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Finding Your Path in Social Impact Design

March 18, 2015

This is the fourth post in the “Design for Equity” series. Read all articles in the series in the design for equity section.

The pursuit to challenge traditional notions about what designers do and who benefits from their work is not new. Whitney Young’s often quoted 1968 speech in which he admonished the architectural profession for its “thunderous silence” and “complete irrelevance” in the face of the civil rights movement also proclaimed a notion of hope in young people to rise to this challenge. Though much of the world has changed since 1968, Young’s faith in emerging designers to challenge the status quo still resonates.

Many entering built environment professions today have been armed with a vision of the design-expert whose distinct creativity and ingenuity will single-handedly transform the world one beautiful building at a time. The reality of practice quickly reveals the social, political, and cultural complexity of transforming our built environment in even the tiniest ways. This complexity is compounded wildly for those of us looking to practice what has been called public interest design, social impact design, or community design–the terminology for which still seems to come down to personal preference. The current climate of the field serves as an opportunity to challenge what it means to practice design and be a designer.


In our quest for impact-driven methods of practice we find that the heroic design-expert is of little use. The design challenges we face call for a more collective mode of practice and interdisciplinary view of design expertise. Those dreaming of a public interest design career today benefit from our predecessors’ work in expanding design practice into the domain of the community, but we also share the same burdens of pursuing a non-traditional career path and perpetually find ourselves outside of the traditional support systems our peers enjoy including clear trajectories to leadership, resource security and mentorship.

The typical avenues to this career path range from volunteer positions and temporary fellowships to existing small community design organizations to setting out on your own to start a new organization. Though these opportunities continue to grow, they remain out of reach for many who are unable to supplement their meager income, postpone benefits such as health insurance, saving for retirement, and job security, or just aren’t tapped into the networks to know such opportunities even exist. Even those of us who have had the privilege of accessing such opportunities (myself included) are often still left wondering what it all leads to. As enthusiasm for the public interest design field increasingly outnumbers the availability of these few sought-after positions, young professionals are seeking more diverse ways to gain a footing in its shifting landscape.

What is a “designer” anyway?

More and more young design professionals recognize a growing potential for impact by applying their skills in fields outside of what is traditionally considered “design”. They are finding their way through paths in education, program management, and international aid agencies, to name a few. This “dropout” has been a point of concern in the field of architecture as recently highlighted by the Missing 32% project, which in brief has brought awareness to the fact that many women leave the architectural profession within five years after graduation. With the evolution of more non-traditional pathways this dropout will likely continue until traditional notions of what it means to be a design practitioner catch up to the values young professionals hold today.

In a recent conversation with Kimberly Dowdell and Marcy Monroe, we spoke about the challenges of finding the value of design in our quest for a meaningful career. As a co-founder of the SEED Network and registered architect, Kimberly could solidly be considered “in” a design profession by all standards. Yet, in order to truly get at the impact she is looking to have she has forged into the world of real estate development and is working on a Masters of Public Administration at Harvard. This recent trajectory comes from Kimberly’s mission to be more strategic and focused on where her skills and experiences as a designer can have the most impact – which is not actually in the traditional notion of a design profession.

Likewise, Marcy Monroe recently graduated from University of California at Berkeley with a dual Masters in Architecture and City and Regional Planning, where she did extensive research on the role of the architect in disaster recovery around the world. She finds herself dancing between parallel professions and is struggling to identify where her experience, skills, and passions fit together. The path Marcy is pursuing could also very well be considered outside of what a design professional is seen to do by most demographic studies. To me, there is an inherent problem with how we identify “design professionals” if people like Kimberly and Marcy fall off the list.

Emerging professionals are also looking for ways to satisfy their desire for public interest practice without giving up on traditional design practices altogether. As corporate social responsibility considerations seep into the design professions there are growing opportunities for young professionals to do work they care about within the structure of traditional practice. Many of the behemoths in the architecture world are exploring their own version of a public interest design studio within their traditional models, such as Cannon Design’s Open Hand Studio, HOK Impact, and Perkins+WIll’s Social Responsibility Initiative. The potential for these modes of practice to trickle down to medium and smaller size firms could mean a drastic expansion of opportunities for young professionals to satisfy their public interest desires. However, the slower this trickle-down occurs the more we risk “losing” the passionate young professionals seeking ways to leverage their design talents for social impact.


But it’s not only the behemoths of the industry; many small and medium sized design firms are following suit and investing in research to identify opportunities for stakeholder involvement, social impact, and civic engagement to be a part of their design process. One example of this is my current work at Eskew+Dumez+Ripple under their 2014-2015 research fellowship. This annual fellowship is set up to infuse everyday practice with applied research on topics such as sustainability, resilience, community engagement, and health in the built environment. Through broad investigations and targeted deep dives, the fellowship allows a degree of experimentation for young designers to push the boundaries of traditional design practice.

Not surprisingly, I’ve found no easy answers to how community engagement can play a larger role in the design process. As Christine Gaspar and Liz Ogbu discussed in this post, this type of work is complicated by power dynamics, privilege and equity, which I continue to grapple with. Whether or not I find the “answer” I’m looking for is irrelevant to this discussion. The important thing is that firms like Eskew+Dumez+Ripple are interested in how the design process can influence and is influenced by factors outside of the traditional client-designer relationship.

What do we need now?

Growing concern for the relationship between designers and the communities they work in generates a need for more avenues to develop these relationships. As a field that values diversity and equity in its work, public interest design must also value the same principles in the opportunities its practitioners have available to them.

While people like Marcy Monroe, Kimberly Dowdell, and myself look for our place, we are increasingly discovering that being a designer isn’t quite enough to achieve our goals. As we struggle to imagine how our design skills can “work towards breaking down barriers and institutionalized injustice” as Theresa Hwang called for in this post, we also seek the networks of resources, mentors, and support to figure it all out. As emerging public interest practitioners work to build these networks, we find that the points where we stray the furthest from our “professional training” may very well be the points where we are figuring this out the most.


This became apparent to me in a conversation Marcy and I had the other day when I realized that–after five years of architecture school, one year of working for Architecture for Humanity, four years of traditional architectural practice, co-founding a non-profit, and becoming a registered architect–the closest I have been to understanding what kind of architect I want to be was when I went back to school for Community and Regional Planning. This exposure to life outside the property lines that so often barricade designers in their own world has enabled me to have a clearer understanding of how design skills are one of many levers we need to make a difference.

With an increase in enthusiasm for public interest professions also comes an expansion of the definition of practice and a need for a greater variety of pathways to demonstrate the relevance of design in impacting our greatest social challenges. The utility of counting who is inside and outside of a profession unravels when you consider the complexity of the problems we face.

Maybe it is time we consider a designer a designer whether or not they choose a traditional path of professional practice. Maybe it is time we promote opportunities to build design literacy in those who are already leaders in their community in other ways. Maybe it is time that we measure leadership by the capacity to collaborate and communicate across boundaries.

I will not speak for all emerging professionals in the field, but these are the traits I seek in a career as a public interest designer.

– Nicole Joslin

Do you have any examples of projects, people, or orgs that are designing for equity? We’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below!

Be sure to check back March 25th for the fifth feature article in this series – “Walking the Walk on Organizational Health” by Jess Garz, Jess Zimbabwe, and Christine Gaspar – or sign up for the IDH newsletter to have it delivered straight to your inbox!

Image sources:Katie Crepeau, Nicole Joslin, Matt Kleinmann

Quote: Whitney Young 1968 Speech to the AIA, Keynote address by the Executive Director of the National Urban League,


  1. Thank you for such a timely post. We are seeing the emergence of hybrid professionals: designers with backgrounds in social sciences and the public and social sectors and public and social sector professional trained in the design methods. We see this in the growing number of innovation hubs or labs in the public, social and humanitarian domain around the world. Also the latest expression of design activism is being accelerated by technology and the urgency of some the world’s biggest challenges. We need to work in multidisciplinary teams. More thoughts about on Design Activism:

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