive outcomes that were predicted in advance. Likewise, an organization may be well designed on paper, but if it doesn’t work in reality—well, it doesn’t really matter, does it?
Here’s the secret: social impact is an outcome—not a thing—and so it can only be sought, never designed. This begs the question, what is the social impact designer actually designing? In each of the dialogues in this section we find the practitioners directly involved in projects varying from websites to healthcare services. In how these designers do their work and how they question their own careers, we find the beginnings of a practice that’s more robust than a shared cause and deeper than a shared skill-set. While the work products are diverse, observations on how they come into being are not only remarkably aligned, but also beautifully essential.
One day in the spring of 1959, seven musicians got together— some for the first time. When they arrived that day, each received a slip of paper with rough markings on it. Miles Davis, the group’s organizer, had just handed them a small piece of history.
With this gesture, Davis introduced something called modal jazz—a way of approaching improvisation unlike any before it. In contrast to the complex chord progressions of the preceding musical era, modal jazz was simple. It was a mode, a scale, a framework. And its key ingredient? Co-creation.
Instead of control coming from the composer of a piece, modal jazz promotes a sense of discovery. It doesn’t reveal everything; it leaves the generative process up to the collaborators involved. This loose framework gives way to participatory design and new forms. Like never before, designers are improvising. They’re finding un-inscribed rules in frames of reference as didactic as form fields, as motley as urban landscapes. The texts in this section—all investigating the “what” of practicing social innovation—pursue new forms and an evolution of existing ones. Not comfortable resting on the “what” that is, they stretch our understanding of what can be. And all suggest a bit of improv is required.
Case studies are one of the most important tools that can help designers at any stage of their career, by pairing their existing design abilities with the wisdom of those who navigated similar projects and graciously shared their experiences. The majority of this book’s pages are filled with conversations between designers who elaborate on some of those experiences, but this section highlights actual projects. We identified 10 of these projects from design studios, consultancies and organizations that regularly work on a range of impact-driven design initiatives. The details of projects like these are often a mystery to those emerging designers who admire what appears to be a seamless navigation from messy complexities to simplified solution. So to capture the insights of these projects, we provided each contributor with a case study template and asked them to tell us the story of their project.
For my part, it’s all about fluencies. I believe that designers are the connective tissue of any constructed system, and that one of the designer’s primary jobs is to translate and mediate between varying stakeholders with often-conflicting interests. And in order to do this work—often a kind of conflict resolution work—a designer needs to speak multiple languages. Indeed, I can’t think of many other professions where one participant is supposed to be able to talk to leadership, marketing communications, supply chain management, regulatory, policy, labor, sustainability, technology, crowdfunding, alternative economies…the list goes on and on. There are just so many facets to creating any kind of design intervention (or amassing the wisdom to simply leave something alone).
But that’s actually the minimum requirement! Design needs to be meaningful, purposeful and net-positive. Which means that a designer needs to be so good, so skilled and with such steady judgment that she not only can “get the job done,” but can also use design to contribute in a way that improves the condition of the world. So yes, a very tall order—but perhaps we can trust in the educators below (and their countless counterparts) to provide the guidance, the guardrails and the grand daring that is required to nurture tomorrow’s change agent.
About LEAP Dialogues
The role of design and designers in society and the marketplace is changing. In the new publication LEAP Dialogues, 84 designers, educators and thought-leaders from across the United States examine why these changes are happening, what is needed to support these new practices, and how designers can pursue these emerging career pathways.