10/29 — Project Kickoff: Designing for Social Impact

Manjari Sahu
Nov 5, 2016 · 3 min read

We kicked off project two in our Ixd Studio with an open brief — design for social impact in the city of Pittsburgh. The brief asked to deeply explore how we as designers, “can change/improve people’s experience in the city of Pittsburgh in a meaningful way.”

As a group, we spoke of our experiences in the city of Pittsburgh and how we might have come across any situations that garnered a need for community engagement or social innovation. We spoke of transportation services, education inequality, segregation in the city as well as urban street intervention scenarios.

However, between all this conversation, I wondered what exactly does it mean to design for social impact? Who are the stakeholders that we need to design for and how do we measure the effectiveness of our design interventions? How can we envision solutions of a scale that equals with the scale of the problems the users are confronted with? Can we collaborate across the spectrum of design methodologies and genres to generate effective and sustainable solutions?

What kind of designers do we need to be, to design for social innovation?

Discussing these questions and more, we all looked towards a certain sense of direction that we wanted from our project — Designing with, not for communities.

So what were the tools that we could use to design for social impact? I found a great book written by , which spoke of strategies used by designers for community-based design. Though the book was focused on graphic design interventions, some of the engagement strategies he listed resonated with our project brief.

Immerse yourself

  • Spend time getting to know the community.
  • Work side by side with members of the community and observe their daily lives.
  • Be prepared to give up the certain amount of control and let the community input inform you design decisions.

Build Trust

  • Find ways to bond and build strong relationships with community members.
  • Build empathy. As you build trust and understand a communities needs, you will become an invested partner and your design will reflect the personality and ethos of community members.
  • Approach with open minds!

Prioritize Process

  • Avoid quick solutions by just giving community members what they want.
  • Understand and search for the solution they need.
  • Thoroughly research the design problem before proposing solutions.
  • Bring transparency to your work by explaining each step you take.

Confront controversy

  • Assess the purpose of the project and think about what message your design should convey.
  • Address controversial topics head on.

Identify the communities strengths

  • Address the communities challenges in an uplifting tone.
  • Craft your design in a way that focuses on the communities strengths.
  • Identify the unique qualities of the community members as well as the challenges they face and use that list as a guide throughout the project.
  • Help community members become more confident about their role in meeting their own needs.
  • Design with the communities voice

Give communities ownership

  • Empower the community b giving it ownership over design tools and methods.

Sustained engagement.

  • How can your design sustain over a period of time? Can your solution be one where the community itself can continue scaling it up?

Understanding these tools, I wonder if our design can help create a sense of interpersonal collaborations/interactions in the communities/areas we work with?

*Excerpts taken from Andrew Shea,“Designing for Social Change”


An interactive community-based music platform

Manjari Sahu

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India | USA | The Netherlands…A designer broadening her perspective on critical thinking and how to do good by design.



An interactive community-based music platform