Yangon, Myanmar// Photograph by Tabitha Yong 

5 Things to Keep in Mind When Designing for Social Impact

Perspectives on designing responsibly

Co-authored with Annie Wu. Originally written for Better World By Design.

Let’s… make homeless signs sexy? Credit: FastCompany

Recently, FastCompany ran the headline: “Can Good Graphic Design Help the Homeless?” The story: Kenji Nakayama and Christopher Hope launched the Signs for the Homeless project, an earnest attempt to facilitate public conversation with Boston’s “invisible” population by spiffing up their handwritten cardboard signs with fancy typography.

Cue the criticism.

Commenters derided the new signs as “corporate” and “exploitative”, pointing out that the professional lettering actually rendered the homeless who held them “less credible”. One commenter mocked the project’s entire premise: “Let’s find some homeless people and use them like little experiments because then we can self-aggrandize about being designers and how important we are! Maybe it’s completely dehumanizing, but hey, nice hand lettering!”

This controversy points to a much larger issue amongst designers tackling social issues. However well-intentioned the Signs for the Homeless project may have been, it missed fundamental problems of homelessness and resulted in alarming backlash. While it’s laudable to want to improve the world, too many designers use “design for social good” to cushion personal legitimacy, buzzing about “social innovation” and “helping the poor” without thoroughly understanding what these concepts truly entail — or worse, without thinking about whether their contributions are actually doing more harm than good.

So let’s address this. Designers are privileged with the incredible ability to influence interactions, identities, information, emotions, habits — and above all, the future of human experiences. But that bestows on us great responsibility to be thoughtful about how and what we design. Especially when the people we work with are vulnerable, we must ensure that what we create is relevant, respectful, and genuinely beneficial. Power inequalities naturally inhere in relationships between benefactors (the Haves) and beneficiaries (the Have-Nots), but we can either mindlessly reinforce these disparities or we can eliminate power imbalances as much as possible to truly build toward a more socially just and equitable world.

To start, we wrote a beginner’s set of guidelines for designing for social impact!

1. Design with, not for.

Social solutions are not a heroic gift you’re bestowing upon mankind; they are a collaborative effort. Stay humble. Solutions have a higher chance of long-term success when the people you’re designing for are actively involved, providing feedback or lending their abilities and insights wherever possible. Failure to include them could result in wasted effort, like with the wells that failed to solve Africa’s water problem because no one invested in maintaining them. The people you’re serving are in many ways experts in the issue you’re dealing with, and may even think of and create better solutions than you could. By recognizing this, you acknowledge that they are not accessories or passive recipients of your work, but rather teammates in a shared effort to solve a problem.

2. Talk to and observe users to ensure that what you’re doing is, in fact, actually serving their needs.

Sure, you may be brilliant. Sure, you may have created the most innovative piece of design/engineering/technology in the world. But none of that really matters if it doesn’t suit the needs of the people you’re purporting to help. You might think you can pull a Steve Jobs and invent something that people will want, but even on the off chance that this actually does happen, it’s still important to verify with users that your idea is actually improving their lives. Entrepreneurs, designers and NGOs too often create well-meaning products that fail to connect with their target demographic or solve problems that don’t actually exist (famous examples include One Laptop Per Child and Play Pump). Ernesto Sirolli sums up the sentiment most aptly in his 2012 TED talk: “Want to Help Someone? Shut Up and Listen!”

3. Work to eliminate, not reinforce, harmful stereotypes and power imbalances.

It’s unfortunately far too easy to defer to assumptions and stereotypes to explain social problems. Take what the social sector calls “poverty porn” — campaigns like “Kony 2012” and “I Am Africa”, riddled with pitiful, exoticized images that homogenize the developing world into a mess of war, disease, genocide, famine, and helplessness that only the West’s almighty dollars, talents, activism and time could rescue. Painting Africa in broad, dismal strokes may lead to more donations, but it masks the nuances of the actual situation, feeds the inherently unequal donor-recipient dynamic, and encourages a culture of dependence among the recipients. The microfinance venture Kiva was founded partly in response to this — by accepting loans, not donations, lendees are on par with their lenders since they’re borrowers, not recipients. In your own work, be aware of biases so that you don’t perpetuate concepts that directly or indirectly hurt your users.

4. Test iteratively to get the best version of your idea possible.

Even if you’ve identified a serious problem in the community and co-created with your users to develop a potentially successful solution, ideas often look and work great in concept but run into unforeseen setbacks once they’re realized. This isn’t anyone’s fault; it just means your solution needs some tweaking. Naturally, the best time to do that is before you commence full implementation — this way, you have ample opportunity to make sure you’re on the right track, whether this means tweaking a few features or completely starting from scratch. A great example of success after failure is Danone-Grameen’s Shokti Doi project in Bangladesh. Don’t be afraid to fail (in fact, you should do it fast, early, and often!) — you’re in the pursuit of the best possible solution for your users, not the coolest project you can put in your portfolio.

5. Strive for long-term, long-lasting, effective solutions.

Conventional charity or designing for a short-term problem (providing money, resources or products) is often a temporary solution for aid and perpetuates dependence. But really, ain’t nobody got time or money to sustain band-aid solutions to major problems like health inequality or homelessness. To create genuine social impact, strive for solutions that will help your users for years to come, not just for the next month or so. Usually this means working toward solutions that empower your users to eventually sustain themselves without you.

Other good practices to become a thoughtful social designer? Educate yourself as much as possible about both good design (product, graphic, service, or otherwise) and the social issues you’re passionate about. Find successful projects that inspire you and study them, and think critically about the projects you choose to take on.

Above all, cultivate an unfailing compassion for others and a hope for a brighter future that fuels your work. By all means, be ambitious and unreasonable, dream big about how many people you could help or what incredible impact you could create. Just remember to pause every once in a while and ensure that the impact you’re creating truly reflects and lives up to all of your good intentions.