Photo by Jonny Caspari on Unsplash

Social Change by Design Database v2

TLDR: the database is here and the submission form is here.

As we approach our tenth anniversary, I reflected on the one question our studio gets asked more than any other:

Who else does this work?

If you’re wondering what “this work”, means, it’s when design gets applied to systemic social issues like families experiencing food insecurity, or patients struggling to navigate the US healthcare system.

And in response to that question, we’ve been sending folks to a crudely built Pinterest page for years. But, over the 2020 COVID Winter break, and with the support of the Designers Group for Good slack channel, I’m ready to release an update: the Social Change by Design Database v2.

A grid of rectangles that display a list of organizations who use design for social change

There are over 150 organizations from all over the world listed, and with your help, this database will grow to be more representative of the many practitioners doing the work. This will not be an exhaustive list nor is it a one-stop-shop—I encourage everyone to contribute. My heart would burst if this list inspired someone to start their own organization and add themselves to the database one day.

But why on Earth would I make a list of our competitors for everyone to see? And even more curiously, why update it to improve the usability? Well, at our studio, we fundamentally don’t see other organizations that do this work as the competition. The competition is poverty, racism, and apathy.

In the current commercial design industry, power is concentrated on just a few organizations which signal what good looks like, what success looks like, what the best looks like. I have written about the dangers of not critically asking what good looks like before and those threats are present here too. Knowing how the distribution of power is often laid out by default from centuries past, the social change by design field may very well end up skewing towards English-speaking, White, Male-led organizations based in North America. What a shame if that were to happen all over again.

Future of the field

While the field of social change by design is still in its early stages, I think it’s safe to say that it's no longer in an infancy phase. We’re still decades away from the stable, established state that the commercial design industry finds itself in. If a database of those firms were to exist, it would number in the thousands of entries.

Currently, without a deliberate intervention, our studio is on track to become one of a handful of established players where power is concentrated on us year after year. Perhaps this database can act as an intervention to that ill-fated ascension. While concentrating power on our studio might serve us temporarily, it ultimately weakens the health of the field in the long term. While our studio acts in good faith and with even better intentions, when given too much power, I simply don’t trust myself to do the right thing every time.

This emerging field of practitioners comes in many sizes, tax statuses, and organizing structures, all with their own cultural norms and local histories. And each one is led by a remarkable set of inspired leaders. For me, this panoply of organizational stewards highlights just how narrow our definition of leadership was before. I am filled with hope when I see this rich palette of leading figures take the stage.

As the landscape of design for social change develops, what will happen over the next ten years? Will big philanthropy build social innovation studios of their own to further their impact? When will it be commonplace for indigenous communities to design their own social change efforts without the saviorship of past efforts? And will the field come together and bring collective resources toward one big hairy, audacious goal?

It’s well understood that in the first five years of a child’s life, introducing early childhood education can have a profound impact on their adult selves. We have an opportunity to shape the trajectory of this young field so it doesn’t become fettered as it grows. There’s never a bad time to take a stand against White Supremacy Culture, Patriarchy, and Capitalism, but I think it’s especially important to do so at the start of something. Because if you don’t set deliberate interventions at the beginning, those three tenets will seep into everything you do.

If this field is to be as rich, complex, and diverse as the communities it serves, we must find ways to intentionally elevate the pluralism that’s already present, lest we slide back to the old habits we’re so prone to make.

Caution

When lists like this get made, they can feel like a ‘who’s who’ list — some exclusive, ‘top 100 social innovators’ roster. Lists like that are problematic for several reasons.

  • It pisses off those who legitimately should have been on the list but were not seen/recognized by the list organizer
  • It exposes the list creator’s own biases in terms of race, gender, ability, geographic location, and language preference
  • It makes the list creator a self-proclaimed kingmaker when they’re simply just some dude who’s sitting at the cool kids' table

So to combat those predictable issues, I’ve included a submission form. If you’re an organization that feels they should be on the list, please submit yourself. And if you know of an organization, feel to submit them on their behalf. Lastly, if you wish to change your existing entity, or to be removed altogether, use the form for that too.

An online submission form used to add new entries to the database

Criteria

So what does it take to be added to the database? We’re looking for organizations that have crossed one or more thresholds:

  • Over 50% of this organization’s staff time is spent working on complex social sector issues
  • Over 50% of this organization’s earned revenue comes from working on complex social sector issues
  • Over 50% of this organization’s projects on their website are focused on tackling complex social sector issues

To make the thresholds feel more tangible, IDEO.org is on the list but IDEO is not.

A caveat on culture

Sadly, I can’t guarantee that everyone on this list is awesome. Being on the list does not mean that an organization is free from a toxic work culture. For example, Greater Good Studio is on the list and we’re definitely not free of all issues. Do your own due diligence and find staff who used to work there on LinkedIn for the inside scoop on the culture.

Postscript

For three years before founding Greater Good Studio in 2011, Sara and I doubted ourselves again and again, in part because there were so few examples of what we wanted to do. If it weren’t for the work of Participle, The Future of Fish and Catapult Design, we might never have found the courage to start. As we enter the next ten years of our journey as a studio, we thank them for their leadership and inspiration.

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Greater Good Studio is a design firm dedicated to the social sector. We partner with organizations and communities to design human-centered solutions and build capacity for social innovation.

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George Aye

George Aye

Co-Founder and Director of Innovation at Greater Good Studio. Full Professor (Adj) at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago

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