Good design can have great impact on our every day lives. It can make the objects we use or our daily activities more efficient and fun. In many ways, I believe good design makes me a happier person. I am a backpack enthusiast and have bags that are designed with great intention and detail. Each pouch was designed with a specific purpose and located for convenience. The straps some how make heavy loads feel more weightless and the overall aesthetic allow the bag to compliment a wide range of outfits. Often times, I think the designer knows my needs better than I do. I will find details in the bag that are so useful and yet I never realized that was an aspect that should be important to the design of the bag. Though we have never met, I truly respect the creators of the bags I love so much and the simple but great impact they have on my daily life.
Designers not only create concrete items or the graphics in a magazine but also curate experiences. Many small companies and organizations use collaboration software or apps for project management, which track their workflow thus making working remotely more effective. Behind these types of software and apps is a new category of designers – user interface designers (UI), user experience designers (UE), and interaction designers. These individuals think about the experience users have when they journey through a process whether through a smart phone or computer.
When I think of these experience-based designers, I am reminded of the work done within the social sector. People running nonprofits, in many ways, must think like designers. To effectively respond to a social need, a good nonprofit project must understand the real needs of its target beneficiary (the user). The program must be well designed to effectively solve the issue at heart (user experience).
Of course, a well designed and executed project takes work. It requires intense preparation like need assessments and research of best practices. First you must ask, what is the issue at hand? After compiling background knowledge, the focus becomes mapping potential paths, evaluating the viability and success of each option and then designing a pilot program. What are possible ways to solve this issue? Can you solve this issue with something that already exists? Existing projects must also be evaluated by gathering feedback from beneficiaries. If the program is able to actually find funding for several cycles of the program, the team must then find key veteran experts in this specific area of focus to gain insights and then take the program to the next level of implementation.
I told my thoughts on the similarities between design and developing a nonprofit program to a friend who is also a designer. He was very surprised and told me the thinking process involved in designing a project within the social sector is quite similar to his line of work. In the design world, they call it prototyping. I immediately asked him if there is a possibility of linking design to doing good? He happily and loudly responded, “YES!”
At a high level, doing good can be thought of as social innovation. Designers are inspired by new ideas and thrive through innovation. The following are main areas in which design and the nonprofit sector intersect:
- Same goals - Design and nonprofits all focus on a problem and work to solve the problem.
- Beneficiary and user focused – You must understand and be sensitive to their perspective in order to solve the problem.
- Analytical problem solving – Similar methodologies are used to approach the process of creatively solving the issues.
- The Start-Up Mentality – Both sides must be driven to successfully achieve the goals set.
I have been very excited to see that several design firms are trailblazing this cross-discipline thinking and responding to social needs. IDEO is a design and consulting firm that takes a ‘human-centered, design-based approach to helping organizations in the public and private sectors innovate and grow.’ The company established an online community OpenIDEO in 2010 and created an open call for innovative solutions for various challenges. In 2011 the company founded a nonprofit IDEO.org and are focused on human-centered design to alleviate poverty.
Their design thinking and methodology can be easily summarized in six steps, which are very similar to the charity project design process:
CBi China Bridge, an insight-based innovation and strategy firm, invests 20% of their working time on addressing social-concerns and working with nonprofit organizations. In 2012, the company worked with two social organizations, The Library Project and Vision in Practice, to redefine the needs of their target populations and improve their project design as to better serve the beneficiaries.
My friend who is a designer also launched a not-for-profit program last year, called Dreamland Plus. The team collaborates with local NPOs and social enterprises working in the rural areas of China to help improve the efficacy and efficiency of residents’ daily tasks through quality industrial design.
The nonprofit sector provides an abundance of opportunities for cross-sector collaboration with the design world. We’ve already seen many professionals with different backgrounds contributing their time and expertise to nonprofits. Designers also have huge potential to partner with NPOs. If anyone working in the social sector has friends with design backgrounds, I encourage you to talk and share your projects and ideas with them. It may lead to endless new ideas and ultimately, better solutions.
Contributed by Zoey Liu