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5 Skills You Need to Make Positive Impact

August 19, 2015

“If we can’t make any difference in the world, then what are we doing here?” asks Susan S. Szenasy, the candid and perceptive Editor-in-Chief and Publisher of Metropolis who has become known for such provocative statements. For nearly thirty years, Susan has driven and grown the discourse (and advocacy) on ethics in contemporary architecture and design. Through writing, speaking, and teaching, she has demonstrated that the way in which designers make positive change in the world requires skills beyond those acquired through traditional design training. “Skills that are more human and cultural skills are important… because the questions are much more complex now, and the answers are much more fine-grained and well-documented than ever before.”

Susan learned the importance of social skills during her childhood in the 1950s postwar Hungary when family and community relationships were a source of strength and empowerment. In Design Advocate, a collection of her writings and talks, she recounted life under Communism when the state had seized all private property and seemingly everything was lost. She remembers the community persevering, against all odds. “There were these collective libraries around the village, where everybody gave books to each other, so everybody could read… I was struck by this, fascinated to hear how things happened [around the world], how people behaved, and how you can understand the world through a story.”

Design Advocate Cover

When the book’s designer, Paula Scher, saw this picture, taken just months before the Hungarian Revolution of the “young pioneer” with her obligatory red scarf, she decided to put it on the book’s cover to show the author’s steely determination.

Storytelling became Susan’s most valuable skill, which she began cultivating at the early age of 11. The Szenasy family immigrated to New Brunswick, New Jersey in the late 1950s after her father’s name had erroneously appeared on a list of instigators of the 1956 revolution in Hungary. In her journal, Susan collected a verbal and visual record of her grand journey from an impoverished landscape to a thriving one in Austria, the first step of the family’s journey to America. “I would always write down what I saw, whether it was the mountains in Salzburg, the apple I ate, a storefront, the first really good pair of shoes I owned, or whatever it was. That little book [lost somewhere in the shuffle] did more than anything else to bring it all together. But I had not thought then that was what my life would be about,” she recalled.

Decades after her first, fateful journal, Susan continues to write about what she observes and experiences in the world from an inquisitive and straightforward point of view. When first approached to lead the editorship at Metropolis in 1985, she saw the potential to “focus on the most complex human endeavor on earth, the metropolis” and “explore design, culture, talent, people, creativity, materials, policy, everything.” This 30-year-long journey has allowed her to dive into and share the many scales, layers and implications of design, from the passing of the Americans with Disabilities Act and rebuilding after 9-11, to the rise of environmentalism, computer-aided design and growing awareness of social impact design.

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The human- and environment-centered movement that we are currently experiencing in the design field has huge potential to make the world more equitable for everyone, yet “it’s not going fast enough for me,” said Susan in a recent interview with Impact Design Hub. “We have to now ask, ‘Can we do this cultural shift quicker and more dramatically?’ because we need to have this change occur as soon as possible.”

It’s a tall order but she adamantly believes that there are specific skills that designers can cultivate to help make the change we all want to see. From experiences and knowledge acquired throughout her storied career, Susan recommends the five following skills to give you a solid base from which to make much-needed positive change—all of which tend to fall slightly outside of traditional design training, but are critical for practicing impact design.

1. Understanding and communicating with diverse clients and cultures.

The nature of working in different communities requires “fine grained human behaviors that need to be relearned,” recommended Susan. How do you establish credibility in new places? It comes down to being good at communicating and making interpersonal connections, which escalates when paired with a pursuit to understand new cultures. The Via Verde housing development in the Bronx, New York is a shining example of communication gone well with a multitude of diverse stakeholders. Born out of two international competitions, the project successfully created a new community by keeping the residents central to—and part of—the discussion throughout the design process.

2. Visualizing and revealing complex processes.

Along with verbal and interpersonal communication comes a skill in visually conveying processes in a digestible and aesthetically appealing manner. “A designer comes at [a project] with an aesthetic that makes you pay attention in to it,” Susan said. This is especially valuable for projects that include mundane or “un-sexy” topics. Two young women in Las Vegas are doing this by making water infrastructure visible to residents so everyone can understand the implications and importance of their individual actions on the city’s water supply. The Center for Urban Pedagogy’s Making Policy Public program is another shining example of using graphic and communications design to better explain complex policy issues in New York City.

3. Systems-level thinking and evaluation.

In the past twenty years, designers have made huge strides in the ability to measure environmental consequences of their designs. In order to make positive social transformations, we need to incorporate thinking about and evaluating “the human cause.” What are the working conditions for people making products and buildings? What’s the effect on a person who makes a dollar a day and is part of the production of a product or building? “We know what to ask,” said Susan. “We are just beginning to understand that we have to do more than ask—we have to be proactive.” In recent years, the Middle East has been in the spotlight for unsafe and inhumane construction conditions, particularly on high profile buildings. For the Guggenheim in Abu Dhabi, Gehry Partners has been working with a human rights lawyer and the UAE government on improving conditions for construction workers on the site, showing a step in taking a stand for a moral responsibility—even if it’s not written into law.

4. Adaptive and iterative designing.

Long gone are the days of ‘designer knows best.’ Observing and testing the use of a space or product are essential to achieve human-centered design. “You don’t go there and straighten out the desk… you go and observe what [the users] do with the space so that you can give them the next phase of design,” advised Susan. This skill requires patience, flexibility and humility that designs are ever-changing, which Studio Huss noted in their video and Better Shelter reiterated at What Design Can Do!.

5. Storytelling.

“What creates a cultural shift but a steady stream of information,” stated expert storyteller Susan. “Solid and, I hate to say, sexy information because you have to have an idea that people are attracted to.” Storytelling – through videos, social media, writing, speaking, and podcasting – is the way to garner attention and make the big cultural shift needed. There are spokespeople for socially responsible design like Brad Pitt but “that’s not the model leader.” Instead, storytelling and media need to come from a grassroots model where people in leadership positions within communities wanting to make change are part of the efforts. bcWORKSHOP partnered with community leaders from Dallas’s Pleasant Grove neighborhood to bring attention to the illegal dump that plagued residents for decades. Out of Deepwood documents the efforts of the residents, lawyers, and US district judge to have the dump recognized as illegal and recovered by the city for public use. Without the residents commitment to the wellbeing of their neighborhood and bcWORKSHOP’s commitment to telling their story, many people would not be aware of such an important story.

Impact designers are always striving to push the boundaries to activate positive change. Equipped with these five skills, designers will be able to work better with communities to create truly sustainable places that are healthy for humans and nature. And, according to Susan, everyone will be able to reach self-fulfillment. “I really do believe there’s a reason why we’re here… You want to be part of something bigger than yourself.”

What other skills do you think are needed most to design impactfully? Tell us in the comments below!

Image sources: AzuKo.org, Susan Szenasy

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