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Note: An earlier version of this article was published by Design Management Institute and can be found here

Designers have historically had a passionate connection to their community and an eagerness to use their creative skills toward positive social change. In the last decade we have seen a proliferation of this activity, so much so that a new practice area of design-driven social change has emerged that many are calling social design. Despite this increased activity, however, many design businesses struggle to integrate social design—in a sustainable way—into their business model, or to build new models with social design at the core. At the center of this dilemma is funding, but other factors are important to consider as well. Whether they are addressing a complex global issue like climate change or a hyper-local one, like a community garden in an urban neighborhood, designers must figure out how to do this work in a serious and sustainable business way in order to have meaningful impact over time.

While the term social design is relatively new, the movement has a rich heritage that dates back at least to the 1920s and the Bauhaus, which had an explicit commitment to designing residential housing for the poor. This ethos was echoed by many of the great designers of the last 50 years, such as Samuel Mockbee, Tibor Kalman, and Milton Glaser, and continued by design leaders of the last generation, such as Bill Drenttel, John Bielenberg, and Valerie Casey, who have persistently worked to redefine the role of the designer in society. In the last decade we have seen the emergence of academic programs with a focus on social design, such as the Designmatters program at ArtCenter College of Design and the Master of Arts in Social Design program at Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA). Another indicator of the maturation of this discipline is the number of programs that recognize and support the best social design work, such as Ideas That Matter by the paper company Sappi, Design Ignites Change, Designer’s Accord, and AIGA’s Design for Good, along with conferences like Compostmodern in San Francisco, which has a thematic focus on design for environmental sustainability. Furthermore, the principles of social design align with many of the values that characterize the millennial generation, which comprises an increasing proportion of the design profession. According to a January 2014 Forbes article, “Millennials are focused on making meaning, not just making money.”

One important aspect of the evolution of social design over the last decade is that now designers are being invited into the problem-solving process at earlier and more influential points, whereas the historical role of the designer was often to create the brand, the campaign, the poster, or the website once the core problem was solved by the embedded experts. This trend of greater influence mirrors the increasing power designers are experiencing in many business sectors; as noted in a 2010 Businessweek article, “[Designers] help companies connect and establish a dialogue with consumers, thus enabling firms to innovate more efficiently.”[1] The emergence of human-centered design (or design thinking) methodology pioneered by global firms like IDEO and frog places a premium on design-driven research, divergent ideation, rapid prototyping, and iteration rather than a purely aesthetic focus. This unique approach is helping to position designers as problem solvers and drivers of change, and allowing them to make relevant, meaningful contributions at a much earlier stage than ever before.

What’s wrong with this picture?

In order to maximize this significant opportunity, the traditional business model for a design practice must be reconsidered. Virtually every design business and creative agency is built on the same basic “client service” framework, in which there is a single way to make money: through fees that clients pay in return for design services. For several reasons this model is not appropriate for doing effective design-driven social change over the long term. For instance, in social design there is often not a traditional client: the designer might be self-initiating the project, or there might be a collective of stakeholders, none of whom have the capacity to fund the project. The result is that most social design projects are either self-funded at a minimal level or done on a pro-bono basis. Hence, these social design projects usually get relegated to the periphery of the practice—they are the projects that get worked on after hours or on the weekend. An additional result of this lack of funding is that these projects tend to be done on a compressed time frame of days or weeks, when meaningful social change efforts—including research, assessment, planning, and execution—can take years or even decades.

The rapidly emerging area of online crowd-funding sites and communities like Kickstarter and Crowdrise offers a potential remedy to the funding dilemma. Crowd funding presents an opportunity that simply was not around only a few years ago, and it’s a significant one, with more than $6 billion donated globally in 2013. This is somewhat deceptive, though, because with a few notable exceptions, most crowd-funded projects receive in the range of $5,000-$20,000—not insignificant, but also not enough to stay on the project list of a top design firm for very long.

Another significant opportunity lies in funding from philanthropic foundations and non-governmental organizations (NGOs), which represent an aggregate pool of hundreds of billions of dollars in endowments. Gates Foundation, Rockefeller Foundation, and Robert Wood Johnson Foundation are all prominent examples of foundations with deep and established endowments; locally based organizations and family foundations also offer opportunities. Currently, however, design-driven projects are virtually invisible to these philanthropies, because design businesses are typically set up as for-profit corporations or LLCs, which are not eligible to directly apply for grant funding. This puts most design firms in the position of relying on partnerships with third-party nonprofits in order to gain access to funds for project work—a cumbersome arrangement, at best.

Designers are beginning to recognize this dilemma, and new practice models are emerging. Tomorrow Partners (Berkeley, CA), and Greater Good Studio and Firebelly Design (both in Chicago), are all examples of design businesses that are tinkering with the traditional model. Some are establishing themselves as a non-profit 501(c)3, and others form a nonprofit to sit alongside the traditional for-profit (IDEO and are examples of this); either option gives designers direct access to foundation money. A relatively new option is the L3C business classification, a hybrid structure that combines the legal and tax flexibility of a traditional LLC, the social benefits of a nonprofit organization, and the branding and market positioning advantages of a social enterprise.

Rich Hollant, founder of Hartford, CT-based Co:Lab, has intentionally built his staff to be positioned for foundation funding in a sustainable way. “Co:Lab is an LLC, and we access grant funding through collaborations with (c)3s and foundations,” Hollant says. “Our business development person has a nonprofit management background and has deep experience with foundations. She helps us advise (c)3s through the grant process as a means of subsidizing project funding. We also take a consulting role in the sustainability plans of community-based coalitions and help our partners optimize their in-place funds.”

One NGO that recognizes the potential of human-centered design is UNICEF, which has made a significant investment by building an internal innovation team practicing social design with a focus on children in the developing world: “We aim to engage and partner with the right organizations and individuals from the public, private and academic sectors to support us by co-developing user-driven innovations.”[2]

It’s time to open the door

As we reconsider our business model, designers must also address our methodological approach. Design has a stigma of being a mysterious and exclusive craft that would be contaminated—rather than enriched—by the direct involvement of clients or stakeholders, and designers have a similar rap of being control freaks obsessed with a perfect outcome. Social design, on the other hand, requires designers to open their process and to be inclusive, transparent, nimble and iterative. In order to understand deeply complex social issues and develop credible solutions to them, we depend on the active participation of experts in that area. This means that designers need to be developing networks in communities where these subject matter experts reside. It also means that a key skill for a social designer will be that of facilitation, since the format of the multi-disciplinary design workshop becomes key to drawing out the insights of disparate participants. AIGA, the professional association for design recently launched Facilitation by Design, a series of workshops to help designers build the skills to “successfully facilitate a diverse group and create effective solutions across a variety of sectors.”

These changes to business model and method are triggering reactions throughout the design profession. Many of the top academic design programs are taking on the challenge of building curriculum to train the emerging generation of social designers. At MICA, the one-year Master of Arts in Social Design program “prepares the next generation of creative leaders through collaborative practice-based learning opportunities, exploring social issues, testing processes & defining the future of design.”[3] Still, the career path for graduates of this pioneering program will be murky until the practice space matures in the years to come.

Whether in the studio setting, the academic world, or within large organizations, ambitious and forward-thinking designers are recognizing that social design offers a significant opportunity in an ever-more-competitive design market. They are also coming to terms with the fact that integrating social design practices effectively and sustainably in their business model—so this work contributes to the bottom-line success of a business rather than jeopardizing it—will be the key to long-term success.

[1] Ravi Sawhney and Deepa Prahalad, “The Role of Design in Business,” Businessweek, Feb. 1, 2010.





I have some news about a new chapter of my life, personally, professionally and geographically. Last month I accepted the offer of a new position and have joined IBM as part of the leadership team of IBM Design, a new business unit based in Austin, TX that will infuse this massive organization with design of all disciplines (visual, strategic, interaction, research, product). This is an opportunity that has emerged very unexpectedly over the last few months. It will give me the chance to help build a design office at a global scale—in a company with a breathtaking design heritage—and to work with the young designers who will be the core of this office. It’s a dream gig that came to me out of the blue (pun intended). I’m thrilled and stunned and a bit overwhelmed, but energized and inspired by this new adventure.

While I will dearly miss my beloved City of Lakes, and the amazing design community there, I look forward to turning a new page and settling into a new awesome (and weird) community.

To be continued…


In the final installment of this three-part series, Michele Ronsen and I discuss the complexities of the entrepreneurial process, including the adjustments designers can make to our business model.

In the second of this three part discussion on emerging trends in design, I discuss Design for Good, the AIGA initiative to activate design-driven social change with Michelle Ronsen of Academy of Art University in San Francisco.

Academy of Art University interview, part 2 from Doug Powell on Vimeo.

I originally met designer Michele Ronsen at the AIGA Business Perspectives for Creative Leaders program in 2007 when the program was still in its original home at Harvard Business School (now at Yale School of Management). We hit it off back then and have continued an ongoing dialogue about various design-related issues. Last spring, while on a visit to San Francisco, I stopped by the Academy of Art University (where Michele teaches in the graduate design program) to discuss the emerging trend of design-driven social change. This video is part 1 in a 3-part series.

The AIGA Gain Conference was held October 8-9 in San Francisco. This year, the conference had a theme of Design for Social Value and featured speakers such as Emily Pilloton, Robert Fabricant, and Ravi Naidoo. It was an invigorating two days of challenging and inspiring discussions that illuminated the possibilities and challenges that lay before the design community as we venture into new territory. Here are my opening remarks for the conference.

My name is Doug Powell. I’m a designer and the national president of AIGA. It is my great pleasure to welcome you to the 2012 AIGA Gain Conference. The Gain Conference has its roots right here in San Francisco and, in fact, right here at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts. In the year 2000, the AIGA Risk/Reward conference, which two years later became the Gain conference, was held here. 

Risk/Reward was a bold move for AIGA at the time because, rather than celebrating design excellence in the purely aesthetic way we had come to expect it, Risk/Reward challenged the audience to consider the many influential factors–in addition to aesthetics–that made designers successful. At the turn of the millennium, as the profession and practice of design was hitting its stride in new ways, the bold move of Risk/Reward was perfectly timed. The proof of this lay in the subsequent five Gain Business of Design conferences, which became one of the most popular AIGA programs.

Twelve years later designers have found profound new ways to influence the world around them bringing the process of design to complex social problems on the local, regional, and global scale. Designers are having a major impact on issues such as healthcare, sustainability, and education, issues once the proprietary domain of academics, policy makers, and business leaders. 

AIGA members in our 66 local chapters and more than 200 student groups are among the leaders in this new movement initiating change-oriented projects and programs in communities as diverse as Brooklyn, Birmingham, and Johannesburg, South Africa. In response to this groundswell of member activity, one year ago AIGA launched Design for Good our initiative to ignite, amplify, and accelerate design-driven social change. As the profession and practice of design once again turned an exciting and challenging new corner, it was time for another bold move. So to punctuate the successful first year of Design for Good we have returned to San Francisco and returned to Yerba Buena to once again ask important questions about the new ways in which designers are working.

Let me make one thing very clear: this Gain conference will not be simply a pep rally for social design, although I suspect and hope that we will all be sufficiently inspired by what we will experience over the next two days. This conference must reach beyond the motivational and begin to ask the tough questions that will be required in order for design-driven social change to become an embedded, sustained, and meaningful effort, not just a short-lived trend.

These questions include: What are the new models for a design practice that will enable this work? What are the sources for funding, and how do we access them? Who are the established individuals and organizations we should be aligning ourselves with? How do we measure the effectiveness of our work in a way that will resonate with our new partners? And what skills will designers need to acquire in order to function effectively in this new role as change agents?

 To address these questions, we have assembled a roster of the early leaders in this emerging practice area representing a diverse range of business settings, geographic regions, and philosophical points of view. Our goal is not to provide answers, but to provoke more questions, to ignite conversations and connections, and ultimately to inspire you all to return to your own communities better armed, informed and prepared to make a positive difference.

I recently had the pleasure of presenting at the TEDx Art Center Design for Social Impact conference in Pasadena, CA. This student-organized event was one of the best produced and most content-rich one day design events I have been a part of. The speaker roster was packed with some of my favorite design thinkers including Terry Irwin, Allan Chochinov, and Cameron Tonkinwise, as well as a few new favorites whom I had never met before like Fellow Robin Bigio, artist Victor Hugo Zayas, and designer/musician Spencer Nikosey. Congratulations to student co-chairs Erik Molano, Mariana Prieto and the entire student planning committee. Here’s the video of my presentation:

It’s a rare treat when the “mainstream” media turns their attention toward the topic of design, and that happened recently when Minnesota Public Radio invited me to be a guest on the June installment of Bright Ideas: Fresh Thoughts on Big Issues, hosted by reporter Stephen Smith. We taped the hour-long show in front of a live audience at the MPR Forum in St. Paul. The discussion was lively and wide-ranging with a focus on design for social value and other new ways that designers are working. Check out the video of the show posted here.

I had the rare privilege to deliver the commencement address recently at the College of Visual Arts in St. Paul, Minnesota. In preparing these remarks, I asked my Facebook friends to contribute advice and words of wisdom. The response I got was overwhelming! Thanks to all who contributed—I couldn’t possibly include all the comments, but please know that the collective whole had a tremendous influence on these words.

To the members of the faculty and administration; my former colleagues on the CVA board; parents, friends and family members; and of course today’s graduates of CVA, it is my humble honor to be with you today to help celebrate this remarkable life moment and impressive achievement. The honor I feel is compounded by the deep connection I have to this school, which began more than 15 years ago when my good friend John DuFresne called me to say that he had just taken the position of chair of the design department at CVA and would I be interested in joining the adjunct faculty and teaching typography. Serving on the faculty for those three years was energizing, and it cemented my connection to this school. In the years that followed, my kids attended summer programs at CVA, I served on the board of trustees, I have helped to plan the CVA Leaders of Design program for the last several years, and my brother Andy is a long time member of the illustration faculty here. Indeed the Powell family roots at CVA run deep and strong.

Recently CVA has helped connect me to an experience I had long forgotten. On occasional Saturday afternoons I’ve been quietly sliding into the CVA studio building on Selby and Grotto for the weekly open figure drawing session. Before I began doing this I had not made a piece of art purely for the fun of it in probably 20 years. I had completely forgotten the sheer joy of transforming a blank sheet of paper into…well, in my case, a sheet of paper with a bunch of scratchy marks all over it. For me this is a mesmerizing activity through which I’ve rediscovered why I became a designer in the first place—the pure thrill of making art just for the fun of it.

I come to you today from several distinct points of view. First and foremost, I am a working designer with an independent practice focusing on design for healthcare. I am also the president of AIGA the professional association for design, a nearly 100 year old organization with 22,000 members in 66 local chapters and over 200 student groups, including one right here at CVA. Finally I am a parent of two amazingly talented young adults; our son Zev has just completed his sophomore year at Washington University in St. Louis, and our daughter Maya will be starting her own art and design education next fall as a freshman at Maryland Institute College of Art in Baltimore. So as I prepared my remarks for today, I was thinking about this palpable milestone through each of these three lenses.

It is a remarkable time to be entering the world empowered with the skills of that an art and design education builds. Terms like “design thinking,” “innovation,” and “creative problem solving” are now commonly used in even the most traditional quarters of business and government. When my wife Lisa and I graduated from art school nearly a quarter century ago, the essential question on our minds was “how are we going to make a career out of this?” While I don’t want to dismiss the significance of that important question, and the subsequent answers prompted by it, it strikes me that the essential question facing today’s generation, and this class of graduating artists and designers is something quite different.

Our country and world are faced with challenges of an almost unthinkable scale. In virtually every aspect of society—from healthcare to the economy, politics to the environment—we are broken. The leaders who have been trying to fix these massive problems are running out of ideas and are looking for help. I believe artists and designers—creative thinkers—are uniquely qualified to contribute meaningful answers to these critical social questions. But wait, creative thinkers can make a meaningful difference? How could that possibly be? As Amanda said earlier in her excellent valedictorian speech, “we are the weirdos.” We’re the quirky, flaky outcasts who hang out on the edges of society, how could we possibly have something meaningful to contribute? Let me make the case for you with three points:

First, when the traditional leaders of business, academia, or government address these big issues, they are trying to find the shortest line between problem and the solution. They are trying to be as efficient as possible. They are trying to eliminate risk. Creative thinkers, on the other hand, embrace risk, because we know that by embracing risk we will find truly surprising and innovative ideas.

Second, creative thinkers are experts at making the confusing clear. One of the basic skills we learn in a school like CVA is how to push our ideas beyond the obvious, we constantly refine, synthesize, and clarify. The result of this process is creative solutions that resonate.

And third, the quality that is absolutely central to our work—whether we are fine artists, illustrators, photographers or designers—is a quality that is so often ignored by other disciplines. That quality is empathy; the ability to identify on a purely human level with the audience, the user. We know them. We understand them. And we are their advocate.

Risk. Clarity. And empathy. These three qualities are so absent in our world today. These are the qualities that creative thinkers will always bring.

My own journey as a creative thinker has informed my ideas on this topic. Nearly ten years ago, after Lisa and I had run our design business for more than a decade, our daughter Maya was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes. This was a life changing experience, and an enormous challenge for our entire family, and in the process Lisa and I discovered a glaring need for kid-friendly, visually oriented tools for kids and families living with this disease. Using the skills that we learned in art school, we responded to this need by developing a set of design-driven learning tools, which we eventually built into a successful business called HealthSimple. Had Lisa and I been encountered with this challenge without the skills we developed in art school and over the subsequent years as professional designers, we might have recognized the glaring need, but we would not have had the skills to find a creative, innovative, and human-centered solution that we did.

In my role as AIGA president I’ve spent the last year traveling around the country visiting communities where designers are making a difference. In Birmingham, AL, Hartford, CT, Grand Rapids, MI, Savannah, GA, and right here in the Twin Cities, designers are engaged with local community leaders using the creative process to develop surprising and innovative solutions to issues as wide ranging as improving the water quality of a polluted river system in central AL, to helping Somalian immigrants integrate more successfully into their new neighborhoods just across the river in Minneapolis. In each of these communities we are making the case that this approach is more than just a novelty; that the creative process is an important method that can lead to real results—and not just to create cool posters, logos, and pieces of public art, but to address the core issues of these complex problems. Creative thinkers are emerging as leading figures in this new movement.

Just last week I had the opportunity to sit across the table from Dr. Howard Koh, the U.S. Assistant Secretary of Health—one of the highest-ranking public health officials in the country—to talk to him about how design and designers can help Americans live healthier lives. It was an amazing experience, but you what amazed me most about it? Dr. Koh did not need to be convinced of the power of design. He already knew. Indeed it is a remarkable time to be a creative thinker.

So it occurs to me that the essential question facing those of you graduating today is this: How can I apply my skills as a creative thinker—those skills that I have learned in my years here at CVA—to make a meaningful difference in the world around me? Your opportunity to make a difference is massive. And your potential to improve the human condition is epic. I believe this generation of creative thinkers—your generation of artists and designers—will change the world.

OK, that was all very serious, so let’s mix this up a bit. All of the online tips for how to write a commencement address tell you that the formula for a successful address includes a section that is serious and aspirational, and then a section that is filled with advice and wisdom. Add in some witty anecdotes and you are pretty much good to go. So I just finished the serious and aspirational section and now I’m going to get into the wisdom and advice. So where does a commencement speaker turn to find wisdom and advice? Yes, of course, Facebook.

Last week I posted the question to my Facebook friends of what advice they would offer to an audience of talented young people on the doorstep of their life as creative professionals, and here are a few of the responses I got:

  • (Nick Zdon) The best part of being a ‘creative’ is not being rich.
  • (Michael Vanderbyl) Design is not a job it is a lifestyle. You will spend the rest of your life caring passionately about things others cannot see…and that’s a good thing.
  • (John Moe via Meghan Wilker via Twitter) Young People: When you become an adult, pretend that you know what you’re doing. That’s what ALL OF US ARE DOING.
  • (Bruce Johnson) Mitt Romney says they should borrow money from their parents.
  • (William Roberts) Make sure to keep a small bottle of scotch in the work desk drawer. You’re gonna need it.

I asked my dad if he had any advice to offer. Those parents in the audience can probably identify with the sheer horror my parents faced when they found themselves with not one but two kids in art school. At the same time! So, Dave Powell has this advice: “Tell them to get a job.” (pause) “No really, tell them not to get discouraged by what they read in the newspapers or hear on TV about the job market. There are opportunities out there and they have to be aggressive in searching them out. Also, their first opportunity might not be the perfect or dream job, but it adds to their qualifications until something better comes along.”

I didn’t have the heart to tell my dad that this generation doesn’t read newspapers or watch TV. I asked him why he never gave me that advice and he said “You never asked.”

I want to add one piece of advice of my own to this list, and it actually comes from some of the Facebook comments I got along with some really interesting conversations I’ve had recently. It’s about the importance of relationships and collaboration in the creative process. Amanda and Laura both spoke with great spirit about the incredible connections you’ve all shared in your years at CVA. Clearly those connections have been a huge part of your experience here. Yet when we get into creative profession, many of us have a tendency to be loners. We work in isolation, and we separate ourselves from things and people who might surprise us or challenge us. Somehow we forget that surprise and challenge can also inspire, enrich and elevate our work. I have had the incredible good fortune to have a partner in life and work and design who always surprises me, who relentlessly challenges me, who enriches and inspires me every day. And who has elevated my work to a level I never thought possible.

So, College of Visual Arts class of 2012, congratulations! You will do amazing things. And remember, when you need a break from saving the world, grab your sketchbook and stop by the Grotto building some Saturday afternoon and we’ll make art together—just for the fun of it.

Thank you.

Poster design by @DavidAirey

Once again the Twitter-sphere is crackling over a controversial spec work story—this time originating from a somewhat surprising source: the Obama election campaign. The campaign posted a call for “poster submissions from artists across the country illustrating why we support President Obama’s plan to create jobs now, and why we’ll re-elect him to continue fighting for jobs for the next four years.” The irony here is rich.

Clearly this is an ethical misstep by the Obama campaign, but one that seems borne from ignorance rather than malice. As with other recent examples like the Huffington Post logo competition, I tend to favor the rhetoric of opportunity rather than the rhetoric of shame. I would encourage the campaign to view this moment as an opportunity to connect with an important constituency—the community of professional designers—and engage in a healthy dialogue about the value of design and the importance of strong, mutually beneficial professional relationships (not to mention paying jobs). Likewise, designers should seize the opportunity to sharpen our articulation of the value of what we do and to reconnect with our own networks using this as a living case study.

AIGA has a clear position on the issue of spec work that states that professional designers should be compensated fairly for their work. However, I also believe that designers must be careful to focus on the value of design rather than getting distracted by a debate about the evils of crowdsourcing and social media. These forces are here to stay, and this is a battle we will never win.

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