We live (and work) in a world that is saturated with design and innovation, and not just on the shelves of the Apple store. The language of design and innovation is increasingly standard business parlance. Many designers are justifiably concerned with this over-saturation, as design seems to be losing its distinct meaning as a catalyst for creativity, provocation, and change. In the process, designers are at risk of becoming just another flavor of consultant.
That is why we jumped at the opportunity to place a team of frog designers in an environment in which design has no meaning at all, a collaboration with the Girl Effect to improve the lives of adolescent girls.
This collaboration revealed a new purpose for design as an essential set of skills to help communities to solve their own problems—and the Collective Action Toolkit was born. What follows is the path we took from our collaboration to creating and releasing this toolkit, which is available to download for free from frog.
DESIGN AS SKILL DEVELOPMENT
The stated goal of our collaboration with the Girl Effect was to develop a concept for a network that would connect and empower young girls throughout the world, particularly in emerging markets where they can be extremely isolated from each other with little possibility for advancement. Equally important was to develop an approach for co-designing with the girls, most of whom had never encountered a Post-It note in their lives, and who had never been asked to contribute their "ideas" to a team.
One of my favorite anecdotes from the project came from an ideation workshop we conducted in Bangladesh with a group of adolescent girl leaders and teachers. Some of the girls were struggling to understand what we were trying to accomplish with an activity, so one of our designers pulled some of the girls aside and drew a picture of a head and a storm cloud on the wall, complete with a lightning bolt. Brainstorming, i.e. the collaborative process of generating and sharing ideas, was new territory for many of them. No one had ever asked these girls for their "ideas" before, quite in this way.
How (and why) would you bring design into this environment? Surely, we can say that it was to make products, services, and platforms that better address the needs of girls. But, honestly, that is not an easy concept for a 14-year-old girl in Ethiopia to relate to. We needed to translate the design process into something that these girls would really care about—something meaningful and useful that provided immediate value, with our design goals playing a secondary role.
While working with groups of girls, we noticed how they naturally aligned around certain leaders, often slightly older girls with more confidence and skills. The younger girls would talk about how much they admired and wanted to be those girls. Building on this insight we asked ourselves, how could we turn the design process into something centered on skill development instead of concept generation? How could we make it a process in which the development and communication of ideas becomes a vehicle to teach inquiry, leadership, and problem solving to anyone?
GROUPS MAKE CHANGE
This insight led to "Explorer Training," where our team recast the design process as a form of training for groups of girls to solve problems, as well as take part in activities to build leadership skills. We found that this translation was quite natural in fact. Once you get past the jargon, it is not hard to see the design process in this light. But it required a significant shift in behavior from girls: to ask questions of senior members of the community, such as women business owners and artists, for example. The "Explorer Training" created a pretense, providing permission for them to step outside their normal roles.
We discovered that skill development does not happen in isolation. Girls model their behavior on the other girls around them. And stories take on added meaning as they are shared within groups. Groups have knowledge in ways that transcend and supersede the individual. The most powerful asset that girls have is their relationships, the bonds they create with each other. When skill development and leadership are seen in this light, it becomes clear that empowering girls means empowering groups.
In this context, the role of design moves away from understanding and empowering the individual consumer to connecting and supporting communities. (See my Fast Company blog post on the shared nature of creativity for more on this topic.) This move towards “community-centered design” represents a fundamental shift from 40+ years of commercial practice. But it is not without its own risks. Groups generally operate in dialogue, without enough “making” to surface knowledge and point to hypothetical solutions. “Making things” forces groups to better align, describe, and evolve the solutions that fit their communities, and leads to our mantra “Groups MAKE Change.”
DESIGN WITHOUT DESIGNERS
What started out as a story about individuals and empowerment turned into a new form of collective action—the Collective Action Toolkit (or CAT as we like to refer to it.) The Collective Action Toolkit (CAT) is a package of resources and activities that enable groups of people anywhere to organize, build trust, and collaboratively create solutions for problems impacting their community. The CAT empowers everyday people to create positive change in their communities. Created specifically for non-designers, the CAT encourages problem solving as a form of skill development, and it’s intended to help connect change-makers with the right tools and resources to be successful.
The toolkit provides a dynamic framework that integrates knowledge and action to solve challenges. Designed to harness the benefits of group action and the power of open sharing, the activities draw on each participant’s strengths and perspectives as the group works to accomplish a common goal.
As we developed this toolkit, the term “design,” as well as the role of designers, melted away. In fact, the frog CAT does not mention the word “design” at all. What's left is a collection of activities and exercises that communities can adopt and adapt on their own. The CAT isn’t a rigid template for problem solving. It's designed to be flexible and accessible, with an action map and activities arranged into six categories, from building a group, to imagining new ideas, to planning change. The toolkit challenges groups to move beyond discussion to action, continually clarifying their shared goals based on what they learn through the problem-solving process. The result is a holistic approach to help groups tackle issues in their communities.
The CAT is part of frog's commitment to investing in social impact. It reflects our philosophy that the design process must evolve to meet contemporary challenges, and that these tools should be open and accessible to everyone, regardless of their background or expertise. To that end, the CAT is designed to be shared globally, and to be built upon by communities and organizations.
As frog's Vice President of Creative, Robert Fabricant leads efforts to expand the impact of design into new markets and industries. An expert in design for social innovation, Robert is lead partner in Project Masiluleke, an initiative that harnesses the power of mobile technology to combat HIV and AIDS in South Africa. He is an adjunct professor at NYU's Tisch School of the Arts and is on the faculty of the School of Visual Arts in New York.