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.

FullSizeRender (1).jpg

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. 


A Vision for a New Type of Leader

The world’s most challenging problems demand a new type of leader.


The grand challenges of today are just that – they are grand. They are complex, interconnected, and multifaceted. Education, for example, is not only an education challenge – education is a challenge of healthcare, of equality, of infrastructure, of empowerment. These grand challenges are deeply rooted in cultural norms and values, compounded by the complexities and richness of human behaviour, and often don’t fit our existing understanding and simplified models of the world.

We must, then, address these challenges with approaches that are just as dynamic and integrated as the challenges themselves.

Today, we leave the responsibility of these challenges to leaders from silo-ed industries. We ask urban planners for housing solutions to accommodate the projected growth in urban population. We ask engineers for energy and water infrastructure in rural communities, or for software and technology that will scale access to education. We ask business leaders for ways to bring insurance and micro-credit to those that need it most. Along the way, we leave many questions unanswered for lack of an identifiable field to take leadership. We forget that these challenges are not challenges in silo. These challenges require cross-disciplinary thinking. We need leaders who can work across disciplines, who know about science and technology, about business and political science, about behavioral sciences and development economics.

It is by building an understanding across these disciplines that we can broaden the set of questions we are asking and deepen our understanding of the whole system. Often, we simplify the challenges we are designing for too early – reducing them in complexity on the surface, and neglecting the connections of the challenge to the system around it.  On our current project with the Designers of Tomorrow Fellowship, for example, we are asking how we might reduce the time women spend on unpaid house work – in this case, it is not enough to simply bring a laundry machine to the community – we must also consider cultural and societal norms, we must question if appropriate opportunities exist for women to take up alternative activities when they have the extra time, and we must consider the use and impact of new technologies, such as the laundry machine, on the environmental health of the communities. It is, then, through this systems level understanding of the challenge, that we can truly frame up an appropriate problem statement to design for.

We also need to equip leaders with creative, iterative, and participatory approaches to design. Many of our social impact efforts today go wasted and solutions left unadopted. Too often, in our attempts to design solutions that are scalable, beautiful, technically innovative, or viable within a predefined scope and budget, we forget that we are designing for people. In recent years, the design industry has made significant progress in highlighting the importance of putting humans at the center of our designs – coining the terms Human Centered Design, and Design Thinking. The design thinking methodology encourages us to bring people into the center of the design process, to start with empathy and immersion in local context, and to validate and iterate on designs until they truly meet the needs of the people we’re designing for.

It is not enough, however, to expose this new breed of leader to design thinking approaches and mindsets. We need to train them in the new areas of study required to effectively apply these approaches. As Don Norman highlights, “The new areas are more like applied social and behavioral sciences and require understanding of human cognition and emotion, sensory and motor systems, and sufficient knowledge of the scientific method, statistics and experimental design so that designers can perform valid, legitimate tests of their ideas before deploying them.”  There is significant work that needs to be done on tailoring the lessons from these fields into the context of design. At the same time, we must create space and opportunity for these leaders to practice living the mindsets this approach requires.

In our quest to accelerate positive change in underserved communities around the world, social impact leaders will need to pair these critical skills and experiences with a change in consciousness. We must start with the recognition that we are not outside the systems that we are designing for. As Kathia Laszlo puts it, it’s about making the jump from “systems thinking to systems being” – seeing that we are all connected to one another, and that our everyday actions add up to be just as important as our grand vision of the future. Our new leaders must embrace the courage and humility it takes to recognize that change starts with individual action.


Grand challenges demand grand leadership. My vision for us  – the designers and social impact leaders of tomorrow – is access to a field of study that is uniquely designed to incorporate creative, iterative, and participatory problem solving approaches with the rigour and grounding of theory from an integrated set of disciplines. A field of study that teaches the ability to understand and navigate systems level connections, and creates the space and opportunity to practice moral leadership.  

It’s exciting to see many leaders in industry already working to make this vision a reality – we are starting to question the role designers play in society, the importance of leadership that is grounded in empathy and humility, the way design education is structured today, and the need for collaboration and integration of traditionally separate disciplines.

The DOT project is a contribution to this vision, experimenting with a learning platform  focused on: creating the opportunity to immerse, developing exercises/assignments designed for perspective building, building a multi-disciplinary community, working on real projects, and placing emphasis on exploring potential and practicing moral leadership.

The work is far from finished. It’s up to us to come together – engineers, business leaders, policy makers, social scientists, and designers – to define a new integrated discipline for the leaders of tomorrow.