What is Impact Design?

We all face problems and challenges. Some of us seek them out. Some of us passionately want to change the way things are and to invest ourselves in making the world a better place and helping people flourish.

We can respond to a challenge or problem from many different approaches. Some responses are personality driven or psychologically conditioned by our culture or upbringing. Taking on a challenge with awareness and intentionality moves us into the realm of design. Design is making something with intentionality. That’s the simplest and broadest definition I use, and some may take issue with that. (That’s a discussion for another day.)

When the solution to a design challenge requires a measure of impact to be considered a success, impact design is an approach to consider. Impact design is an offshoot of human centered design, sometimes called design thinking.

A brief note about Human centered design and design thinking

Human centered design (HCD) cares at its core about people. Understanding the challenges or problems people face and working with them to design solutions are the hallmarks of HCD. Design thinking is an integrative approach to human centered design that forms design teams across disciplines to include social scientists, researchers, and writers—as well as highly skilled designers, strategists, and communicators. The approach is collaborative, empathetic, and heavy on feedback and rapid prototyping. Impact design is deeply related to both of these design approaches, but emphasizes the qualitative and quantitative impact a design solution can have.

What is impact?

When we see a bold or tremendous change, there’s no doubt we’re witnessing impact. Some changes, though, are small, gradual, or even take place over generations. Those shifts are more difficult to identify, but are nevertheless evidence of impact.

Consider how the reintroduction of wolves to Yellowstone National Park in the US created a trophic cascade that included changing the behavior of rivers. The short video below is an excellent summary of that connection.

A quick example of how considering impact influences early design direction comes from working with refugees. Refugees experience the negative impact of leaving behind everything they’ve known. Looking at some of these dynamics we can imagine designing a way of coming alongside them that helps them move from…

trauma — to — a safe place
unmet needs — t0 — accessible resources
confusion — to — a sense of purpose and confidence
isolation — to — a sense of community
feeling invisible — t0 — being known and loved

Why does impact matter and how do we measure it?

Approaches to design that neglect core aspects of design thinking often lead to incremental changes and invest a lot of resources without much impact. One company spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to rebrand its public facing image because it was dying. After a short-lived, energetic launch of its rebranding efforts the company filed for bankruptcy and disappeared. The problem, I believe, was that they didn’t adequately consider the holistic picture or a take an integrative approach to the problems they faced, and their extreme design efforts were focused in the wrong place. Just throwing a lot of graphic design or marketing at deeper problems won’t solve them. Design thinking and impact design can.

Understanding the problem

Impact design starts with understanding the problem or challenge. We take baseline impact measurements (both qualitative and quantitative) and ask a lot of questions to round out the problem.

Measuring impact

We want to understand two questions as deeply as possible:

  1. What is the challenge? We often phrase the challenge as a question (e.g. “How can we reduce the number within our community who are vulnerable to sex-trafficking?”)
  2. What impact are we making currently, and what impact do we hope to create with this project? The future impact is usually based on changes we want to see from the current situation.

How does an impact design project work? What’s the creative process?

Many traditional design projects shorten or jump over the first three steps I’ve outlined below. The jump is usually a variation of (1) getting the spec from a client or department (the pre-defined solution) and (2) executing on the design and implementation. Sometimes this involves measurement (ROI) as well.

In contrast, the impact design process looks like this:

  1. Understand the challenge or problem. This involves things like research, interviews, opportunities for empathy, re-enactment, investigation, and firsthand experience.
  2. Inspiration begins while we’re understanding the challenge and continues into the prototyping stage. We’re looking for insights (first about the problem, and second about creative possibilities). Don’t limit inspiration to things associated with the problem or to “designers”. Inspiration can come from anywhere and the best insights are often from unrelated (though usually analogous) relationships as well as from non-designers. Often the best inspiration comes from the people most affected by the problem. This is a place for collaborative brainstorming, research, and empathy. We want as many creative ideas and as much inspiration as possible. It’s a time for divergent thinking and off-the-wall wild ideas. As we prepare to prototype, we want to narrow the possibilities and prototype several of them. This is convergent thinking (and I’m borrowing the terminology from Tim Brown’s excellent book “Change by Design”).
  3. Prototyping is quickly creating possible solutions from materials easily at hand. The idea is to get immediate feedback from people that informs what we’ll eventually design. For example, making a quick paper model of what we think a smartphone app will do can help others begin to imagine the flow of activity and quickly realize that certain parts would work well and others seem out of place. There are good tools for rapid prototyping for websites and apps like Adobe XD and Sketch that can help a person quickly build a prototype and get feedback. The more hands-on, the better.
  4. Once one of the prototypes is clearly the best direction, we can plan and execute the (often) more resource-intensive design phase. That process will be unique depending on what we’re designing — a product, process, cultural shift, behavioral change, etc.
  5. Launching the design will involve different requirements depending on what the solution calls for.
  6. Measuring the impact closes the impact loop. Sometimes an immediate impact is evident, but other times this data won’t be available until much later and with adequate research or investigation. Longitudinal studies may be appropriate as part of the impact design process when the impact will take years or generations to see. This is often a letdown for those of us who like to see results quickly. However, we can consider this dynamic as we’re measuring baseline impact. It may be possible to create a set of impact metrics that include some immediate signs of impact as well as what we’re looking to see long term.

At ITEAMS when we apply some of these concepts to social and cultural dynamics in the context of communities, we refer to integrated community transformation.

If you’re using impact design or are interested in getting started, I’d love to hear from you.