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How to Get a Job in Impact Design

August 26, 2015

John Peterson, Founder and President of Public Architecture and recently appointed Curator of the Loeb Fellowship at the Harvard Graduate School of Design, has played a central role in the public interest design movement for over a decade. In a recent interview with Impact Design Hub’s Blaze Gonzalez and Gilad Meron, John shared his views on what the future of impact design looks like, where the jobs are and what skills designers will need to get those jobs. The video above scratches the surface of how to find a job in impact design and Gilad’s interview below takes a deeper dive into how John believes social impact design can be applied to any project, anywhere, by any firm, simply by analyzing six categories of impact.

Gilad Meron: Last year at Design Futures you gave a presentation about career paths in impact design. In particular, you spoke about what types of skills you thought students would need to find jobs in this field and you challenged them to think about alternative ways to gain those skills. What did you hope attendees would take away from that?

John Peterson: I could sense there was a lot of frustration and anxiety around the fact that there aren’t many jobs available in this field… it can be kind of paralyzing, people focused simply on that one question: where are the jobs? I really felt that was the wrong question. This field is too emergent to expect a tiered system of jobs and job tracks. It just doesn’t exist yet and you should stop waiting for it.

I was trying to tell people to relax a little bit and begin to realize that the lack of a clear job path is not actually a barrier to enter this line of work. There are lots of things that you can do, and maybe they’re not as conventional and not as obvious, but they’re very valuable and you can start heading in the direction that you want. It just may not look exactly the way you thought it was going to look or be all packaged up for you in a posted job description.

Opening your mind to different ways of thinking about what a career in this field looks like is important. There may not be jobs listings that ask for your exact experience, but there are likely lots of organizations that would value what you can offer. You’re likely going to have to do some convincing that they want what you have. It’s not for everybody; it can be challenging. This is the reality of where we are and you can be frustrated by it, or you can accept it and move forward.

John Peterson speaking about career paths in social impact design at Design Futures 2014 in New Orleans

GM: So what are the skills you need in order to move forward in this field?

JP: There’s a big variety. Being self-motivated is critical; you need to create the environment you want to work in. It also takes someone who is tolerant of risk and has a great deal of tenacity. It’s good to face the fact that some of this work will likely force you out of your comfort zone. There’s also a need for some patience; the willingness to roll with the lack of clarity, and even with contradictions at times.

GM: In terms of finding a job in public interest design, one thing you spoke about in particular was the choice of commercial social impact vs. mission-based clients. Can you explain that a bit more?

JP: Most of our work is going to fall in these two giant camps, and I don’t think the only option is to go work for mission-based clients. You can work for commercially driven clients and still have a huge impact. We should stop thinking that social impact only comes from working in war torn countries or designing homeless shelters. You don’t often hear someone say, “I’m trying to make that office building in suburban Alabama have a positive impact on the larger community,” but it can! Maybe it can positively affect the local public transportation system or improve the lives of low-income workers there.

The point is, not all social impact needs to serve a mission driven client; it should be more woven into practice as a whole, including commercial projects for fortune 500 companies… Of course, we should prioritize people who are in the greatest need, but as a profession we need a more expansive definition of what social impact is.

GM: So what is social impact then? How would you define it?

JP: I would say social impact, for designers of the built environment, can be lumped into six categories:

  1. Educational Inequity
  2. Community Engagement
  3. Economic Disparity
  4. Health Outcomes
  5. Human Rights
  6. Crime and Safety

We can pose these as six questions for every project, whether it’s a strip mall or an orphanage. (And of course we should also be talking about environmental impact, that’s probably number seven, but I think it’s useful to make the distinction between social and environmental impacts… although eventually these need to merge.)

These six categories are not necessarily the roadmap to social impact, but I think it would be valuable to start thinking about how to apply these things everywhere. If you do, then you begin to see that you can increase the  social impact of almost any project. Let’s stop thinking about social impact design as a project type and start thinking about it as a design approach.

GM: For people seeking a career in this field, it seems an important question is not only what type of impact you have, but also who is impacted – which people or communities are you having an impact on?

JP: You can have an impact on a wide variety of people and populations. As a young professional, you have to decide what is most meaningful and important to you: where do you want to have an impact and what types of outcomes do you want to see?

Social impact can happen on any project, and that’s the big sea change that we’re going to discover. This isn’t a crazy idea because we’ve seen it already with environmental sustainability. Twenty five years ago sustainable projects were granola-eating, solar-driven community centers or earthship homes. That was what a sustainable project looked like! Now whether it’s a parking garage or a senior center, sustainability is everywhere, and we need to get to that same place with social impact.

An earthship home in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

An earthship home in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

GM: So I notice you keep using the term social impact and in your presentation you mentioned needing to make a choice between social impact design and public interest design, can you explain the difference between the two?  

JP: Public interest design, as I understand it, was introduced as a term by Tom Fisher… He was proposing a separate discipline, like public health is separate from medicine, but within the architecture and design profession. That’s what public interest design is in my mind – a separate discipline. So if I want to be a public interest designer then that means I work for a firm or I work as an individual committed to work solely for the public’s interest; it’s a separate path.  

Social impact design, however, can be applied to anything, anywhere, on any project. A strip mall can have a social impact because of the way you design that strip mall or some outdoor space connected to it that supports use by the larger community. So even if a firm is not a public interest design firm, they can still offer social impact design. For me that’s a very useful way to think about this.

GM: That is a very interesting distinction. How do you think that relates to careers in this field? In your talk you laid out a number of potential career paths, could you explain those a bit more?

JP: What I was explaining in that talk is that I see a few main job types in the near future. Who knows if I’m right; this is just what I see coming.

First you can work at a studio within a commercial firm. I think more major firms will have studios dedicated to social impact design practice. That area of work is already growing. Gensler has one; Cannon has one. I don’t know how many people are actually making their full living doing that, but it’s definitely changing. And it doesn’t only have to be the major firms of the world.

Second, you can be a “design director” in an NGO. Increasingly nonprofits see the value of design and want to hire designers to play an ongoing role in their work. This is an opportunity to insert yourself and create a job that might not have existed before.

Third, you can be a consultant to a firm. As social impact design becomes more commonplace, firms who don’t create their own studios will want to hire consultants to help them incorporate social impact into their work.

Public Architecture's design proposal for Waller Creek

Public Architecture’s design proposal for Waller Creek

Fourth, you can be a local project leader. Firms want to be involved in projects in high need communities, whether those communities are across town or halfway around the world, however, firms are wary of dropping in uninformed and either underperforming or getting caught up in a problem that becomes overly time-consuming. Many firms would like to have someone that they can hire or partner with that is embedded locally and can insure that a project goes smoothly and is responsive of local needs and culture. This path would be ideal for someone who wants to be deeply connected to a community over a long period of time.

Fifth, you can work at a university. There are a lot of people in this field that are supported by university salaries, who are doing great work that goes far beyond the walls of the university.

Sixth, you can work in the public sector and do public interest design in government. Clearly government is mission driven, they’re supposed to serve the public good and they have a huge impact on the built environment. There must be all kinds of work in government related to public interest design. I can’t tell you exactly where those jobs are, but certainly the GSA and HUD are examples of highly impactful agencies.

GM: So what would you give as some final advice to people who are reading this article because they want to pursue a career in impact design?

JP: The landscape of social impact and the design of the built environment is changing rapidly. This is new for everybody; it’s important to remember that. Everyone’s just trying to figure it out! This is a long, long road. Keep your shoulder into it, don’t lose faith just because the ground is unstable at times.

Be patient and enjoy the fact that there isn’t a single career path and that hopefully you’re doing other really interesting things as you work your way towards the career you want. We’re still in the forefront of this but momentum is picking up; it’s hugely exciting.

Many thanks to John Peterson for a highly informative interview on the future of impact design! What are your thoughts on the imminent pathways of impact design? Tell us in the comments below.

2 Comments

  1. One of the things we (Feldman, Perkes, Palleroni, Bell) learned in our Latrobe Prize into current public interest practice research is that: “The practice of public interest design is broader and more interdisciplinary than conventional architectural practice. Public interest designers have had to be more inventive in their strategies, business models, and relationships to make their work possible.” To suggest that public interest design has to occur in a public interest design office is actually the opposite of what we found. And while Tom Fisher gave the vision for a future field, this does not limit the creative practices happening in many forms and many disciplines right now. Positive social impact is certainly a goal for many of these initiatives, but I would not rule out economic and environmental impacts by just using the term “social impact.”

  2. Thank you for this.

    I started my own social impact design company (Super Curious: design thinking, UX, UI) and have just decided to look for a full time social impact design position. I have to admit, as someone that has gone down a few of those paths/options I still have moments when I think to myself “this shouldn’t be so hard.” Even after I have broadened my definition to buckets that look strikingly similar to yours.

    Its true, it shouldn’t be so hard to do good work that has an impact but it is. I am just glad that it is being talked about and there are ways to think creatively about it.

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