Why Social Impact Leaders Need to Think Like Designers

// and why we must make a commitment to deepening the toolkits of Design Thinking


The essence of design lies in discovering a problem shared by many and trying to address it.

This quote by Kenya Hara so beautifully demonstrates how the fields of design and social impact have never been distinct. Design is so much more than creating a plan to address a problem – it is about the process of discovering the right question to address, and it is a process that originates in society. Today, in the field of social innovation, we need leaders who can employ the design way of thinking to identify the right problem to solve and creatively design solutions that address the needs of the people we are solving for.

The term Design Thinking refers to design as a way of thinking – a set of mindsets and abilities to approach complex problems. For me, the power of design thinking lies in the ability to solve problems in a way that is participatory, creative, and iterative.

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Design Thinking is especially powerful in the world of social impact. When applied well, these mindsets and abilities can help break down traditional boundaries across sectors – bringing together government, NGOs, and the private sector – to reduce duplicate efforts and amplify results. It also allows us to tap into the local wisdom to uncover local solutions that best fit local challenges. Through an iterative process, it allows for more long term impact, with solutions that will be accepted and adopted by the communities we design with.

In the last couple decades, the thought leaders in the field of design have made significant contributions to articulating the concepts of Design Thinking and broadening its applications to the world of business, and now to the world of social impact. Because Design Thinking is a way of thinking – a set of mindsets and abilities – it is a subject anyone can access and apply. Today, many tools, frameworks, and methods have been created to support these mindsets and encourage this way of thinking, including IDEO.org’s Design Kit, Frog’s Collective Action Toolkit, and LUMA’s handbook on Innovating for People, just to name a few.

In a very beautiful and simple way, these methods allow something as a deep as a mindset to be captured into something that can be practiced – this is powerful. However, we must remember that these are methods are only a beginner’s guide. As Carissa Carter puts it, “Unfortunately, the accessibility of design is often confused with shallow ease and many (most?) organizations that set out to incorporate it into their company culture struggle with adoption because of this fundamental misunderstanding of the rigor behind the subject.

Beyond the Beginner’s Guide

We must deepen and broaden our toolkits of applying design thinking. In particular, the challenges of equality, climate change, education, and global health require us to apply more rigorous and integrated approaches. I believe that thinking like a designer will amplify the impact we have. Tim Brown and Jocelyn Wyatt share some great case studies on the power of design thinking for social innovation here.

But using the toolkits available today at their surface level will not be enough – we need to deepen our understanding of the theory behind the methods. We need to question and challenge the methods we are using, adapting them for the contexts we are working in. We need broader recognition that the toolkits today are not the only answer but an introduction. We need more social impact specific case studies and examples to learn from – we need to share our work and open channels for dialogue.

A question I think a lot about is, Is Human-Centered Enough? Human-centered as a core design principle is so important and we must bring the human perspective into everything we do. But when we become only human-centered, do we miss something bigger? How might we incorporate systems level thinking into our work? What practices and tools allow us to better map the entire system – the needs and role of the human in connection to the needs of our planet, of other species, of future generations, of neighbouring communities?

Social impact leaders, in particular, must take on the responsibility to contribute to the definition of these new toolkits, and their applications to social innovation. 


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