Why Design for Social Innovation Matters

Have you heard the hype about design? It was popularized by IDEO and is well-known as design thinking or human-centered design. It now seems to be appearing everywhere, given the popularity of Acumen and IDEO.org’s now second-installment of their online Human-Centered Design course; examples like the Nike Foundation, which several years ago instituted a design division to better utilize design to develop their Girl Effect programs in Africa; groups like the Design Gym; and increased interest in design graduate programs (like where I work at MFA Design for Social Innovation); among other anecdotal evidence. After learning about design two years ago from the team at ThinkImpact, using the HCD process in India, and working with designers for the past nine months at MFA DSI, here are some thoughts on why design matters. 

I just call it design–design of everything, from micro-interactions, to products, services, and strategies, to systems. There are similar processes that overlap with the design ethos and tools in many ways–lean startup, Agile SCRUM, ethnography, participatory development, community organizing, among others. In fact, as this article explores, what we call design thinking is as ancient as Homer’s tale of the Iliad: “For what bigger co-creation of the solution to a public service problem could there be than stopping the Olympian gods spreading disease? Surely inventing the Trojan Horse was the world’s most famous episode of the techniques of prototyping, experimenting and testing that we will be hearing more about over the next few days.”

This Core77 article does a good job of explaining how the design process was used to explore the problem of over-fishing. It discusses not only using the design process for evaluating the problem and understanding the users, but also using it to design human interactions, and prototype a solution, whether that be a conversation or a new product, service, or system entirely.

Three main factors characterize why I believe design has great potential for creating solutions for social impact: identity, context, and making.

When we think of design we usually think of a logo, a website, or product. In fact, design starts much deeper than that, at the identity of something–what it is, how it acts, and how it is perceived. What we see, the brand, is the manifestation of many previous conversations and strategy sessions. Firms like SYPartners understand this fundamental, and work with the greatest global companies such as Starbucks, IBM, and Facebook to reconnect their business to their core identity, and build employee and customer experiences around that identity. Any product or experience has to be connected to the business’s story and identity, so for companies to be great, it has to start with: what is the purpose of the organization and people in the company, who are they, and what do they want and need? The skills to help businesses develop, reimagine, or return to their identity include design (yes, a logo or website eventually), but much more importantly, designing the conditions for trust to bring the company through the entire process, and listening, facilitating, storytelling, and mapping out client journeys. When not working with businesses, identity still applies, but it can mean understanding and/or identifying a system or problem, using the same tools and stakeholder conversations to reach that understanding.

This work around identity also brings designers to context. Exploring and designing for context does not necessarily happen before or after designing identity–it’s likely going to be a more simultaneous exploration because you can’t really have one without the other. Context is critical, both for understanding all the facets of an issue, and for always keeping the user/customer/stakeholders in mind when designing solutions. In our report on education technology in India, we used design to better understand the context of low-income schools and ed-tech users, and identified how ed-tech solutions could be better designed to fit that context. Design always keeps the user and context at front and center, and avoids the many pitfalls of developing solutions that users don’t want, need, or can’t use. 

Design is about making solutions, and not just solving the problem. Designers are makers–collaboratively or individually making everything we touch, feel, see. This font–designed. Your chair–designed. Your experience in a line at a bank–designed. Design doesn’t get you to the point of identifying the problem, and then stop, because pointing to a problem with no solutions doesn’t help anyone. Design provides the same tools and processes for identifying a problem to then develop solutions–products, services, strategies, experiences–and iterate based on user feedback and changing contexts. This World Bank blog post about complicated vs. complex problems explains why this matters: “Expert-driven organizations are too often hammers looking for nails rather than solution seekers looking to partner with local experts to solve local problems.” Designers make solutions for identity and context–helping them approach any problem at any scale. Later the author concludes “Solutions may not always scale. But the processes by which we experiment, learn, and adapt can scale. That’s the challenge for global development institutions in the 21st century.” Design provides the process for experimenting, learning, and adapting. 

All that said, I don’t mean to add to the hype. Call it whatever you want. Take the best from every process, tool, and skill out there. As long as we’re keeping identity, context, and making solutions in mind, I believe there is hope for a better tomorrow. 


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