The Canon of Designing for Social Impact

Over the past two weeks in our Theory of Interaction Design course, we have read 16 articles by 15 authors. These articles varied in intended audience and format, from informal articles on online forums to published articles from academic institutions. Each of these articles explored the concept of design for social impact. And, each took one of three different lenses to this topic: current trends in design for social impact, examples of design for social impact (both positive and negative), and exploration of an aspect that affects positive design for social impact.

We also read two articles which provoked deeper reflection on our individual identities as designers which I will discuss after I share a bit about each along with my biggest learnings from the collective anthology.


Current Trends in Design For Social Impact

We read four articles, which commented on trends in the design for social impact space. All offered a critique of these trends which spurred some consideration in me, as a future designer, about how I plan to interact with these trends as a professional.

Social Business Plan Competitions

Michael Gordon and Daniela Papi-Thornton explored the current trend of social business plan competitions. Social business plan competitions “invite students to address a specific, pressing concern, typically in a short period of time,” essentially a hackathon for designing a business that has social impact. Gordon and Papi-Thronton argue that, in looking for a business idea as the solution, these competitions favor the creative idea over understanding the problem space and developing an informed solution.

What kept coming to mind as I read this article was the idea that the same scrutiny should be applied to any social impact business. It is possible that someone could be a part of a design competition and design a solution for a problem they understand deeply, having it be equally as effective as a result. In the same way, it feels quite possible that anyone could create a social impact business in a less condensed amount of time that creates a negative impact on the population it hopes to serve. Is the real issue in the reward offered by these competitions? Is it in designers creating solutions for problems they don’t understand? Is it a matter of time? Just because a business has investors and real people it is serving now does not mean it is more impactful.

Considering “the Poor” as Consumers

Aneel Karnani critiqued C.K. Prahalad’s BOP theory and the trend amongst multinational businesses towards applying that theory. We read about Prahlad’s theory in our first quarter theory course. Essentially, that business is missing out on profit by not selling to the millions of people living in poverty. He argues if they were to consider this a target audience of their product impoverished customers would be brought out of poverty by gaining purchasing power. Karnani argued that Prahalad’s theory is flawed and inconsistent with evidence. He says this is because the transaction size of a good that an impoverished person could afford is so small it is not worth it for businesses to invest in those kinds of products. He also mentions the large cost associated with distribution and marketing to poorer populations, since they usually live in rural, uncentralized areas. As a solution, Karnani says we should consider the poor as consumers if we truly intend to lift them out of poverty.

Many of the points Karnani brings up were ones I considered when reading Prahalad so appreciated his similar lens to the argument. Including an alternative solution (of recommending businesses think of poor populations as producers) really bolstered his concept. As a designer, this concept emboldens me to consider ways I may involve a local population or a population in which my company is hoping to affect change in actually building the final product.

Conducting Effective Research

Jessi Hempel discusses the design research practices of Studio D, a design firm. She tells the story of a research trip to Saudi Arabia in which they were doing research for a project for a telecommunications company. Rather than targeting a group they hoped to reach and interviewing them, Studio D essentially conducted contextual inquiry with their users to understand their needs.

This article highlighted the even greater importance of research in design for social impact. Truly understanding your participants can allow you to build designs that not only make an impact, do not negatively impact the populations you are hoping to serve.

Designing FOR (not with) Social Impact

Joyojeet Pal spoke about the pitfalls of design for good. He talks through a couple reasons for the rise of “design for good” mentioning the emphasis put on social impact by universities, amongst other reasons. He asserts that design for good implies intentionality and in order to make a real impact designers must understand an issue in depth. He says participatory design does not happen enough to make things that are truly impactful.

The point I most appreciated in this article was the idea that we must recognize the limits of design and honor the people whose lifework it is to make an impact on communities. As a soon to be professional designer who studied social work and urban planning in my undergrad, I have great regard for those professions. I recognize the ways in which their work is much different than what a designer would create and intend to work hand in hand with these kinds of professionals in the design process with and then pass the baton to them the moment a larger design vision is created and communicated.


Examples of Design for Social Impact

We read three articles discussing three separate examples of social impact initiatives. Amongst all of them, there was a lack of clarity around what impact these ventures intended to have if not a lack of clarity around the actual impact they generated for the populations they served. While each of these seemed creative solutions, it made me think back to the Gordon/Papi-Thornton reading to consider these examples for their impact rather than creativity of the concept.

The Highline

We read an article by Laura Bliss which discussed the intentions with which The Highline, a green walking space, was created in Manhattan and how the space has been problematic than positive for the neighborhood. The main offering for why is is problematic is that it is mostly utilized by wealthy tourists and not the people who live in the public housing directly next to the Highline. It was conceived of after 9/11 as an effort to thwart an expected exodus of business from New York. Bliss argues that the space should have been better codesigned with the neighborhood to serve its original purpose while making it accessible to the community.

I was yearning for more examples of why this is a problem. Ironically, I felt I wanted the voices of the neighborhood in her article to hear what their issues with the development were. This diluted her solution statement around cocreation. It made it feel broad knowing that it is possible that the Highline is offering some benefits to the community and that there could be adjustments made or additions added that mitigate some of these problems she raises if we heard more from the populations who live around it.

Robinhood Restaurant

Lauren Frayer tells the story of the Robin Hood Restaurant, which is designed to charge the rich to feed the poor, in Spain. It uses the profits raised during breakfast and lunch to feed free meals to the homeless at dinner. She speaks about the owner’s desire for the people who dine at night “to eat with the same dignity as any other customer. And the same quality, with glasses made of crystal, not plastic, and in an atmosphere of friendship and conversation.” She mentions unemployment (at the time the article was written in 2017) was at 20% so it was a prevalent issue for the community.

While I imagine some would call this a bandaid for the real problem, I think bandaids are needed to help with the impacts of the problem, while ideally the root cause is being tackled simultaneously. The aspect that stood out was that, while those experiencing homelessness may feel like any other diner in their general dining experience, they are never interacting with paying customers. In this way, the business model innately otherizes this population from everyone else. Without changing the business model, how might this venture grow or be iterated upon to provide that kind of interaction? What would the impact of that be?

Crowdfunding Homes for Haitians Post Earthquake

Adele Peters wrote about a nonprofit called New Story, which built 150 homes in Haiti after the earthquake, at a much faster rate than larger nonprofits were able. She remarks that they were largely successful because large donors donated the cost of the overhead of the nonprofit while smaller donors had the ability to contribute to an individual home, learn about the family it would house, and get updates about the building progress. They were also able to be effective because they were focused on this sustainable solution of housing rather than more immediate solutions like food, medical assistance, etc.

What I felt was missing from this article were the ways in which the organization is measuring impact and ideally adjustments they have made to their model to be more effective. They mentioned a partner called Mission of Hope in the article. It would be great to know exactly what their partnership might look like and if Mission of Hope is measuring the impact of the partnership and their work.


What Can Impede True Social Impact

We read 6 articles that discussed aspects that can affect actual impact of social product and business development. Generally these articles discussed how using technology to solve social issues can have an overwhelming impact if not utilized correctly, how branding can exaggerate or mask true impact, how often business ventures fall short of actual impact because of a lack of follow through, and how motivations for giving from donors can have an affect on actual impact.


In an excerpt from his book, Mark Manson talks about how technology is causing people to be over inundated with information. He talks about how “the world runs on feelings,” how emotions are what motivate peoples actions. He highlights how when there is too much information, as there is now, everyone can find some information to support their individual feelings and in this way people become divided.

This is a very important point for us to be considering right now as designers entering the workforce at a time of great political, economic, social, etc. division. It feels important to recognize that providing people with an overabundance of information can actually work to divide people. As a designer this inspires me to bring simplicity with an emphasis on human connection to whatever I may be creating.


Alex Holder talks about how brands have the ability to emphasize the “impact” of a product through branding but that there is not much accountability for how much actual impact a product is having. He takes his argument to a more provocative level stating that in fact branding the impact of a product is essential for it to sell today, regardless of whether there is actual impact.

Branding is a part of the product development/design process. If we, as designers, are not considering how something is branded we are overlooking a big part of how a user will interact with our products. As a professional, I hope to be constantly be measuring the impact of and iterating on a product I might create to be serve the population we intend to impact. A big piece of this is working with marketing to ensure the branding actually reflects our true impact.

Branding Again

Cindy Phu also talks about how branding can skew impact. She specifically refers to the Project (RED) campaign, which provides 50% of profits from all (RED) products to AIDS services in Africa. She brings up points around the buying power of the consumer and asks, “If people are willing to buy an iPod that says (RED) but not willing to donate the cost of an iPod to AIDS services, is bad to harness that desire?” She speaks of the many pitfalls of this campaign, most importantly the lack of transparency about where these earned profits go and who they affect.

The idea of harnessing the buying power of consumers did not sound like a bad one. It alludes to the same argument I made earlier about creating a bandaid while the real solution is being built. At the same time, Project (RED) has been around since 2006 and it feels as if the concept should have been iterated on many times at this point and more transparency given to the campaign. Potentially if that were the case, the solution to the root cause would have been generated at this point and the organization could have moved onto another cause to affect change within.

Branding 3.0

Our own Jon Kolko also discusses the influence of branding on social impact. In his article, he conflates branding and UX saying that they are both, “colorful way(s) of framing total control over a consumer.” He says, “we must acknowledge the huge responsibility implicit in our work and constantly vocalize how our work supports humanity and the cultural landscape that surrounds us.” So rather than focus on just the “colorful way of framing” things we must be considering the larger ecosystem we operate within. He talks about how successes are too frequently tied to profit and marketshare rather than positive and long-term culture change.

As a former social work and urban planning student, this is not something you have to tell me twice. But I appreciate the freedom this perspective gives me a designer to push boundaries on the tactile problems I am solving to recognize the larger change it is creating as a result.

Follow Through

Our instructor Richard recounted the experience of attending a design challenge at the Twitter headquarters, which asked participants to consider how to make Twitter accessible to the community. His team created a grocery story concept that would offer interactive events within the community. Unfortunately he visited Twitter again later to see that none of the concepts had been implemented.

This reading raised questions of the importance of expectation settings. Was this workshop intended to truly develop something within the community? Was it an opportunity for people to creatively consider a solution together? Was it meant to just be a forum by which the community in which Twitter exists could come together? This echoes a similar sentiment I expressed when discussing the examples: the importance of being clear about the impact you intend to have.

Expectation of Reciprocity

Our instructor Richard discussed his experience with creating a funding campaign, comparing it to a few others he found online. He speaks of this idea that when people give they want something in return, if they have not already received something from you previously and feel obligated to give in the first place.

I appreciate the opportunity for reflection on what motivates people to give at all that this offered. It seems the motivations people have to give are strong (especially in this climate of giving and impact that Holder spoke about) and provoke consideration of how might we harness that motivation and what people expect to get from it towards a cause to make an effort as impactful as possible.

Why it matters to me

This week we also read an article, which described two types of people: an order muppet and a chaos muppet. An order muppet is risk averse, appreciates things that are predictable. A chaos muppet thrives in the unexpected.

We also read an article which was a conversation between our instructors Richard Anderson and Job Kolko about the value of theory to design.

As I consider these articles and how I will interact with topics they discuss as a designer, I recognize the large responsibility I have as a designer. These articles provoke me. They cause me to agree or disagree wit their assertions and thus develop my one cannon of truth, my own theories for how I hope to design professionally. My biggest takeaways this week would be:

  • the importance of setting and communicating expectations for impact
  • the importance of measuring that impact and iterating on a product to ensure it is serving its intended purpose
  • the importance of co-designing with other professionals and users throughout the process

Jon and Richard’s conversation helped me more deeply oncsider the value of what I was reading. While the muppet article, beyond the fun aspect of it, helped me realize how I may best contribute to a team who is working to reach goals for impact, where my weaknesses may be in achieving my hopes a designer, and how I may work to strengthen them.