Why Careers in Social Design Are Hard to Achieve

Socially responsible design is a whole lot harder than it looks.

Unless you’ve been living in Cathay Pacific’s first-class lounge at Hong Kong Airport and reading nothing but Agatha Christie novels, you may have noticed that more architects and designers than ever are working to save the world. They want to contribute not just to a healthy economy but also to a clean, well-regulated environment and peaceful society. And they’re beating multiple paths to those ambitions: forming nonprofit companies or partaking in corporate social-responsibility initiatives, mobilizing students, partnering with NGOs, applying for foundation grants, and participating in competitions trolling for innovative ideas. They’re even moonlighting in their studios, designing emergency shelters, water purifiers, public-awareness campaigns, sustainably sourced fashion, and solar-powered stoves.

Are they spinning their wheels?

“While nearly all of this work is well-intentioned, almost none of it amounts to anything concrete,” points out a magazine editor I know, who may be dazed by the number of do-gooder projects pouring into his inbox. “Why is there such a disconnect between the countless schemes of these designers and … well, to put it bluntly, real results? What has to happen to get the ratio of good intentions to completed projects to a more game-changing one?”

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The roots to these answers are deep and hairy. They depend on the Jesuitical parsing of words like success, which can be defined quite differently depending on whose perspective you’re considering: designer, funder, recipient. Even design takes on semantic complexity in the social-change arena. “Half of success is determined before anybody picks up a pencil to sketch,” says Mariana Amatullo, director of Designmatters, a department of Art Center College of Design that undertakes social-change initiatives. She’s referring to the network of relationships that must be built for projects launched from outside a community to have a hope in hell.

An obvious reason we see utopian design schemes going nowhere is because of the sheer number of schemers, many of whom took on pro bono work when paying jobs dried up in this miserable economy. According to David Stairs, executive director of the nonprofit Designers Without Borders, social design is “like what they say about the food-service industry: easy to get into, hard to succeed at.”

Each social-design category—foreign versus domestic, disaster versus development—has its own challenges and criteria for success. Humanitarian designers working overseas must examine new sets of conditions and values and lay the foundation for projects that can support themselves (donation dollars last only so long). Those who provide emergency relief are concerned with the collapse of physical and social infrastructures. Keeping a family dry, fed, and disease-free amid the frequent lawlessness of a disaster site constitutes success in that realm, though it might not be credited as a great leap forward in social design.

The field is flooded with kindhearted, creative people. But the very circumstances that have brought out designers’ charitable impulses—a global economic meltdown, a chain of environmental and social catastrophes—have also drained capital from causes. Funding has become ferociously competitive, and designers who hope to find the resources to implement a project must win the confidence of their donors, usually by having already launched self-sustaining programs.

For Stairs, who founded DWB in 2001 and estimates its success rate at 10 percent, the support given to ambitious undertakings at the exclusion of modest projects is unreasonable. “You can succeed on a very small scale,” he says. “My idea of a small success is just delivering knowledge or equipment to a group of students at an African university.”

Measured that way, the progress of social-design projects is vastly underreported. “You’ll stumble into a village and find the amazing story of a sixteen-year-old who’s invented a washing machine out of bicycle parts,” says Cameron Sinclair, cofounder of Architecture for Humanity. “How come no one knows about it? Our metrics are so wrong about social change.”

Sinclair points out that humanitarian design is held to a higher standard of accomplishment than commercial work: “For-profit companies are constantly doing speculative projects, entering competitions, and having employees and interns work late nights on projects that won’t get built.” Like Stairs, he believes that chasing dollars from foundations can undermine a small organization’s productivity. AFH was launched in 1999 with a staff of two: Cameron Sinclair and Kate Stohr, a former journalist. “Up until 2004, our annual budget was in the range of $2,000 to $10,000,” he says. “Just to fly to present to a foundation, put yourself up at a hotel, plus time spent getting the grant proposal together—you’re looking at fifty percent admin expenses on your entire annual budget.”

Cameron’s solution was to diversify funding sources. “I get a lot of stick for asking for compensation for my speaking, but that actually covers all the executive-level salaries,” he says. For the first five years, during which AFH worked on one project per year, Sinclair estimated a success rate of 50 percent. The organization currently bankrolls a staff of 40 and runs projects in 16 countries. In 2009 it reported net assets of $2.6 million; it used $2.2 million on programming and the rest on administrative and fund-raising expenses. The current success rate is 70 to 75 percent, Sinclair says.

Amatullo agrees that a lack of techniques and standards for evaluating projects, along with a dearth of archives where noteworthy examples could be vetted and collected, distorts the picture of accomplishment. “There are a lot of success stories that remain in pockets of isolation,” she says. “Even when they succeed, there’s a lack of infrastructure and fund-ing to make sure you can replicate these good practices. Getting to scale is difficult.”

Scale is the Holy Grail. Funders (and the media) tend to judge a project’s success not by the comfort and enlightenment it brings to a few people but by the number of lives it touches. This attitude is detrimental to small endeavors starving for support, and at times it also hurts more ambitious ones that get healthy funding. “If anyone enters the social-change space with anything prescriptive, I know it’s bullshit,” declares Lee Davis, CEO of NESsT, a nonprofit that helps social-change organizations sustain themselves through bank loans, venture capital, and IPOs. “You understand when your funder has limited money and wants to see systemic change, but effective solutions are not about that.” Some projects, Davis insists, need to be small—indigenous crafts, for example, don’t always fare well in a global market, which might demand that materials and manufacturing processes be altered so substantially as to strip the goods of their beauty and authenticity.

According to many observers, it was the rush to scale that doomed the PlayPump, a circular water pump that rotates like a merry-go-round. This media darling, extolled by the likes of CNN and National Geographic for supplying villagers in sub-Saharan Africa with water while amusing their children, attracted $16 million in U.S. government and private investment in a plan to roll out 4,000 of the pumps. As revealed in a June 2010 Frontline documentary, however, they were often difficult for village women to operate. And when they broke down, they languished in the absence of anyone to service them. “By the time they’d scaled, they should have been on version six,” Sinclair says. “But they took version one and scaled it. It’s the story of when success hits growth.”

Money and appropriate size is important, but if a project is going to take root, designers say, nothing is as crucial as collaborating with the target community. This means everyone from local government and business leaders to end users. And even the most diligent efforts won’t guarantee success in understanding the complicated ecosystems of people in need. Stairs recalled that artesian wells dug in the 1980s in Somalia provoked clan warfare. Sinclair described an AFH program to start a baking cooperative operated by widows of tsunami victims in eastern Sri Lanka; the organization worked diligently with the widows to develop the business plan, financing, and facility but was forced to cancel the project when the women began to receive death threats from a mobster running the local baking monopoly.

Emeka Okafor, an entrepreneur who founded Maker Faire Africa in 2009 as a meeting ground for the continent’s innovators, notes that the simple act of seeking information in the developing world is easily compromised. The questioners are often perceived as elites who confer special advantages on those they tap for answers. They believe they’re hearing “unvarnished, objective, candid feedback,” when in reality their subjects are tailoring responses to “what they think they want to hear,” Okafor says.

Of course, there are success stories that no Frontline documentary is likely to debunk. Safe Agua, a program Designmatters established to make it easier for Chilean slum dwellers to get water, is implementing a community laundry center and shower system designed by Art Center students from local, off-the-shelf materials. None of this would have happened without input from Un Techo Para Mi País, a Santiago-based charitable organization. “Because that NGO has a strong hold in the community, there was a lot of trust,” Amatullo says. “And then they have access to corporate and government partners at the highest level.”

Famine, drought, disease, pollution, violence, ignorance—such problems are systemic and so seemingly intractable that social planners have described them as “wicked.” Designers, who traditionally operate at the point where object (or communication) meets user, lack the training for this grinding realm of competing interests and entrenched behaviors—an arena where expertise includes the ability to influence policy through delicate negotiations. Is it any wonder that designers’ brave attempts to venture into the social space often lead to heartbreak?

“People have great intentions, and they don’t realize how hard this work is and how much management it takes to make it successful,” Amatullo says. “It’s not enough to have a brilliant idea and design a great product or campaign if you’re not, every step of the way, figuring out the touch points to evaluate and then testing them to make sure it’s going to fly and be owned by the community. It takes patience and skill and diplomacy. This is what we have to start teaching our students.”

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