A Design Approach to Philanthropy &
Social Work

And I don’t mean applying glitter to our problems


Too often, social work and philanthropy is focused on trying to apply solutions that have worked elsewhere to entirely different contexts. A project is piloted somewhere, and if it is deemed successful, it gets used in a different setting, too often disregarding the socio-cultural nuances that critically affect the outcomes of such projects.

Within large areas of the design professions, there is an ongoing discussion about designers’ “place at the table”. In some cases they refer to design’s increasing importance in strategic consulting, and why VC firms are acquiring design talent. In other cases, the discussion revolves around the role design can play in the development of alternative systemic models, design activism, or design for social change. A lot of this discourse is founded on the notion that design can be used as a valuable problem-solving methodology, which is often referred to as design thinking.

Design thinking, in general, means the use of creative processes and tools in order to solve problems, discover opportunities, and devise plans of actions. In my opinion, its main strength lies in its strong connection to research and collaborative practices. In practice, this involves the immersion in and active engagement with the target context and culture, through interviews, observation, and participatory activities — often referred to as designing with people, as opposed to designing for people. In addition, its entire process is cyclical and iterative, meaning that insights get consolidated and turned into rapid prototypes, which are then again used to gain further insights, and so on.

Based on my thesis research, and my participation in the Design Ethos Do-ference — yes, we called it that, cause it was about applying your skills instead of just talking about what could be done — and workshops on tools like the CAT by frog design, I put together an Ignite talk that was intended to point out the need to think beyond what is already out there, and apply a design thinking approach to social work and philanthropical efforts. In literature, this is often referred to as social design.

It is in the sphere of social design that the research-driven design thinking approach finds a valuable application. Especially in this realm, the multidisciplinary collaboration that design thinking is advocating for enables designers to handle the higher degrees of complexity of the problems they work on. Tim Brown, CEO of IDEO, explains design thinking and innovation as “no longer limited to the introduction of new physical products but [including] new sorts of processes, services, interactions, entertainment forms, and ways of communicating and collaborating.” By extending beyond the creation of objects towards systems and organizations, design thinking is thus an ideal methodological approach for the exploration of complex problems when creating alternative economic and social models.

And it is this challenge of the status quo that is necessary to find not only good solutions, but the right solutions. Ones that are appropriate for the context in which they are implemented. Ones that can help implement solutions that are sustainable on a financial, environmental, and also on a personal engagement level.

Cover photo: Blue Frog Design (CC attribution: www.bluefrogfc.com)

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