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Interaction Designer and Social Entrepreneur are like Ice Cream and Oreo

Wednesday, May 18th, 2011 | Posted by Ruby Ku

So the school part of AC4D is over. But I think all of us recognize that this journey has just begun and I hope to continue to use this as a platform to articulate our thoughts, state our opinion, and design publicly. Coming into AC4D with some socent knowledge and having immersed myself in the ixd world for the last 8 months, I have been internalizing how the two worlds fit together, what they mean to me, and how I would talk about them. As Frank Chimero wrote, “Writing pushes forward”. So I figured the only way I would be able to figure that out is to begin writing about it. These are more of my general thoughts about the industries so they will sound awfully obvious to the AC4D students, but do comment and add to this if you agree/disagree.

First and foremost, there’s this common ground: Both interaction designers and social entrepreneurs aspire and have the ability to create something new in the world that fundamentally disrupts the way things are currently being done.

Now I want to talk about why I think they need each other.

Why SocEnt needs more IxD’s thinking+doing:

1) The What – build solution based on people’s needs, not what feels good

Some social enterprises get a lot of press. Compelling photography combined with a charismatic leader are very PR worthy and easy to get lots of people excited. But as many have already written about, solutions that just “give” instead of building a community’s capacity to help itself does not solve anything. Akhila Kolisetty gave some solid examples in her recent blog post on some American’s attempts to tackle social problems – “TOMS shoes’s model of distributing free shoes undermine the local economy; voluntourism or ‘slum’ tours where rich Americans go abroad to see how the poor live in slums; Greg Mortenson building schools which ultimately end up as empty buildings when no one has bothered to properly train and pay teachers or make sure the school is what the community really needs.” Akhila was right when she said, “There is a lot more we can do to simply ask the community, What is it that you need, and how can we help you get there? There is a lot more we can do to serve their needs, rather than our agendas.” And this is exactly the place for more design research. Drawing from ethnographic techniques from other social science disciplines, design research is a process to uncover issues that are deeply embedded in culture and often aren’t expressed immediately. Whether through immersion or co-designing, design research helps everyone at stake get to a solution that they all care about, have a shared value in, and would be accountable for.

2) The How – learn how to make stuff so social entrepreneurship can be accessible

A lot of great work is being done in the social innovation arena. But the output is often in the form of whitepaper, conference panels, blog posts, and a lot of discussions around what great potential we have to end poverty and what great era we’re in to change history. Many in the field also believe “thinking is action”, leaving a lot of young people feeling this: “OK, I’m inspired, but now what? If I quit my corporate job tomorrow, what can I do? How do I begin working on problems that matter if I don’t find working at the soup kitchen or applying to the peace corp compelling?” I shared those same sentiments a year ago, which was what led me to apply to AC4D. Recently, more and more socent grad programs are incorporating design thinking into their curriculum. But design is fundamentally about making, and that the power of design thinking will not be realized unless it’s coupled with the making part of design. I have reflected upon this after IxDA this year in my other blog post here. Jon Kolko has also recently written about the role of designer in a startup and the qualities of a designer that are so essential to making ideas happen. More aspire-to-be social entrepreneurs will find themselves in a much better place to “know what to do next” if they learn “how to make”.

Why IxD needs more SocEnt’s thinking+doing:

1) The What – to solve problems worth solving and develop a sense of purpose

Thousands of talented young people graduate from design school every year, then go off and work at prestigious agencies where they create yet another app for the big telecommunication company or another iteration of the logo for an airline. It’s no longer news that my generation does not aspire to that type of work. We want to work on meaningful problems that change the world for the better, even if it means walking away from the big fat paycheck and living like a college student again. The social entpreneurship arena has nothing but challenging, meaningful, large-scale social and humanitarian problems. Education, health, environment, the hardest problems all in front of you and you can tackle whichever to your heart’s desire. As Gary Chou from Union Square Ventures has said, “A lot of people in the tech world talk a lot about how in order for an entrepreneur to be successful, they have to be passionate. But what hit me was that I realized that you can’t be passionate unless you have a sense of purpose about something. It’s sort of a precursor.” You don’t find meaning by being comfortable at a cubicle, nor talking about what you’re passionate about all day. You find meaning by stepping up, admitting that designer has a responsibility to create a better world, and act on it.

2) The How – a great product is not enough to solve the problem

Designers are driven to build beautiful, desirable things. They care about the user experience and the aesthetics, but not a lot of them think about how they get funded, how they get to market, or how they get into the hands of the end users. Designers feed off from being able to tackle a complex problem and create an awesome solution for it. But they get bored when they have to deal with the logistics, the project management, the cost and benefit analysis. But if the most awesome thing ever designed has nobody there to build it, fund it, launch it, support it, and use it, it’s a waste of time and money, and certainly doesn’t do the world any good. Great solutions almost always need an entity (a business/organization) in order to do all of the above. Thinktiv’s CEO Jonathan Berkowitz wrote that in order to navigate the challenges of moving something from Powerpoint to Production, a vision for the company needs to have 3 dimensions: a problem solving strategy (product or service), a customer acquisition strategy (sales and marketing), and a monetization strategy. As social entrepreneurs can no longer ignore the need to learn how to make, designers also can no longer ignore all the things that need to happen to bring their design to market.

There is so much great talent in the IxD and SocEnt worlds, but too often they work in silos. More people need to learn to cross the artificial boundary, take the best from both fields, and transform themselves into someone who can 1) create with a rigorous design process, 2) driven by an entrepreneurial spirit to challenge status quo and create something for the betterment of the world.

Interaction designer and social entrepreneur are kinda like ice cream and oreo – they are great on their own, but better with each other.

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