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Creativity and the business of social innovation.

In Defense of Design Imperialism

Is the local model the only way to meaningfully engage in social-impact initatives?

Bruce Nussbaum kicked off a very worthwhile debate with his recent post on “design imperialism” over at Fast Company. Unfortunately, he picked the wrong target. To Emily Pilloton's credit, she has been grappling with this issue for some time. I was fortunate to get to know her as part of the PopTech Fellows program last October, and we discussed this very topic. A young designer, she has made a strong connection with a specific community in North Carolina and has the opportunity to introduce some meaningful collaborations there. But she has also launched Project H and Design Revolution, which have become rallying points for young designers throughout the world. Should she follow a path toward global change or local impact? And what are the implications of this tradeoff for other designers and design firms?

You have probably already read Pilloton’s strong response at Fast Company. To her credit, and despite the PR frenzy around her social-change organization, Project H, she has made a strong personal decision to stay focused on a design space that she is deeply committed to (education) and has embedded herself directly in a small community (Bertie County, North Carolina) to see this work through at a local level. Is this the same as being a “native” designer — i.e., a designer born and raised in Bertie? I am not going to touch that one. Ultimately, it is up to Pilloton to show that her commitment produces a meaningful difference for the community she is working with. That is what matters, and it is much too soon to tell. Unfortunately, one of the severe drawbacks of the new “Design Revolution” is that both the media and the design community tend to celebrate these achievements way too early. A lesson that Pilloton has learned the hard way.

But back to the larger question: Is the local model the only way to meaningfully engage in social-impact initiatives, as Nussbaum suggests? Are American designers who want to have an impact on global issues in emerging markets kidding themselves? And what about designers at larger firms like frog? Do we need to give up our jobs and move to a southern state to have an impact?

This is a question that I have wrestled with personally and professionally in helping shape frog's investments in social impact. Do I stand by our work in South Africa for Project Masiluleke? Am I looking for other global partners to work with? The answer is, yes! But here is how we try to avoid the pitfalls that Nussbaum referred to in his original post:

Global Engagement
First, we are a global company. This may seem like an easy answer. But the world has changed and we are constantly asked to look at opportunities to design products and services for different markets, like China (where we have an established studio) and Mexico City (where we do not). As part of these efforts, we have built up a considerable design research practice. This work constantly reminds us of the commonalities and differences in human needs and behavior, particularly in how people use technology around the world. It is not an easy process. But it is necessary to our design research offering, both in our commercial and social-impact work.

Global Technologies

Second, we have chosen to focus our social-impact initiatives around mobile technologies. These technologies are driving enormous change in the way people communicate around the world in every aspect of social life. To some degree, these technologies are reducing local differences (yes, they also buy ringtones in Soweto). But emerging uses are still a powerful reflection of local beliefs and norms. In our experience, technological advances can be successfully leveraged and adapted in partnership with local communities, as we have seen in the work by UNICEF and others. Platforms like RapidSMS have enormous potential for local application. But these adaptations also have a great potential to go “global” and create broader value in other communities. Mobile technologies can be deployed and iterated rapidly both within a local context and remotely, creating opportunities for collaborations that never existed before (see the Map Kibera Project or read Merrick Schaefer's blog on Project Mwana).

Local Partners
Probably the most critical element of our efforts is selecting the right partners. All of our projects rely on a diverse group of affiliates, some local and some with global reach (as Cameron Sinclair highlights in his recent response to the design imperialism charge). These partners are the lifeblood of our collaborations. We count on them to understand how to build a layer of trust within local communities, as iTeach has done in Edendale. We also count on them to sustain a rich, collaborative design process, even though they have so many demands on their time.

No Silver Bullets
In our social-impact work we are not looking for a silver bullet, to invent something new (like the maligned LifeStraw) that never existed before and will instantly transform people's lives. Rather, we are looking to help magnify the scale and impact of many different, small ideas to improve the “design” of these initiatives so that they work better and work better together. In the process, we turn local participants, such as community organizers, into design researchers of a sort, able to see new opportunities differently and adapt their skills to drive a collaborative process.

Sustained Commitment
The most destructive misperception about design for impact is the notion of “design thinking” as a magic elixir that can be sprinkled on anything. While design tools and methods can be a great way to kick-start new thinking, most of the value is in the follow-through. Unfortunately, designers can't just show up for a work session or two and sketch on some Post-it notes and have any impact on a major social issue. Each initiative requires a sustained commitment that is easily underestimated. This is another reason why working local is not just honorable but immensely practical.

Given the level of effort required to see these initiatives through, it is important to establish a focus and stick with it. Whether you are working locally or globally, the issues are not easily understood and the solutions don’t just magically appear. Most issues are highly interconnected. Meaningful impact is driven by an interplay of products, services and partners that takes time to mature. So impact usually comes through focused efforts and sustained commitments.

In our own practice, this focus has been around mobile technology. I believe that these are areas where we can help magnify the impact of local partnerships as well as play a larger role in helping them spread globally. But this is obviously only one approach, and others are making their own areas of expertise a basis for creating programs of large-scale social impact. We need all these efforts. After all, we don't want these ideas to remain local forever, do we?

This article originally appeared on Design Observer/Change Observer
Details from drawing made by Alphachimp Studio during a 2005 Pop Tech panel conversation on Africa


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.