How will Public Interest Design look in 2024?

19 Practitioners Weigh In

Rewind to 2004 and think about what you were doing on August 27th. On this day ten years ago, a cold air conditioned breeze was blowing through my hair and onto my sticky skin as I took a break from moving boxes and bags into my apartment in New Orleans. Entering my fourth year of architecture school at Tulane University, I was looking forward to learning a new computer program called Revit. Public interest design–and social impact, community-led, humanitarian, and the lot–hadn’t even entered my evolving architecture vocabulary. Since that hot, humid August day in New Orleans, the field of passionate designers has blossomed beyond anything I could have imagined. Now, students entering their fourth year at Tulane have most likely heard of public interest design, if not participated in a studio or class specifically focused on the subject.

With the immense strides, enthusiasm, and involvement in this field of work since 2004, we were curious to hear from practitioners–new and established, young and, ahem, seasoned–on what the next 10 years has in store. We posed the following question to a few of our favorite designers:

How do you think the field of public interest/ impact design will look in 10 years?

Amongst the eighteen responses below, we see a resounding vision for more established methods, metrics, tools, and a mainstream position within the wider design and architecture industries. With these designers and many more at the helm of this movement, the promise for what we can achieve by 2024 is very bright.

Kate Hanisian

Co-Founder and Director at Design Impact

My hope is that ten years from now public interest designers no longer have to clarify design’s value in civic and social settings. To do this, those of us working in this space must continue to connect our process to real outcomes for our community partners. If our collective work continues to make an honest impact, then I think public interest designers of the future will be widely understood as fundamental partners for any societal project.

Chelsea Mauldin

Executive Director at Public Policy Lab

Interest in design approaches is growing inside government in the United States. As of yet, however, few public agencies have researchers or designers on staff who are tasked with identifying and designing for the public’s service needs. In ten years, it’s hoped that the public sector’s capacity to tackle complex service challenges with design methods will be much more developed, both in terms of leadership support and staff skill set and resources.

Liz Ogbu

Designer, Urbanist, Researcher, and Social Innovation Strategist at LizOgbu.com

In 10 years, I believe that public interest/impact design will be more than just a movement; it will be a standard way of practice. Its basic principles will be integrated into mainstream design and its scope will not just engage space and product but also policy and program. I think the very definition of what it means to be a “designer” will shift and expand to embrace this reality (and maintain relevance in this increasingly complex world). And I hope that it will have evolved to have greater criticality about the ways in which it is practiced and the impact it achieves.

Inari Virkkala

Board Member at Architecture Sans Frontières International and Co-Founder of Komitu Architects

In ten years, social impact designers have found a way to prove the the positive impacts of design and it has become a norm to design (at least in the western cities) in a positive social way: to create spaces that increase cohesion and social interaction.
Considering social issues, social impact has become an issue for the majority of designers instead of a specialized minority. Of course, currently most designers try to create best possible social environments, but in ten years this aim has become genuine and also fact-based, instead of being merely intuitive.
Designers have also been able to develop (for example software) tools to facilitate more data in the building and planning processes, including most importantly citizen participation and consideration of aspects of environmental psychology.
Public interest design is not something that you specifically do, but an aspect that all designers consider in their daily work, just as environmental aspects have become a norm.

Bryan Mock

Co-Founder of The Iterative and a Designer at MIIM Designs

I think this question could be answered similar to how someone 10 years ago would answer, “what will environmental design look like in 10 years?”
We will see public interest/ impact design not as a separate endeavor, but as a natural part of the design process. This will come as metrics continue to develop and both designers and stakeholders see the economic benefits of a more inclusive design process.
Ten years will see the growth of metrics and evaluation tools that are integrated into software we designers use every day. This will happen similar to how combining and making use of environmental data has allowed us to better design for environmental conditions. Design software will have open access to a variety of real world social and economic data to inform design.
We will also be able to leverage online social networks to actively question and engage with a project’s stakeholders. As 3D visualization becomes more widespread with faster, cheaper devices, stakeholders will be able to see more frequent and more legible updates on the design’s progress. The public will then be able to communicate back to the designer and inform design decisions.
Taken further, look at twitch.tv where gamers broadcast themselves playing a game. A designer could broadcast the design process live to a viewing public who could then respond in real time.

Sevra Davis

Manager of the Royal Society of the Arts Student Design Awards

In 10 years, I hope we won’t be talking about public interest design as though it’s something new or atypical! I hope that we’ll live in a world where all design is made in the public interest and that we’ll be able to look back and reflect on how far design has come and how far reaching design’s application can be. This is not to say that we’ll should stop admiring design in the most traditional sense, but I hope that design will be most revered for an elegant combination of problem-solving, execution and significant benefit to society.
In my work running the RSA Student Design Awards, a global curriculum and competition that challenges emerging designers to tackle pressing social, environmental and economic issues through design thinking, I hope that in 10 years, such a lengthy description wouldn’t be necessary. I hope that the RSA Student Design Awards will be known as the best design curriculum to challenge emerging designers to exercise their power to change the world and leave it at that. Maybe the programme will even be obsolete because all design will be taught this way and educational institutions won’t need us anymore! This all probably sounds overly optimistic, but it’s what we have to strive for and we all have a role to play in this — designers need to act with the public interest at heart in whatever capacity they can and society needs to demand more from design and designers.

Ansley Whipple

Programs Director at Design Ignites Change

In 10 years, I would like to see Public Interest Design become much more a part of the mainstream design profession and integrated into business structures. Not just that all designers give a certain amount of their time towards pro-bono or public good projects (which would be great), but that they become more aware about the social impact that their products, structures, or services have at every level–from development to production and manufacturing. Designers will no longer work in a vacuum; a key design constraint will be that the design should improve the quality of life for all people that come in contact with it. And we’ll need many more social impact design jobs to support this new way of doing business!

Garrett Jacobs

Peer Network Coordinator at Code for America

My hope is that in ten years time the movement will be driven by many smaller, for-profit offices with specialized missions. Each of these smaller teams will specialize their work for a specific community, value or process. The existing professional associations will shift to support the smaller businesses and help develop partnerships between practitioners and local governments, advocating for the importance of design for all. With the combined experience of over four decades of public service work, we will identify and coauthor key capabilities we believe every architect, designer and policy maker should have. Together we can organize to instill those capabilities with everyone we work with, setting the foundation for a just, empathetic approach for making places — places that leave every person on this planet with a dignified place to live, learn, play and love.

Harriet Harriss

Senior Lecturer in Architecture and Director of Live Lab at Oxford Brookes University

PID is a collaborative philosophy and practice that is already evolving into a distinct professional sector in its own right.
Its core commitment to collaborative, civic engagement — where the traditional professional-public distinctions and hierarchies are abandoned — challenges past assumptions about not only what expertise really is but also who defines it and whom it serves.
This is reflected in Architecture Schools, where a growing demand for student-led, community-situated, Live Projects is transcending discipline boundaries and reshaping professional curricula.
The expanding future of PID means that students’ professional attainment will increasingly be measured in terms of their ability to respond to public concerns in real time, a shift which will push the parameters of architectural practice towards giving the public or ‘end users’ a more active role in shaping the spaces and communities in which they live and work.

Brian Gaudio

Public Design Intern at the Gulf Coast Community Design Studio and Fellow with the Within Formal Cities project

In 2024, the big question will be, “can the field of Public Interest Design become mainstream?” By that I mean, will groups outside of the PID network (such as governments, non-profits, businesses) respect and demand public interest design projects the way LEED projects are demanded today? To become “mainstream,” the field must increase public demand for it and unite under a shared vision.
In 10 years, a critical mass of Public Interest Designers will have graduated from SEED training or similar PID university programs. Thousands more will have participated in the 1% program. With many educated, empowered designers, we will need a shared vision and strong organizational leadership to unify the current PID efforts going on across the globe.
To achieve long-term sustainability, established leaders in the field such as Public Architecture, Design Corps, Architecture for Humanity, and others will have to work together to generate this vision. These groups have similar goals, but have distinct methods for delivering impact design. Should they propose a new membership organization? Is SEED the certification program of choice? If we can answer these questions in next decade, the future will be promising.

Jocelyn Bailey

Design and Policy Researcher at BOP Consulting and a Visiting Scholar for the Mapping Social Design project at the V&A

I think public interest/ impact design is a field that is only going to grow. Various trends — increasing technological capability, the resurgence of civil society, the rise of strategic design and social entrepreneurship, and the context of ‘austerity’ since 2008 — have converged over recent years to lead to a flourishing of socially-oriented design work, and none of these trends seem to be going away. Although at present it seems to be difficult to find sustainable business models in this type of work, innovations are happening all the time, and I would predict a growing diversity of types of practice, business, and designer.
The other interesting phenomenon is the changing interests of design graduates. Those brought up and educated through a period of recession, where the flaws of capitalism have been deeply exposed and against a background of increasingly severe environmental challenges, unsurprisingly have a different view about what they want to be doing with their careers. This wave of designers will surely be a powerful driver of change in design practice.
Finally, I think it will become an area where collaboration between design and other disciplines — especially social science based disciplines — is commonplace; and in fact the most interesting and innovative work will come from designers being deeply embedded in a particular context, with a detailed knowledge of that subject area. Perhaps we will see an inversion of the classic T-shaped designer.

Kate Ferguson

Co-Founder and Fellow at CoDesign Studio and an independent architect at KateFerguson.org

I see a groundswell of students and young designers who want to serve all members of society, not just the elite. Design education is beginning to change, and these people are finding or making their own opportunities to learn and grow. In 10 years they will be hitting their professional stride.
Most people in this field are thoughtful and committed with value outcomes. I think this means the field will become more sophisticated through stronger evaluation of impact. In my experience, conventional design practices do not take a systematic approach to evaluation. This is partly due to budget constraints, partly to lack of training, and I think partly due to the picture many people hold of the designer as the aesthetics expert. As governments and service providers look increasingly to designers for assistance with complex social challenges, we need to understand and prove the impact of what we offer. I look forward to the time when we have a more research results to learn from.

Jo Ashbridge

Director of AzuKo

Public interest design is by no means a new phenomenon. Built environment professionals have been fighting to bring architecture back to the public domain; working in the fields of humanitarian aid and international development for decades.
It does however remain an architecture practiced by the few — a mighty few who refuse to separate design from the seemingly insurmountable challenges of deprivation.
PID takes many forms and that is perhaps why the terminology is still so widely debated. From Julia King, a PhD candidate rethinking the ‘architectural’ needs of India’s urban slums, to Forensic Architecture, a multidisciplinary group of spatial practitioners that presents architectural evidence within the framework of international humanitarian law, PID is an architectural approach that no longer places the architect on a pedestal, but seeks to use architects as facilitators for positive change. It is an architectural process that may not even result in a built solution — never an easy sell!
So how will it look a decade down the line? I have absolutely no doubt it will continue to evolve at its core as it seeks to respond to ever changing social, political and environmental spheres.
I also believe it will become increasingly accepted. We are certainly starting to see recognition of those who operate in this realm. MASS Design is not only competing alongside traditional architectural practices but raking in those prizes… and series such as Al Jazeera’s ‘Rebel Architecture’ are giving much needed coverage to these visionaries and more importantly their work.
At one time ‘environmental design’ was a groundbreaking approach to architectural practice… and now it is a prerequisite. My dream is that PID is no longer a specialist field. Can this dream become a reality in the near future? Will the public stand with design professionals to demand architecture with true social impact? What a day that will be.

Christine Gaspar

Executive Director at The Center for Urban Pedagogy

My hopes are that, in 10 years, the field of public interest design will:
– look more like the communities the field “serves” and less like conventional architectural practice in its demographic make-up (race, ethnicity, gender, and class);
– be more focused not just on the individual impact of our projects but also on addressing systemic issues of social equity through our work;
– be more progressive and responsible in our own business practices (understanding the inconsistencies of doing humanitarian work while your own employment practices are abusive);
– better at talking about and handing the issues of colonialism that inherently underlie this kind of work; and
– with any luck still be going strong and present a broad range of viable ways for designers to engage in impactful work.

Bryan Bell

Executive Director at Design Corps

Public interest design is emerging as a way of realizing the potential of design to serve the communities. It is a real area of growth for the future of the design disciplines, where creativity and activism can give great returns to the greater good of humanity. After 20 years of not knowing what to call myself besides “the alternative career guy” or “the non-architect,” it is very meaningful for me to now say that I am a public interest designer.

Joel Stein

Design Ecologist, Community Planner and Urban Researcher studying at Parsons The New School for Design

Designers looking to use their skills for public impact are finding themselves working in a time of both urgency and necessity; there is no lack of work that needs to be done. Operating in an increasingly complex world, designers are re-articulating the role that design can play in making positive contributions.
The issues faced in our communities and the world are at once both publicly shared and privately acute, including but not limited to deteriorating and wasteful food systems, declining water resources, climate change, poverty, a lack of affordable housing, and inequality that is scaling new heights. These social realities are always manifested and reflected in the physical environment, which has traditionally been the point of focus for designers. The future of impact design will involve an ability to work forensically, by mapping the systems and processes that produce the built environment and physical products, and then articulating points of design action, whether it be designing new sewage systems, building supply chains to distribute new medical products, or green building projects that force new policy changes.
The shared nature of these public issues requires sustained and collaborative actions, and designers are learning to use design within a range of different contexts in interdisciplinary ways. Out of necessity, the future of this field will mean designers learn to be more sophisticated working as intermediaries on complex projects, finding inspiration directly from the communities and people that they serve.
Perhaps most importantly, designers are quickly rethinking their roles as “professionals,” and taking inspiration from Teddy Cruz’s idea of “citizenship as a creative act,” are learning to set up frameworks of action that enable the co-design and co-production of new systems, services and structures. By doing this, it will become essential to be comfortable with working in the mess, the social complexity underlying the places in which people live.
Two emergent trends provide causes for optimism in the world of impact design: the focus on scale and the flexible range of mediums employed by designers. By thinking in terms of delivering impact at scale, practitioners are learning to be creative in terms of organizational forms, politics, funding sources, project management, evaluation, and impact. This is enabling a comfort with developing and maintaining open-ended programs of intervention, that enable a range of solutions and projects in both the short-term and long-term.
As we see designers expressing, prototyping and implementing their work on a range of public issues, the role of culture, politics and infrastructure in the daily lives of people will continue to be emphasized, foregrounding the inherent humanity of this work. As impact design evolves, there is both the hope and the necessity of the evolution from the isolated efforts of talented individuals and organizations, to developing an ecosystem facilitated by learning networks that can better support the emerging practitioners, organizations, investors, and, ultimately, people.

Julia King

Architect and PhD candidate within London Metropolitan University’s Architecture of Rapid Change and Scarce Resources (ARCSR) research department

I think the freedom enjoyed by the field of architecture and design has resulted in a kind of irrelevance in terms of people and the world we reside. I firmly believe that architecture should address non-building issues such as poverty, homogenization, knowledge transfer, politics and the economy. And this is where I hope the field of public impact / interest finds itself in ten years : a field which is the synthesis of the different kinds of expertise required to make the world a more equal place.
I hope the future of public impact / interest design is filled not with people who are good but with people giving good answers to tough questions.

Keith + Marie Zawistowski

Program Directors at design/buildLAB and Co-Founders of OnSite Architecture

Public interest design has emerged from the passions of a generation of professionals who wholeheartedly believe that designers have a capacity to effect positive change on a grand scale. The tidal wave of practitioners answering this call with excellent work suggests that in 10 years, “public interest design” will simply be “design”.

Originally published at www.impactdesignhub.org on August 27, 2014.

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