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What Do Designers Need to Practice Social Innovation?

Seeing the unexpected
Patrick Marsh

The role of designers in society is changing. More and more, designers are being tasked to make an impact on the world around them by applying their skills to better society. “LEAP Dialogues: Career Pathways in Design for Social Innovation” published by Designmatters at ArtCenter College of Design explores this emergent field of design for social innovation, its key issues and the future of the field. The following series are excerpts from the publication.

One day in the spring of 1959, seven musicians got together — some for the first time. When they arrived that day, each received a slip of paper with rough markings on it. Miles Davis, the group’s organizer, had just handed them a small piece of history.

With this gesture, Davis introduced something called “modal jazz” — a way of approaching improvisation unlike any before it. In contrast to the complex chord progressions of the preceding musical era, modal jazz was simple. It was a mode, a scale, a framework. And its key ingredient? Co-creation.

Instead of control coming from the composer of a piece, modal jazz promotes a sense of discovery. It doesn’t reveal everything; it leaves the generative process up to the collaborators involved. This loose framework gives way to participatory design and new forms.

Portrait of Charlie Parker, Tommy Potter, Miles Davis, Duke Jordan, and Max Roach, Three Deuces, New York, N.Y., ca. Aug. 1947
Miles Davis and the Three Deuces playing, circa 1947  | William P. Gottlieb/Library of Congress

Like never before, designers are improvising. They’re finding un-inscribed rules in frames of reference as didactic as form fields, as motley as urban landscapes. This section of “LEAP Dialogues: Career Pathways in Design for Social Innovation” investigates the “what” of practicing social innovation. Not comfortable resting on the “what” that is, the practice of social innovation stretches our understanding of what can be. And suggests a bit of improv is required.

Some designers suggest that means surrendering to being comfortable with the unknown. Anab Jain in dialogue with Sarah Lidgus reviews their own improvisational process at Superflux, noting that being a “good improviser is to be very comfortable with ambiguity.” When people talk about improvisation, they use phrases such as “winging it,” “without a net,” “off the top of my head”—nomenclature that suggests being untethered. Diagram, in an essay on their work in experience prototyping, similarly reflects on the field of healthcare, noting that advances there mean that we are “asked to design things that have not been experienced before.” Designing without a net, indeed.

Veterans Experience Contact Center
Prototyping an Improved Veterans Experience Contact Center Experience | Sarah Brooks

But in fact, improvisation itself is just the opposite of chaotic. Its constraints need to be practiced and repeated. Whether we consider our domain a mobile device, a service, or a village, running past boundaries of territories known requires a critical look at our place in history. Educators Tom Fisher and Kim Tanzer make a case that public interest design has a deep history parallel to our own practices. And while the contemporary and historical field of visual design is often considered most akin to our work, perhaps we can look further afield for inspiration. We need to consider our discipline’s borders permeable.

As designers, and also as humans, we make sense of a wild environment by taking chaos and giving it common language and recognizable categories. We label them: poster, website, building, typography, interactive, stone, and so on. Creating categories, then, gives our experiences boundaries. For designers in this era, however, seeing boundaries can be a disadvantage. “In terms of careers and roles, I am mightily intrigued by the idea of boundary-less organizations (or networks, more precisely) and by how often this idea pops up in discussions/imaginings of the future of work,” Manoj Fenelon says. It is possible to see beyond the small fences of the familiar, but first you must see no boundaries.

People like civic designer Sarah Brooks and educator and designer Jon Kolko, in their methods essays, highlight the value of spending time with people where they are. When we do, we go outside of our comfort zone and, are forced to think about our perceptions and others’ situations differently.

The boundaries that have traditionally identified our practice are changed, as are their very business models. Boundaries changing around funding are blurring. Several people touch on impact investing, perhaps as a result of a new kind of wealth. In their dialogue, Tara Roth and Lee Davis note that if “designers were given a core set of business and management skills then they could easily pass business students as the most coveted social entrepreneurs by social investors.” Boundaries no more.

Renuka Kher and David Sherwin emphasize the importance of experimentation in the social sector. Having met at the LEAP Symposium and working together since, they note that designers have to give themselves and their organization “permission to develop new products and services through building and testing rather than writing and planning.”

So what do we do about the what?

From the small and achievable to the blue-sky opinions, Jason Schupbach and Cynthia Smith respond by calling for more foundations to take design seriously as a social impact tool. John Cary and Marika Shiori Clark come from two disciplines to agree on the importance of creating more fellowships and post-graduate opportunities, giving designers the opportunity to learn while doing (and get paid for it). Lee Davis proposes simply to “mainstream design, not marginalize it.”

In New York City in the 1970s and ’80s, crime was a critical concern. The parks were in hopeless decay, troubled by muggings and criminal activity that kept people away. The park as public service had degraded into dilapidated centers for crime, and as such, most citizens feared entering at all.

Bryant Park in New York City by Carol M. Highsmith
A dog and man shake hands in Bryant Park, between 1980 and 2006 |  Carol M. Highsmith/Library of Congress  

As a result of a new fine placed on people walking their dogs off leash in the park in 1982, dog walkers complained to the newly appointed Prospect Park administrator Tupper Thomas. Observing the sheer onslaught of complaints about the fine, she saw that the parks were being used for something good: healthy dog walking. She retracted the fine, and instead, mainstreamed dog walking. She instituted “off leash” hours in Prospect Park, a 12-hour period of time whereby citizens could allow their dogs to run free and get exercise. As such, dog walking in the park increased. More came. Then people noticed. The runners came first, followed by many others who wanted to enjoy the park. Suddenly crime was in the minority.

That simple accommodation in one New York City park — mainstreaming a positive activity, not marginalizing it — is credited with helping reduce crime in New York City, and serves as an international model in urban planning. Landon Brown uses active engagement and visualization to close the gap in the otherwise disconnected dialogue between local and civic stakeholders. These “micro-fluencies” made sharing perspectives mainstream, resulting in positive social impact.

Just as Miles Davis created a new form of jazz that allowed a new generation of musicians to play beyond themselves, so do we have the opportunity to identify new domains for a field of practice, new ways of paying attention to opportunities for change. Whether in private or in public, in social or in individual spaces, the what ultimately requires a bit of improv and a move beyond traditional lines. The act of creating in the moment in response to an environment results in the invention of new patterns, practices, structures and behaviors.

Just as scraps of paper resulted in one of the best-selling albums of all time, just as we synthesize observations into transformative services: this is our ability. To frame experiences; to extract information; to take haphazard shapes and make sense of them; to imagine the future while the present is in motion.

Top Image: A designer visually synthesizes user research to arrive at insights for new online experiences | Patrick Marsh

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