Introducing the Impact Canvas

Craig Walmsley
Oct 17 · 8 min read

In Spring this year the Design Management Institute kindly invited me to give a talk on “Ethics in Design, Innovation and Technology” at their London Design Management Conference.

This was a timely invitation.

My colleague Will Anderson, and his colleague Karwai Ng, had been developing the Conscious Design Manifesto to address the concerns they felt about current industry design processes — and how they often miss much of what goes on as the consequence of design decisions.

And Publicis Sapient has recently hired design leader John Maeda who is developing the company’s L.E.A.D. framework for design, where all our work should aspire to be light, ethical, accessible and dataful.

The Publicis Sapient L.E.A.D. design framework.

The argument in my talk was (ridiculously) simple.

Whether you’re a utililitarian, or a deontologist, or a humanist, or simply religious, ethics is concerned with the relations between people — morality is constituted, defined and measured by how you treat others.

Ask Jesus.

So the question must be asked — is design good?

Good by Design?

It might seem obvious that design is good.

After all, design thinking is intended to be “human-centric”—it is constructed to take account of what people want and build solutions that meet their needs.

And taking account of what people want is surely ethical in some sense?

Well, maybe.

Design is “human-centric” — but only in a very particular respect.

In general, the mental model of design is how a business meets a customer’s needs.

And that’s pretty much it.

All the design tools we use and frameworks we deploy in design are geared around this relationship — a customer persona, the customer’s needs, a value proposition to meet these needs, the future customer journey, the customer experience — all the artefacts are built around the relationship between a business and a customer.

And no-one else.

Valuing values

A simple, successful, and widely adopted example might be presented in the Value Proposition Canvas.

There’s a customer, with their jobs to be done, their pains, and potential gains.

And there’s a business, with its products and services, and its pain relievers and gain creators.

The Value Proposition Canvas

This is a great way to figure out how to make a customer happy.

But this canvas, and too often design thinking in general, isn’t focussed on anything outside the relationship between business and customer.

In part, that’s because the core design tools we use tend to omit the relations between people that would give them meaningful ethical content.

That is to say, they pay little attention to the customer’s friends and family, the company’s employees, competitors, or society at large.

Or to the consequences of a proposition in the wider world — the carbon footprint, or the length of time it would take for a product to biodegrade, for example.

Paying attention to just the business and customer means not paying attention to the ethical implications of design choices.

Which means that design, as its currently practised, is often amoral.

That is, because it is typically only focussed on meeting the needs of individuals in relations to a given business, it lacks the interpersonal dimension that constitutes moral decision-making.

Bad by Design?

That doesn’t mean design thinking is inherently bad — it just means that it kind of ignores the moral or ethical context of any given design decision.

Which has kind of felt OK up till now.

But it’s starting to feel not OK.

I’m pretty sure Microsoft didn’t anticipate that its A.I. chatbot would be spouting unconscionable racist diatribes within a day of its release. I don’t think Apple intended that Apple Pay users become convicted criminals. Who knew that Blockchain and Bitcoin would have such a huge carbon footprint ?

Single Use Plastic Pollution, Excessive Energy Consumption, Device Addiction, Disinformation, Propaganda — these are just a small sample of the all too obvious problems that can arise from the decisions that innovators, technologists and designers make (or, to be more specific, just didn’t think about).

“Move Fast and Break Things” used to feel like a promise — but now it seems more like a threat.

New Tools Please

Few of these effects were intended — they just weren’t properly considered when the propositions in question were conceived and developed.

We need design tools that think past the traditional “business <-> customer” model.

Or, more precisely, we need to place that model in the context of its consequence — because it’s usually the unplanned and unintended consequences that usually have greatest ethical implications.

If we can map these consequences, we can weigh their ethical implications, and make suitably informed design decisions.

Mapping Impact.

If we’re going to do that we’d ideally work within a familiar framework — it’s always easier to adopt something you’re used to using.

So why not start with the Value Proposition Canvas?

It contains the core of the relationship between the business and the customer —it’s widely adopted, well understood, and an excellent way of formulating the essence of a business problem and its proposed solution.

The Value Proposition Canvas (Abstract)

And why not use that white space around it as the “consequence space” ?— this is where the consequences of the proposition would be felt, and any attendant ethical issues likely emerge.

The Consequence Space

This consequence space might then be divided into different areas of impact — the impact that this proposition might have on people; and that it might have on the wider world (indirectly impacting others).

The Consequence on People + The Consequence on the World

And then we might consider those things that are more proximate to the business, and those that are closer to the customer.

The Granular Consequence on People + The Granular Consequence on the World

And we can then divide it down into somewhat more granular areas to give us a range of things to consider when we think about what impact our proposition might have in the world.

The Impact Canvas

We might call this the Impact Canvas.

The Impact Canvas

The objective of the Impact Canvas is to help design practitioners to identify the possible consequences of a new proposition as its being developed, to surface and mitigate any potential ethical issues it might create.

The consequence headings presented here are a first draft — different options might make more sense depending on the context and the proposition

And you could then ask yourself a set of questions under each of these headings.

Impact Canvas — Detailed Questions

Doubtless more can be added here — but these are hopefully a broad and comprehensive set of considerations that could help people think about what the wider impact of a business proposition might be.

Check your impact

The idea of the Impact Canvas isn’t to stop companies from creating new propositions, but rather, to help them understand what these propositions might entail, identify potential problems in the very earliest stage, and help shape the development process to ensure that the proposition isn’t undercut at a later stage by an unanticipated ethical issue.

So this canvas is probably best used when you’ve landed on a value proposition that you think will fly, but before you complete the business model canvas.

At this point in the process it will give you a chance to review the proposition in the round and decide in it can become a feasible, viable, desireable and long-term sustainable business.

As the Conscious Design Manifesto put it:

To be responsible designers in today’s world, we must consciously war-game the possible effects of our decisions — what happens when we succeed? What happens when we scale? What happens when we scale beyond any reasonable expectation?

The Value Proposition Canvas + The Impact Canvas

Complete your Value Proposition Canvas, then take some time to think through each of the sections and map out the potential impacts of the proposition in the Impact Canvas.

Some things will be obvious — the less plastic and the more green energy the better.

But some will be less immediately clear — what is the carbon or data footprint of a new peer-to-peer banking service? What are the new social dynamics of credit shared amongst friends and family? What are the health and wellbeing implications of a new food delivery service?

And how will all that change and amplify if this proposition is a runaway success reaching millions and millions of people?

Those obvious answers and open questions and scaling plans should create a checklist for product managers and designers when they start to think through the impact that proposition might create.

Conscious Design is Ethical Design

Consciously mapping the consequences of the proposition before beginning to develop it earnest should help surface possible ethical issues and this helps to mitigate them — creating propositions that meet genuine needs but are less likely to damage the world and the company’s reputation in the process.

This Impact Canvas is hopefully a useful and flexible way to start that mapping process.

And that should be a good thing.

But its always good to learn more — so please give it a try, and let me know how it works:

  • are these the right headings?
  • are the questions under the headings comprehensive and clear?
  • what are we missing?
  • does this help shape decision making?
  • are you thinking and doing things differently as a result of thinking about this?
  • what should you do next after you’ve completed this canvas?

Like all good ethicists, it is always best to embrace the consequence.

So I hope that this works and makes the design process a little more conscious and a little more moral as a result.


Credits: This canvas would not have been concieved without the inspiration of Will Anderson and Karwai Ng, their Iceberg Canvas and their Conscious Design Manifesto.

Nor would it have seen the light of day without the encouragement of Carole Bilson from the Design Management Institute.

And she would never have heard of me if it wasn’t for an introduction from Kwame Nyanning.

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