Austin Center for Design's Theory of Change

A theory of change is a generally accepted way for Social Entrepreneurs to identify the impact they hope to achieve in the world, and to work backwards from that desired impact in order to identify actions and activities to take to make it happen. You can read more about theory of change here. I thought I would describe Austin Center for Design’s theory of change.

I have three long-term, lofty goals for the school.

The first is to have a group of influential alumni in the world who champion the role of design in mitigating wicked problems. I feel confident that the biggest changes we see in the world come from individuals who are passionate and empowered, and I’ve watched my previous alumni drive massive changes to companies and cultures.

The next goal is to have companies around the world change their focus from driving consumptive behavior to driving positive social change. There’s no questioning the power of a massive organization like Procter and Gamble or Nike. The conversation of sustainability in design provides evidence that these organizations are not resistant to change, assuming the change has obvious financial implications.

The third goal is to have the general public understand the role of design in tackling large-scale problems of a social nature. The more people understand what we do, the better our chances are of achieving success. The onus is on us to inform them.

In a theory of change, these goals are called Long-Term Outcomes: the long-term social results that will have occurred if the school is successful. While I would like to believe that I control these outcomes, I’m not naïve enough to think that I can single-handedly cause any of these things to happen. Instead, a theory of change positions these as the visionary end-game of success, and utilizes Short-Term Outcomes as a more attainable set of goals.

These are our Short-Term Outcomes:

Students are able successfully leverage our three pillars of fundamentals – prototyping, empathy, and inference-based reasoning – to tackle social problems effectively. While there are other, more pragmatic skills that a designer needs to be successful, these pillars form a cohesive frame for examining the world through a designerly-lens.

Alumni are able to generate positive social impact and revenue through the formation of new companies. While I don’t mind if my alumni go on to work for other companies, I feel that control is important in driving a double-bottom line approach to business, and this control is most obviously attained in a new venture.

The public begins to explore and embrace more divergent approaches to social problems. As I’ve previously discussed, I hope to see a larger and more nuanced conversation occur when people try things like the homeless hotspot project.

These Short-Term Outcomes are driven by the Outputs of our work at Austin Center for Design: the direct results of the things we do at the school.

These Outputs include:

Competency-building in the methods, processes, techniques, and theories of design and social entrepreneurship. We can judge the quality of this output by assessing our students’ progress during and after their studies.

Scaling support for student-driven companies to reach a level of self-sufficiency. This may take the form of money, physical resources, professional contacts, or guidance.

Knowledge-based artifacts (like books, conferences, presentations, films, etc) that drive awareness of the role of design and social entrepreneurship in the context of large-scale social problems.

Finally, to get to these Outputs, we have Activities: the actions I can explicitly take, that I have control over, to produce the above Outputs.

Our Activities include:

Holding classes of various lengths intended to teach theory, methods, and processes of design and social entrepreneurship. We’re experimenting with different length courses, including our one-year program, 10 day programs, and a one-day immersive bootcamp.

Providing mentorship and collaboration to alumni who are in the process of incubating new ventures.

Offering public access to new content related to our pedagogy and theory.

I’ve found this to be a powerful tool for driving action, because it acts as a vetting criteria for any new idea, program, class, or project we take on. Will the new project lead to Outputs, that drive Short and Long-Term Outcomes, that align with our vision?

You might try to create a simple Theory of change of whatever you are working on. I predict that you’ll have no trouble identifying the Long-Term Outcomes you are hoping to achieve, and you’ll similarly have no trouble identifying potential Activities you could take. But connecting these actions to the strategic goals is difficult, and – at least for us – is a constant work in progress. Simply producing the diagrams will act as a powerful form of self-reflection.