Event Recap: Designing for Social Good, from Startups to Government

At Austin Startup Week this year, the City of Austin Innovation Office convened a panel of designers who are reshaping sustainability, government services, and public health.

Panelists included Melissa Chapman, Senior Designer at VA Center for Innovation; Jose Colucci, Director of R&D at Design Institute for Health, Dell Medical School; Roman Gonzalez, Founder of Gardenio; and Ben Guhin, Senior Advisor for the Design, Technology and Innovation Fellows Program at the City of Austin.

Moderated by Austin Center for Design’s director Ruby Ku, the panelists shared the projects they are tackling and the unique challenges they face from creating new ventures or initiatives within large organizations.

Designers as Facilitators

Designing for social good often means going beyond designing products and services, rather it requires developing a new culture for organizations and communities to think about problems and work together differently. In essence, designers take on the role of a facilitator.

“With big problems like homelessness, affordability, and democracy, there is no single product owner you can get your requirements from.” Guhin reflected on his journey on creating and leading the City of Austin’s Innovation Fellows program. “Designers must create a conversation and learn how to add people into the design process.”

“It becomes easier to facilitate if you don’t parade the word design around.” With her work with the Veteran Affair’s office, Chapman has to remember that stakeholder have different motivations and vocabulary. “The interests of the designers, users, and investors can vary widely, so designers must be ready to tell their story in different ways.”

While some panelists find using the word “design” hindering in their work, Colucci and his team take a different approach at the Design Institute for Health. “We try not to hide the word design. We try to convey the idea that everyone can be a designer in their work and teach methods of design, ideation, and not think of anything as final. Designing something is always an attempt to get better and improve.”

Don’t Forget The Bottom Line

As a relatively new space, most social impact projects operate in startup mode. That requires designers to simultaneously think like any business founder. This is true whether one is starting a new venture or a new initiative within a larger organization.

Gonzales is the founder of Gardenio, a platform that empowers people to grow their own food. Most questions he gets are around how his endeavor is going to be a viable business. “At the end of the day, [impact investors] are still investors and want some kind of return so we need to show that we have financial and social impact.”

The City of Austin started their Innovation Fellows program with almost no funding. Guhin and his team had to be creative on how they could prove value in the early days. They decided to start with a consulting model and partnered with departments on projects they were already working on. “That’s how we established our early brand last August. Now in our second year, the fellowship has more work than we can accomplish.”

Do the Work

The panel ended with advice for people who want to do this type of work. While Gonzales advocated for being your own boss, Colucci urged designers to consider whether their goals are better served by working in an existing organization and trying to improve them instead.

At the end of the day, all of them concluded that developing your chops as a designer is the most important thing. “Just do the work. My advice is choose a problem or website and do it better. Give yourself a project and also develop your philosophy on what kind of problems are worth solving. Doing the work is what helps you get better and develop your design muscles over time.” said Chapman.


To read the full transcript, please visit here. 

Event Recap: Making Design for Good Part of Your Career

To wrap Austin Design Week, AIGA Austin hosted a panel discussion featuring local designers about how to make design for good part of your career. This latest installment in AIGA’s Changemaker series brought together designers from all career stages who have committed to make giving back part of their everyday lives.

Panelists included Lauren Serota, Austin Center for Design founding faculty member; Adam Butler, founder of The Butler Bros; Victoria O’Dell, Brigade Captain of Open Austin; and Alan Holt, Principal Designer at the City of Austin. Sam Kapila, a designer and educator, moderated the panel at Funsize Studios.

The event was overflowing, attracting both existing designers and educators involved with social good and citizens simply interested in how to give back to their communities.

Understanding Design for Good
Despite different backgrounds and clients, all designers agreed that intention is key when solving social problems.

“Design for good, for me, is considering the potential implications of my involvement and what the outcomes might be of my work– hoping it’s net positive and deciding when not to involve myself if that’s not likely,” said Serota.

Working as a Principal Designer for the City of Austin, Alan Holt is not only concerned with how to make great public spaces that are beautiful, but how do we create public spaces that are sustainable and connect us together?  

O’Dell has already discovered to only commit herself to projects that she truly believes in and that will positively impact her community. “Design for good for is the integration and elevation of ideas that will help everyone,” said O’Dell.

Serving Your Community
People and communities are at the core of designing for social good. Prior to becoming a designer for cities, Alan Holt started at a boutique architecture firm designing for elite New Yorkers. Once moving into the public sector, he realized he could help give a voice to the people he serves.

“On a day-to-day basis, I’m working in a world of politics where some people can say yes, and some people can say no,” said Holt. “Who I really feel I need to serve are the people who are oftentimes most powerless in that conversation. As designers I believe we can bring something unique to that conversation just because design is a radical act.”

Designing for your community can be as big Austin’s South Central Waterfront Initiative, a $1.2 billion dollar project Holt is spearheading in Austin, to starting a simple campaign to encourage community through waving. In 2013, Butler noticed hostility between cyclists and drivers in Austin — so he fought back through a simple act: waving. His agency developed a local campaign, which was later integrated into efforts in Austin and ultimately picked up as a statewide campaign in Rhode Island.

Designers not only have the power to create products and processes, they can also help spark conversations in communities. Serota views this as the biggest challenge and opportunity for success in her work. She advises that allowing your idea to expand, evolve and live in the world independent of you is what makes it more powerful.

“It’s probably 90% of my time now — to produce an environment that is conducive to inspiration coming forward and everyone feeling ownership around it,” said Serota.

Ultimately, community and intention are at the core of designing for good. Even though O’Dell is new to her career, she has already discovered that “to make anything good happen, you need to talk to people.”


CHANGEMAKER is an AIGA Austin initiative that unites teams of creative professionals with nonprofits and social change organizations to use design thinking, sustainable frameworks and creative tools to help advance their mission. Inspired? Sign up here to learn how you can help build a movement for change.

Accepting applications for the class of 2018-2019 now!

Austin Center for Design is now accepting applications for the class of 2018-2019. Admission details can be found here. Application deadline is January 15, 2018.

For those who are hearing about us for the first time, you can learn about our curriculum, type of student projects, and what our alumni are up to after graduation – Check out this three-min video about us! There’s also an entire book about the designerly approach to wicked problems you can read online for free.

Can I experience what it’s actually like in-person?

There are three ways to join us in person to learn about our pedagogy and approach:

  1. We will be hosting our annual Design for Impact Bootcamp on October 21, 2017, on our campus. This one-day workshop is the very best way to experience our curriculum and determine if it’s the right fit for you.
  2. If you can’t make it to the Bootcamp, you can find us during Austin Startup Week and Austin Design Week. Sign up for our newsletter to get the latest updates.
  3. You’re welcome to sit in on classes anytime you’d like. They run every Monday to Thursday from 7pm-9:30pm, and Saturday from 9am-3pm. Reach out to admissions@ac4d.com to set up a visit.

Can I speak to the alumni to find out more about their experiences?

You bet! You should also know that they all love talking about Austin Center for Design – so be prepared. They have recorded a couple Q&A videos for you to watch (here and here). If you prefer to read, they share their journeys pre- and post-ac4d in these interviews. You can also find all of them here and reach out directly, if you wish!

How do I follow along to get a glimpse of what life is like as a student?

We regularly post to Instagram, share happenings in the space of design and social impact on Twitter, and live stream our students’ presentations on Facebook. Our students also post their assignments and reflections on the ac4d blog.

What else do I need to know?

Even though the application isn’t officially due until January, we highly encourage anyone considering applying to reach out to admissions@ac4d.com. We want to get to know you!

AC4D 2015 Alumni Success Report

We track success of our alumni based on autonomy: we hope our graduates are doing what they want to do, and have gained the skills, attitude, and network to attain their dreams. We’ve just completed our 2015 Alumni Success Report, and you can view the results here. Some of the report highlights include:

  • 87.5% of our alumni are professionally employed in design related careers
  • 34 of our alumni are working in salaried positions; of these salaried alumni, the mean salary is $86,239.80
  • 85% of our alumni are happy in their current role

Congrats to our all of our students; click to view the full report.

Girls Guild to join UnLtd USA’s First Austin Cohort

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AC4D alumni Cheyenne Weaver and Diana Griffin have been accepted into UnLtd USA, Austin’s first incubator for entrepreneurs solving pressing social and environmental problems. Girls Guild, along with five other impact enterprises, has been chosen to receive seed funding and a full year of Incubation Support. The entrepreneurs were selected from a pool of over 80 applicants and went through a rigorous selection process that included pitching to two Final Selection Panels composed of business leaders, investors and entrepreneurs. The year-long program kicks off in September. Entrepreneurs will receive seed funding, on-going mentorship and training from the UnLtd USA and their network of partners and mentors.

Congrats, Cheyenne and Diana!

AC4D featured in the Austin Phoenix

Austin Center for Design was featured in the Austin Phoenix, in an article titled “Design a Meaningful Career at AC4D:

The Austin Center for Design is a unique program. It offers the equivalent of a Masters in Design Program Structure, but could care less about the accolades of higher education. Instead, it focuses on transforming design principles into instruments of meaningful social change. This program is tailor-made for the dreamers who feel that their time behind a desk or in the front of a conference room hasn’t mattered, and want to change the world. AC4D is more than a design school; it teaches its students to reimagine why they work and to turn passions into careers.

You can read the article here!