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Designing for Social Impact

| By: Sarah Mitrano
Sarah Mitrano

Design has always been about simplifying, beautifying, and communicating. It was traditionally, and in most cases still is, a service for commercial endeavors. You have a product or idea, you want to sell said product or idea, and so you hire someone to make it look good.

Today, though, there are new questions about design’s role in society. Is it really only about making beautiful things? Or can it be more?

These are the questions we’re confronting in my Design for Social Impact course. The class is all about using the human-centric design process to develop solutions to problems in the community, based in partnerships with local organizations. For our capstone project, we’re working with St. Louis nonprofit Grace Hill to reimagine visitors’ experience and navigation of their Old North and South City community centers, and develop materials to help communicate the wide variety of services they offer. So far, we’ve visited the center, asked questions of the staff and community members, and documented our observations. Immersing ourselves in their world is essential, and we’ll continue to talk and visit with them as we develop our solutions.

This type of design is not about communicating a predetermined message, or even about crafting a message based on our audience. Human centered design asks us to develop a deep, experience-based understanding of the user’s perspective, and use that understanding to develop something that will address their needs in a tangible way—be it through a printed piece, digital work, event, space, or other designed object.

I’ve learned a lot from this new way of working, and have found myself adapting the human-centered mentality to other projects as well. Much of it can be pared down to three key mantras:

  1. Empathy is everything.
    It’s very tempting to design something for yourself. We are quick to assume that everyone’s perceptions of a situation are close to our own, and therefore approach the problem from our own perspective. Human centered design is about stepping out of those biases and working to understand what the user thinks, feels and wants in the situation.
  2. Test, test, and test again!
    You’ll never really know if something will work until you try it. Watching the user interact with the solution allows us to note potential flaws, unintended usages, and misunderstandings that they may have. More importantly, it allows us to do this during the design process, so that we can incorporate feedback.
  3. The question is just as important as the answer.
    Problems are not always clearly defined from the outset. The thing you think you’re solving in the beginning may not be the most important thing to work on. Reframing based on what you hear, see, and learn from users throughout the design process will lead to to a solution that not only works, but maximizes the benefit for the user, putting their time and resources to use in the most valuable way.

The power and meaning of “design” is ever-evolving, and these philosophies are just the beginning of the story. Still, it’s exciting to see what large and complicated problems we can tackle with this in mind. Social impact design challenges us to reimagine what we—and design as a whole—can bring to the table.