Social problems are complex and constantly changing, something the social innovation firm, Design Impact, knows all too well.

Design Impact is a group of designers, community development practitioners, social entrepreneurs, and educators who collaborate with other passionate people, combining design, creative problem solving, teamwork and leadership development, coming together to create a better world.

In 2008, co-founder and Design Director, Ramsey Ford had a conversation with his wife (and now Executive Director), Kate Hanisian, about how they saw, first-hand, how businesses rely on design and innovation to deliver products and services that people wanted and truly needed. “I was working as a design consultant and saw the power of design to transform product categories and improve consumer lives,” says Ford. “[Hanisian] was working within the social sector and saw a lot of really passionate people working for social change, but without a full set of tools like design thinking at their disposal.” Ford says they figured out a way they could change all that, and bring the two together in order to create dynamic, social change.

Ford and Hanisian’s conversation kicked-off a two-year pilot project that created a non-profit organization named Design Impact, with an international fellowship program which brought designers and organizations together to create lasting good in local communities, all powered by design-driven principles and methods.

But Why Design-Driven?

By working alongside their partners, to date, Design Impact has been a part of more than 90 social innovation projects, and they’ve trained more than 3,600 leaders. “We know that humans learn by doing, so participants join in conversations and active learning experiences that are designed to help them drive change in their own unique contexts. All of our programs provide participants with time and tools to work on their own particular projects—and because trainings happen over an extended period of time, participants gain a deep level of understanding and high level of independence,” says Ford.

The non-profit’s design-driven approach has dedicated thousands of hours of innovation services to community development initiatives, all of which are built to be as sustainable as possible.

“One thing that is powerful about design thinking specifically is that it's focused on the user,” says Ford. “Within the human side of the design process, you are keeping a user at the center of what you're doing. We apply a wide range of techniques and methodologies from lean startup to leadership development to community organizing, so we draw on a lot of different perspectives,” he adds. “I think the most profound or radical aspect of using design thinking in the social sector is that it does just that: it brings that user, that stakeholder, that citizen, right into the process of developing new programs, policies and services.” Ford says that when talking with organizational partners, one of the stickiest points of the conversation is how people can build empathy with users thanks to design thinking

“These are people who are in the social sector because they're passionate about people and the cause,” continues Ford. “They want to create a positive impact in the world, and they do. With design-driven approaches, you're taking a step out of your normal everyday process, and you're thinking about people in this new way and you're engaging with them in a new way. Giving people the license to do that is really powerful.”

Designing for Sustainable Change

“Design thinking supports the creation of adaptable organizations,” explains Ford, saying that this resilience and ability to adapt is critical in the process of equipping people with the right resources so they can problem-solve on an ongoing basis. “It’s about empathy, but not just empathy—it is also about learning, being open to growth, taking calculated risks, and ‘moving’ with the results in these complex systems,” he says. This learning helps make the innovation that is created sustainable. “An important part of what we do is to understand what resources and limitations are available. We don’t design ‘pie in the sky’ solutions, but work with partners to create solutions that are contextualized, appropriate and adaptable. Because our partners work closely with us through the process, the solutions are understood and owned by them. This helps lead to solutions that are sustainable for the long-term.” 

Examples of these innovations include:

The Erikoodu Charcoal Briquette: Design Impact partnered with the Organization of Development Action and Maintenance (ODAM) to develop a cost-effective alternative fuel solution to wood and kerosene, which had been causing severe health problems during indoor use, leaving women and children especially vulnerable. Together with ODAM, Design Impact developed the Erikoodu, a smokeless charcoal briquette produced from locally-sourced, waste charcoal. The Erikoodu business model was designed to facilitate local job creation from production through distribution. 

Studio C and United Way of Greater Cincinnati: A collaborative project between the United Way of Greater Cincinnati and Design Impact, Studio C is a social innovation program that combines design thinking and leadership development principles with other sources of discourse to create a space for creative community change. The six month, design-driven program brought together eight project teams, altogether representing more than 15 organizations. Design Impact was tasked with guiding this work towards creating services, products, and programs aimed at reducing poverty in the region. Through Studio C, Design Impact explored how design thinking, and more specifically, how building empathy with various organization’s community members, would shape the outcomes for organizations seeking to implement Two Generation Approaches. By engaging the community, they uncovered key insights that could be used to overcome critical barriers in achieving improved education, income and health in these communities.  

The Two-Generation Design Project: Helping Families Find a Path Out of Poverty 

The Two-Generation Design Project highlights the power of design thinking and Design Impact’s collaborative approach to problem-solving. The project was designed to uncover new ways to increase the number of women in Advanced Manufacturing, specifically in Northern Kentucky. The climate was one in which manufacturing jobs were in high demand, and manufacturers were seeing a gap in the competencies and qualifications of the local labor pool. Additionally, there was also a poor representation of women in this field.

A female-oriented career program, initiated by Gateway Community and Technical College, called Raise the Floor (RTF), had been created to meet the needs of the women, but RTF was not seeing tremendous success. Joining forces with the United Way of Greater Cincinnati (UWGC), Partners for Competitive Workforce (PCW), and the Gateway Community & Technical College, Design Impact looked to discover why more women were not choosing these jobs. The innovators also wanted to spark interest in STEM learning among children whose parents were moving through an advanced manufacturing career pathway.

Reframe the Question & Identify New Solutions 

The question that framed the project was how might we involve the whole family to increase the number of women in advanced manufacturing careers and increase participation in STEM learning among their children? 

The design thinking process included deep research, ideation sessions, and prototyping potential solutions to gain crucial feedback, says Ford. This entire process is essentially what makes design thinking so effective at finding opportunities. “Design is both a research practice and an active practice. It is one in which you're trying to figure out and understand, but also creating and doing,” explains Ford.

With a focus on being as inclusive as possible, the partners spent more than three months exploring the lives of women and their families to gain empathy and to learn about real and perceived barriers in the advanced manufacturing workforce space. 

After remaining optimistic that the right avenues would emerge, and by applying varying tools and methods such as observational fieldwork, interviews, forced ranking, quadrant mapping, and gut checks, Design Impact and their project partners began to understand which of those things that were heard, seen or felt could lead to new ideas around change.

From Discovery to Synthesis 

During the synthesis stage of the project, the following opportunity spaces were identified: 

Broken Network: “How might we improve support systems for families so mothers can make it through advanced manufacturing training and into careers?”

Change the Story: “How might we change the negative perceptions of advanced manufacturing careers and highlight the positive?”

Preparing Women: “How might we prepare women for the particular challenges and opportunities associated with advanced manufacturing careers?”

Preparing Advocates: “How might we better prepare frontline workers to understand careers in advanced manufacturing and match women to career opportunities?” 

After the ideation stage that followed, more than 100 ideas were narrowed down to 20. Again, Ford describes how the project was built so that the stakeholders could participate. “In the ideation session, we had a social worker sitting next to the woman that runs a local manufacturing organization, next to a woman who works for her, next to a woman that's just in the training program right now.”

From there, the ideas were reviewed and refined down to just 9, and then ultimately narrowed down to 5 ideas to iterate and test. “One of the things that we worked on was with their training curriculum. Most of it focused on the technical skills to do the job. We built-in some extra curriculum about building one’s social network and social capital,” explains Ford. “Because a lot of the women that were involved in this didn't have extensive social networks that they could rely on in case something went wrong. If their car broke down, if their child got sick, if something else happened in their life, they would have to just miss classes. This solution helped build resources around that, in order to give them more flexibility.” 

Another solution that was tested was My Emergency Fund, a concept Gateway had considered but had not implemented prior to working with Design Impact. The research and findings validated the need for a small fund that could help provide economic support for a woman and her family so that her education could remain on track thus helping her continue on in her career. To date, three women have successfully been able to take advantage of this resource. Although there is commitment to developing the other prototypes, most of the ideas are currently waiting on funds for further development. 

“With complex social problems such as this, there is not one single solution but rather the need for coordinated efforts among many different players and organizations,” adds Ford. “That's an interesting thing about design, is it takes over the big complex problem, such as: how do we get more women into advanced manufacturing? and breaks it into smaller, actionable solutions that collectively, can create change.” 

About Ramsey Ford

As co-founder and Design Director of Design Impact, Ramsey Ford brings a wealth of design and entrepreneurship experience to the Design Impact team. Ford has practiced design from a variety of perspectives; working as a freelancer, contractor, project manager, full time designer for a diverse group of product-design consultancies, and he also teaches design at the University of Cincinnati. Before founding Design Impact, he focused his Masters thesis on “Design and Empowerment: Learning from Community Organizing.” Through numerous workshops, published articles, and speaking engagements, Ford has helped to further the conversation on inclusive design in the social sector.

About Design Impact

Design Impact is a non-profit social innovation firm made up of designers, community development practitioners, social entrepreneurs, and educators. Design Impact collaborates with passionate people, bringing design and innovation practices to the table in order to design a better world Design Impact designs and facilitates highly contextualized educational programs on innovation, leadership, and social impact for emerging leaders of any educational level, anywhere in the world. For more on how Design Impact is transforming communities through design, visit the non-profit’s website.

References/Further Reading

Two Generation Design Project 

Studio C Collaboration

Erikoodu Charcoal Briquette 

Use Design-Driven Tools to Embrace Complex & Messy Problems

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