Social Table: Adventures in Pro Bono Design

Capital One’s Design Pro Bono team recently hosted an evening of lightning talks about design for social impact at CounterPulse, a non-profit community art space in San Francisco’s Tenderloin neighborhood.

The ongoing mission of this Social Table event series (aside from serving stellar food) is to foster connections between people living by the DWYCWWYHWYA code: Do what you can, with what you have, where you are.

In a world full of problems and shy on answers, doing nothing is the only wrong option.

Mariya Campwala

The Social Table event acts less as a show-and-tell for hotshot public speakers and more as a summit for DWYCWWYHWYA believers. It’s a time and space for pro bono designers to trade reconnaisance, remind each other of their shared mission, and spur on curious audience members who may have yet to tackle their own mission for social impact.

The Pro Bono Design team at Capital One has hosted three Social Table events at CounterPulse in 2018, and the next installment takes place on October 23. At the July event, host Mariya Campwala (Design Strategist at Capital One) curated an evening of stories from the following DWYCWWYHWYA-ers:

Mike Youngblood

Mike Youngblood, Principal at The Youngblood Group

As an author, cultural anthropologist and teacher at the D.School, Mike is a firm believer in critical reflexivity, holistic-systemic vision, and the emic way of knowing.

Mike described how he and his team once designed a medical care experience for a community of people experiencing homelessness. After conducting empathy research and ideating possible outputs, the team felt sure they had hit upon a valuable solution: a traveling bus that served as a medical station which could easily move between several points in the neighborhood.

It was believable! Strategic! Executable! Impactful! Surely a solution like this would mean instant success! But Mike’s great “aha” moment was yet to come.

Testing this traveling-medical-bus idea with people living on the streets revealed that mobile healthcare was in fact the worst solution. Living without a home means everything about your life is mobile, transient, in a constant state of flux. When medical care is needed, it needs to be dependable, sure, safe. If it’s going to be reliable, it needs to be a bastion of permanence, not literally on wheels.

“The wheels poked at the fear of instability,” Mike shared. “Even though our solution was believable, strategic and impactful, it was far from transformational for people in this situation.”

The learning experience served Mike as prime example of the emic way of knowing — listening and observing from the standpoint of the humans you’re designing for.

Ingrid Dahl

Ingrid Dahl, Director of Learning Experiences at Capital One

Ingrid is on a personal mission to enable continuous learning in young people, whether it’s helping girls find their voice (philosophically and literally) at a rock and roll music camp, or teaching them tech and design skills in volunteer workshops.

When working in the pro bono sphere, Ingrid focuses on some hefty questions: Since we know AI will change the world, who will change AI? How can we prepare young people for the future of artificial intelligence? In her core, she believes that rather than work to make AI resemble humanity, right now we need to focus our energy and skills on fixing the problems within humanity itself.

When asked, “What is the first step in designing better humanity?” Ingrid went to bat for kids immediately: “We need to create the scaffolding for critical and adaptive learning at a very young age, as soon as they enter school.”

Richard Anderson

Richard Anderson, Principal at OE Strategy

An expert in organizational strategy and human-centered design, Richard remains largely devoted to social innovation. At Social Table, he discussed the power of personal experience and why he believes that experience trumps empathy in the context of design research.

Richard disagrees with the common advice that suggests, “You need to be able to empathize with your design subjects, but not TOO much — they say you can’t be too embedded, or your work will be too biased.” Having once experienced significant professional setbacks and health crises which led to a long bout of homelessness, for example, he said those experiences in fact make him an ideal designer for innovative experiences in healthcare and homelessness.

Writers are always told, “write what you know,” and Richard believes that advice applies directly to designers. If you have expertise in a given field, use it. If you have a personal connection to a problem space, you should leverage that expertise in tandem with your design skills to enrich the lives of others. In other words: Do what you can, with what you have, where you are.

Kevin Adler

Kevin Adler, Founder & CEO at Miracle Messages

Kevin spoke passionately about his experiences serving the homeless community in the Tenderloin district, and cares deeply about connecting them with their distant families. Underlying all of his pro bono work at Miracle Messages, he believes, “There is no flawed design in the people we’re seeing in the Tenderloin. We need to think of homeless people as people to be loved, not problems to be solved.”

One incredibly powerful way Miracle Messages reiterates that message is the language used on their website: “Help your neighbors experiencing homelessness reunite with their families and friends.”

It doesn’t say, “Help the homeless,” or, “Help homeless people,” but, “Help your neighbors [who are] experiencing homelessness…” People are people, not a housing status. In Kevin’s words, “No one should be defined by what they lack.”

Mike Youngblood, Anel Muller, Ingrid Dahl, Richard Anderson, Kevin Adler, and Mariya Campwala

And now, it’s your turn.

Are you working on a pro bono design project? If you’d like to share your experiences with other social impact designers, reach out to the team! We’re always looking to hear new stories about the wins, losses and learnings from out in the field.

If you’re curious about how to DWYCWWYHWYA (join a cause, or start your own project!) then you should listen in at the next Social Table event on October 23. Come learn from others who have rolled up their sleeves and gotten to work.


Kathrine Becker uses storycraft to clarify and elevate the work of ONE Design at Capital One. She can sometimes be found on the couch eating paprika popcorn while playing with cats.

Photography by Patrick Perkins.

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