Taking a Long View on Designing for Social Change

POSTED BY on Aug 30, 2012

Last week, I had the privilege of participating as a thought leader in a 2-day AIGA Design Summit with support from PepsiCo Nutrition Ventures. The summit was designed to focus on one of our more intractable “wicked problems” – that of addressing lifestyle diseases and the social determinants of health. A fascinating group of about 25 multidisciplinary “design thinkers” converged in downtown Seattle to build empathy, get out into the real world, and create some potential solutions to address the specific needs of four pre-determined persona “characters” put forward as a means of channeling our creative energy.

Although the ultimate goal and output of the session was left fairly open and sufficiently vague for us (we designers often love that “let’s go with the flow” ethos), the participants all approached the event with vigor, passion and an open mind. And we came up with some interesting ideas. The biggest unknown we all left with frankly was what happens next (I’ll come back to that…). But outside of the event itself, a larger question emerged.

As designers, we’re often tasked with channeling our “target customer” through design. In best-case scenarios we are given the opportunity to do in-depth qualitative research, and truly get into the hearts and minds of those we’re designing for. At the same time, we’re typically expected to be quick, creative, and go “from the gut” in channeling our own wisdom and life experiences into what we believe matters or makes a difference.

In the pursuit of design for social good and complex societal issues like obesity and nutrition, where do we place ourselves within that spectrum? How do we build deep empathy for others and avoid the pitfalls of over-projecting our own views, or worse yet applying stereotyped perceptions and behaviors? The answer for me, at least in part, is that it takes time. I’m all for bringing together different disciplines and catalyzing new ideas through events such as this, and have facilitated my fair share of “maven” workshops myself. In fact, one of the most interesting parts of the summit for me was hearing the personal stories and perspectives of others involved. But to truly have an impact takes a more sustained approach than a 1-2 day workshop can provide. Design thinking is a means to an end, not an end in itself.

The multitude of opportunities now available for designers to engage with social change efforts is great to see, but my biggest takeaway is design-driven change takes time, and we must be wary of setting grand expectations to participants of events like this. Let’s challenge ourselves, our clients and our professional organizations to continue having these broader based conversations, but recognize the importance of staying engaged for the long haul.



Add a comment



Sep 29, 2012 at 8:18am


Aug 31, 2012 at 10:30am

Sounds like it was a great opportunity to join a brainshare of like-minded thinkers focusing on such an important issue in our lives!