How to support designers transitioning into the social sector

With ongoing initiatives in Jordan and emerging ones in Lebanon, the Airbel Center set out to find designers based in the Middle East who can not only conduct design research and rapid prototyping for projects it is leading in the region, but are also able to use their skills for social impact and work with vulnerable communities.

To that end, I was tasked with designing and implementing a two-and-a-half-day workshop last December to help experienced designers in Lebanon translate their skills to the social sector, invest in their capacity, and ultimately increase their confidence in the ability to do this type of work.

So, I wondered, What does a designer transitioning into the social sector need to know?”

I crowdsourced answers* by posting the question on social media and reaching out individually to friends and colleagues who have made the transition, asking them what advice or knowledge they would give to someone else making the shift.

Their replies covered many topic areas, which I categorized into three main buckets:

  1. Difficulty understanding how the social sector is structured and its language;
  2. Recognizing the methods and ethics of working with vulnerable communities;
  3. Redefining the role of a designer in the social sector.

Below is how I incorporated these three categories into the training.

Understanding the social sector

One key consideration that all of the participants immediately recognized is that the landscape of actors in the social sector is quite complex. We started off by asking the group to list which social sector organizations they knew of and then to categorize them into a stakeholder map. Starting with easily recognizable international non-profits and a few active local Lebanese organizations, we ended up with a host of actors. We then divided the list between donors/funders vs. implementing agencies before further differentiating between those operating within government (multilateral and bilateral cooperation, line ministries) and non-government (charities and philanthropic ventures, NGOs, academia, social enterprises, and more).

Another core theme in understanding the social sector is speaking its language, which tends to be quite jargon-heavy and prolific in acronyms. To make learning the language a bit more fun, I turned it into a game of acronym bingo.

The bingo sheet was designed to include acronyms related to the typology of social sector actors as it relates to the previous activity, scouting opportunities or job postings in the social sector, and ways to measure intended impact, among others. Photo credit: Lilian Abou Zeki.

Working with vulnerable communities

A significant portion of the training focused on helping participants understand specific approaches and methods to employ when working with vulnerable populations, to ensure that designers do no harm and remain respectful, fair, and culturally appropriate. This included a series of exercises and role-plays covering topics such as:

  • How to plan for design research, including choosing the right research methods for the topic at hand and for the audience (for example, not requiring uncomfortable/sustained eye contact in interviews about sensitive topics, or crafting activities for short attention spans, especially when researching with children), and conducting research in locations that allow you to meet people where they already are.
  • How to recruit participants, including the importance of using recruitment methods that give you an “in” into the community (for example, by hiring fixers/people from community as part of the team) and sampling methods like snowballing.
  • How to obtain informed consent (or assent) through informing research participants of their rights and potential risks for participating in the research, and ensuring they understand what data is collected and how it will be used.
  • How to plan for referral paths for any issues that may arise as you’re conducting design research (for example, if a participant reveals that they or someone they know has been abused).
  • How to manage participant data by ensuring their identifiable information is not traceable and doesn’t put them at risk (we used this list of user research guidelines by to illustrate data safeguards).
  • How to manage community expectations and particularly not making promises we can’t deliver on when conducting co-creation, prototyping, and/or testing sessions (for example, by suggesting that a solution will be available within a specific timeframe if the path to implementation of said solution is not yet certain).
  • How to incentivize or compensate participants as an acknowledgement of their time (including, whether to offer any form of monetary incentives/compensation and when it is impossible to disburse cash, other forms of compensation and workarounds possible within procurement rules of most organizations).
Example of a design research tool developed in the workshop, intended for children to map places of note in their neighborhood, but ultimately deemed not as appropriate given that map reading is not how children typically think about space.

The role of a designer

Another theme that emerged from initial conversations was the difficulty in grasping the extent to which the work of a designer can actually bring about tangible social impact. As compared to work in the commercial sector, in which the impact of the work is arguably a bit more immediate or palpable, working in the social sector involves understanding how one’s contribution fits within a larger ecosystem of interventions, actors, and sequence of events.

To achieve this, the training introduced the concept of theories of change. An example I showed from the International Rescue Committee’s Outcomes and Evidence Framework demonstrated to participants that designers may be working on a project to support the professional development of teachers, but that their work is one small piece of a larger goal: helping teachers deliver quality education to all school-aged children, ultimately contributing to children acquiring the skills they need, according to their development potential.

On the other hand, it is also critically important to think about unintended consequences of well-designed interventions. As I was preparing for the workshop, a conversation about the responsibility of designers to think about how the solutions, products, or services they bring to the world could be abused was happening on Twitter (a summary of some interesting resources shared through that conversation can be found in this post by Dan Brown).

So, I adapted two of those resources for the training, in which participants were asked to prioritize and filter through ideas they had brainstormed based on a set of 20 moral values (based on a game called “Moral Agent” by Ethics for Designers), before weighing the potential benefits vs. harmful consequences of the top idea they prioritized (based on the “Dichotomy Mapping” exercise by Design Ethically).

Example of how one team of participants assessed and prioritized the solution ideas they came up with based on given moral values.

Designers moving into the social space will also frequently face being the only designer in the room. In the training, we went through a series of scenarios representing typical situations in which these sole designers might find themselves. These scenarios included the added responsibility of advocating for and educating other colleagues and collaborators about what design is, the need to be included in project scoping conversations to ensure that the right resources are available for the task at hand, and the fact that much of the work will be done without much peer feedback (at least from fellow designers), as one might be accustomed to when working on a full design team.

We closed the training by reflecting on our own power and privilege as designers. For this, I used a few prompting questions from this excellent post by George Aye, examining how designers often enter situations with inherent power when working on social sector issues. This also gave the context for discussing how to create collective accountability for this new group of designers. As an example, we looked at the Designer’s Code of Ethics by Mike Monteiro (translated in Arabic here) and discussed how similar guidelines can be built together as the group engages more in this line of work, moving forward.

Ultimately, attempting to tackle all three of the above mentioned categories, while also providing a primer on design research and rapid prototyping (as they are not typically covered in design education programs in Lebanon) in two and a half days felt like a daunting task. I’d be curious to hear from you:

What did I miss? What other things did you wish you knew before working in the social sector? What other resources would you recommend to designers making this transition?

Feel free to comment below, or share with @Airbel and @SFath on Twitter!

Mandatory group photo at the end of the training workshop. Tired smiles all around.

*I’m grateful to Lilian Abou Zeki, Alina Alvarez, Dima Boulad, Joumana Ibrahim, Nada Jaffal , Vrouyr Joubanian, Eva Kaplan, Max Nichols, Courtney Manley, Roisin Markham, Rachel M. Murray, and Sacha Robehmed for answering my questions and sharing their ideas! The content of this training was largely inspired by their inputs, once again proving the power of collective wisdom. Thank you!