How to design social change (by Claire Manibog)

via the MANIBLOG

If only there was an easy answer… Designers are well-equipped to get closer to it, though. As an inherently systems-based discipline, design is about understanding the audience, communicating effectively and harnessing form and function, all of which are essential to social change. Design thinking has become a much talked-about approach that can complement traditional analytical thinking with a certain creativity and innovation that is essential to social entrepreneurship.

To get a project going, it all starts with the right questions. The first is: what is designing social change? This is a question Bob MacKinnon, founder of YELLOWBRICKROAD and program lecturer, focused on in a class this week. We’re all in the process of developing our “big ideas”, our personal design projects that address our particular issues of interest, whether they be environmental stewardship or women’s rights. To help us through this process, Bob drilled down on three guiding questions:

1. What change do you want to see?
2. Who do you need to engage to achieve it? (Who “owns” the problem your trying to solve?)
3. How will your project work?

We also learned about guidelines to success, which Mark Randall and Bob walked us through based on their experiences. Designing social change comes with myriad challenges and obstacles from all directions, so to ensure a successful design project, designers should:

1. Do more than raise awareness: Designers are well-equipped go beyond just calling attention to a problem. They can think through systems to address behavior change. In other words, it’s important to communicate to people how they can take action on a problem.

2. Focus on success: When communicating why an issue needs to be addressed, campaigns too often focus on depressing statistics that can actually keep the intended audience at a distance. While describing a problem is important, communicating successes in addressing it can motivate the audience to get involved.

3. Don’t judge, be humble: When tackling social change issues, our tolerance is often tested. It’s easy to judge a mother who feeds her overweight children Coke and Doritos, but what causes her to do so? Are there supermarkets close enough to her home? If so, do they provide enough fresh food? If so, is it too expensive for her to buy? Understanding a problem starts with putting oneself in other people’s shoes.

4. Start small, be realistic: We all want to save the world (at least the students in this program do), but we’ll never be able to do so, let alone in the next six weeks. Starting small is key: it gets you practice and teaches you lessons, and if you’re lucky it gets you started with one success.

5. Find partners and build coalitions: It may seem obvious, but to help others, you need others. I find myself defending the corporation a lot in this program, but these types of strange bedfellows to the traditional field of social change can be key to significant and lasting change. Collaborating with all types of partners is an important part of the project development process.

6. Spread the word: Communicate, communicate, communicate! Telling the world about your project is so important, not only to attract support (including funding), but to get people talking and thinking about the issue. Gathering others’ thoughts and feedback can only enrich your work.

Now off to designing a project…