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The Future of Impact Design Education

October 14, 2015

Few of us today have a degree in “impact design,” “social design,” or “public interest design;” though a few of us who are now students may be studying exactly those subjects, some even in degree programs with precisely those names. These ideas are still so new, and yet they are already becoming vital. With change happening so rapidly, and the need for social change so great, it’s only natural to wonder how soon the new will become the norm and how the training of those who strive to design for social impact will transform in the years to come. For this precise reason, our first installment in our feature series on education asks twelve leading practitioners a simple question: What is the future of impact design education? Or, more specifically, what will the education of impact designers look like ten years from now, in the year 2025 …

Mariana Amatullo


If the unrelenting rate of social innovation is any indication, the designer of 2025 will be confronted by a very different world economy. One can imagine it will involve open and distributed systems, smart human-machine interfaces, networked information and communication infrastructures, meaningful big data, blurred boundaries between production and consumption, and organizational forms that may look very different in their articulation of power, regulation and knowledge from what we experience in our lives today.

An effective education will need to train practitioners to demonstrate a well honed “design attitude” to problem-solving and problem-seeking. Chances are success will be measured by a deep engagement with aesthetics and the creativity of one’s craft, as much as by the ability to connect multiple perspectives, be empathic and tolerate risk, while collaborating in projects that will stretch far beyond the boundaries of any single organization or discipline.

Mariana Amatullo, PhD, is CoFounder and Vice-President of Designmatters at ArtCenter College of Design and Scholar-in Residence, Weatherhead School of Management, Case Western Reserve University. She serves as an Executive Board Member of Cumulus, the International Association of Universities and Colleges of Art, Design and Media. 

Chris Kasabach


Ask any designer who worked in international development during the 20th century and they will tell you that large scale “impact” projects were motivated by cold-war politics and international finance as often as by community needs. The impact model was very top down. Modern philanthropy, social media, and globalization helped flip that model, crowding in non- and for-profits that now work street-up at the source. But while top-down tended to alienate communities, street-up often excludes the institutions that provide legitimacy, capital, and expertise for large, sustained projects. By 2025, a new impact design curriculum will address this tension, providing students with the skills and experience to think across sectors – between government, industry, and community organizations. In doing so impact designers will operate in a much larger solution space, inspiring public policy and legislation as often as they create new products, services and systems.

Chris Kasabach is a non-profit leader, educator, entrepreneur and designer. He is Executive Director of the Watson Foundation and on the Board of Directors of Winterhouse Institute.

Barbara Brown Wilson


In order to be impactful, designers must not only be creative problem solvers, but also empathetic collaborators. Educational outlets already do a great job of instilling iterative, imaginative “design thinking” approaches into student skill sets. But to become truly impactful, designers need to learn to function within teams of community and technical experts that not only frame the issues collaboratively, but also follow through with evaluation to ensure impacts mirrored those shared intentions. By 2025, I hope impact design education builds a diverse cadre of practitioners who are remarkable in their role as resource allies to communities because of their focus on empathy, collaboration, humility, and equitable outcomes.

Barbara Brown Wilson is an Assistant Professor of Urban and Environmental Planning at the University of Virginia and co-founder of Design Futures: Public Interest Design Student Leadership Forum.

Marc Norman

SU Photo By Stephen Sartori

Done right, design could become the category killer of the future. In architecture, a focus on the building envelope and finishes is no longer enough. How will that building’s surroundings be adaptable to a changing climate? What systems will be needed to reduce energy use? Given increasing amounts of income insecurity how will the units be laid out to be flexible to millennials or empty-nesters? Most importantly, what financing mechanisms can be deployed to create an innovative and replicable model for a beautiful and functional structure?  These were formerly questions for the banker, the sociologist, the interior designer and the engineer. The designer of the future won’t be expert in all of these areas, but should understand the state of the art, the vocabulary and the ways to engage with many other professions. Their instructors will need to know how to synthesize many concepts and enlist these topics in instruction.The model and the cautionary tale is the tech sector. Ten years ago one might have said what does the coder know about the taxi industry, the temporary rental business or automotive design. In the future we’ll all need to be a lot bolder and more expert.

Marc Norman is trained as an urban planner and has worked in the field of community development and finance for over 20 years. He consults with architects, planners, non-profit organizations and others throughout the United States.

Bryan Bell


Educating public interest designers is a critical need of the decade ahead. While the core design education remains critical, there are distinct knowledge and skills not included in the traditional curriculum. For my own generation, this specialized knowledge was totally missing in our own education. I feel we are just now beginning to understand what a holistic education in public interest design should be. I am working with North Carolina State University to create a Public Interest Design Certificate program which includes both core competencies to cover critical basics as well as diverse electives to cover the individual passions of each student. We are also developing new specialized classes such as a “PID Incubator” where students will develop actual community requests from the initial ideas to clear design proposals.

Bryan Bell is Executive Director of Design Corps, Associate Professor at NC State, and has been a public interest designer for 24 years.

Lee Davis


By 2025 we will have entered a third – and far more aspirational – era of impact design education. In the first era, design education emphasized craft and prepared designers to develop and perfect their creative skill in order to create artifacts, i.e., designing primarily for clients. In the second era (where we are currently), design education emphasizes collaboration – the designer as facilitator – and prepares designers to work across disciplines, i.e., designing with. In this era we aim to demonstrate the value of the unique creative process of design (commoditized as ‘design thinking’) and our empathic, interdisciplinary, human-centered approach, to address social problems.

In the face of ever more urgent and complex problems, the emergent third era of design education will need to emphasize inspiration – the designer as visionary – and prepare designers to move beyond a role solely as pragmatic problem solver working within existing flawed systems towards a more aspirational role. Design education will need to better prepare designers to apply their skills and process to envisioning entirely new systems, inspiring others to fundamentally change behaviors and shift paradigms, enabling more lasting and systemic social change, i.e., designing beyond.

Lee Davis is an author, designer and social entrepreneur and member of the Board of Directors of the Winterhouse Institute, dedicated to articulating the value of design education for social change. He is also Co-Director of the Center for Social Design at Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA).

Baerbel Mueller


In 2025, we will finally have understood that our planet has limited resources; that its ecology will collapse if we don´t change. All designers will create in this spirit. They will work, and act, and educate simultaneously, with a truly planetary and truly local approach, and in truly transcultural and truly transdisciplinary settings. It will all be about vision and expertise – beyond the glorification of participation from the previous decade—it will be about beauty, and eco, not ego.

Baerbel Mueller is an architect and founder of nav_s baerbel mueller (navigations in the field of architecture and urban research within diverse cultural contexts). She is head of the [applied] Foreign Affairs lab at the Institute of Architecture, University of Applied Arts Vienna, which investigates spatial and cultural phenomena in rural and urban sub-Saharan Africa.

Scott Boylston


In 2025, the uncommon is common for impact design education. Students will learn to respect the difference between shallow empathy and deep empathy, and occupy that tricky space between theory and practice. Our challenge will be to guide them toward the realization that good design is intangible as often as it’s tangible, and that all tangible solutions emerge only with the aid of deft and humble facilitation. Through an understanding of systems dynamics, designers will have the capacity to bring the most disparate groups together—from different stakeholders in various communities to those with the power to help or hinder a project. This will be perhaps their most valuable skill. Shared visions that are designed, driven, and delivered by multi-stakeholder collaborative partnerships will be the proof of the impact design concept in action. In 2025, “solving for pattern” will be as familiar a phrase as “contextual research” is today, and we will teach our students not only the hard skills and the deep theory but how, in Donella Meadows words, to let go and “dance with the system.”

Scott Boylston is graduate coordinator and co-author of the Design for Sustainability program at SCAD, and president and co-founder of Emergent Structures, a non-profit organization committed to revitalizing a material re-use culture by collaboratively re-purposing building material waste streams.

Elaine Asal


By 2025 our clients will face a broad set of global challenges that will demand increased social awareness. Design firms must provide our practitioners the tools, experiences, and platforms necessary to quickly and fluently engage in different cultures, communities and contexts. We see integrated educational and organizational partnerships with social impact programs – whether at universities or in the field – as a growing part of our professional development curriculum. Gensler’s Design Strategist Development Program already serves as a platform to bring students in from international design thinking and social design programs, providing a direct link to expanding social impact thinking throughout the firm. This integration of strategic thinking and design will only accelerate, and increase our potential to make positive impact in the communities in which we are working. Growing these design skill-sets allows us to expand our engagement strategies, bolster our community relationships, build strategic partnerships at multiple scales and educate others, while leading through an empathy-driven design approach. Impact design – and the deep learning it requires – will not just be part of the curriculum, but part of the process.

Elaine Asal is a senior associate and design strategist at Gensler, a global design, planning, and strategic consulting firm, where she is leading initiatives to incorporate social responsibility and community-driven design into architecture and planning projects.  

Jacob Mathew


Design is no longer just the narrow design of products and services. In the future, design thinking itself will be diffused over many disciplines. Education will be increasingly leaner and student or employer-funded. The content will be informed by a broader understanding of business strategy and capital, as well as by behavioral science, neuro- and machine intelligence, and natural sciences, biomimetics, biomimmicry, and sustainability studies. As university systems begin to look at the “life-time value” of learners rather than the traditional hierarchy of undergraduate, graduate, and PhD student consumers, the boundaries between design disciplines, and between students and working professionals will dissolve, leading to integrative learning systems. Through this combination of business knowledge and interdisciplinary flexibility, designers will find themselves in a unique position to facilitate and build self-managing organizations in an entrepreneurial way. But they will need to be trained to do so in the context of a quadruple bottom line: social equity, cultural capital, environmental sustainability, and economic viability.

Jacob Mathew is CEO of Industree Foundation and Industree Skills Transform Pvt Ltd, and is co-founder of Tessaract Design, Idiom Design, Dovetail Furniture, and Spring Health Water (India) Pvt Ltd.

Mike Weikert


The number of designers dedicated to supporting positive social change continues to grow. But unlike many traditional design disciplines, the purpose and value of social design is more complex than providing a service or making an artifact. It instead positions design as a collaborative process focused on understanding and defining social problems, identifying and generating opportunities, and making tools that shift relationships between people and people, and people and institutions. Its mission is to create better conditions for social innovation and positive social change.

So, social design education will need to provide students with a strong understanding of the context, complexity and interconnectedness of social problems (e.g., diving deep into the literature of urban policy and structural oppression) and various possible methods for addressing them. In both the classroom and the community, students will need to be exposed to a diversity of people, social issues, movements, organizations, contexts, and theories of change, in order to challenge their own and others’ worldview and to develop the understanding, humility and cultural sensitivity needed to design appropriate and impactful community-based interventions.

Mike Weikert is Founder & Co-Director, Center for Social Design and MA in Social Design Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA).

Rachel Minnery


Students will need to become developers – identifying the funding and resources to realize their own projects. Learning aspects of planning, economics, law, communications, marketing and business skills are essential to this, in addition to learning problem-seeking and creative exploration. Ultimately, a restoration of a sense of democracy – participatory action and decision-making – will begin to change the current voluntary landscape that relies on capital market demand to meet priorities for the public good. This will drive the creation of new funding streams that currently don’t exist or are in short supply. Designers who engage in regulatory and policy development will be empowered to change the rules of the game so long as they can muster the political will, and so impact design education will have to encompass those disciplines. Students will need to be taught to interrogate the fundamental questions of the field they have chosen – who contributes to the solutions and who makes the decisions?  Who are the clients? Are we solving the underlying problem or just creating a band-aid? And, of course, are we asking the right questions?

Rachel Minnery, FAIA, is an architect activist for sustainable futures and the Director of Built Environment Policy at the American Institute of Architects.


  1. In Britain, many teenage children learn Solid Works and VisCAD while still in high school and leave school knowledgeable of design dynamics for industrial and spatial design. The disconnect begins when these young people try to enter a workforce whose remit requires RIBA certification. Young designers are costed out of the equation and many end up working for the rest of their lives in low paid draughtsman roles, despite their talent. Architecture and design need to wake up to the fact that RIBA and AIA are not the tastemakers they claim, and that university education should not be the requirement for hiring. More agencies could seize on office-based education for hires, especially to improve retention rates.

    Future designers – those who design after 15th October 2015 – should also be thinking about future maintenance. Design intent needs to be realistic about the immediate and future maintenance costs to a building or addition for the sake of sustainability. Designers must be aware of procurement and be part of it if sustainable design is to succeed in the future.

  2. When it comes to the impact work of engineers, planners, architects and designers that could provide services to ordinary people dealing with collapsing communities, deteriorating housing, schools and shops or large regions of drought and fire, the lack of support among their respective institutions for those who want to try is astounding. This point is refutable by example, but I speak of the exception.

    Urban development professionals do not have the institutional or functional supports that could advance professional responsibility to “the whole community”. The insufferably weak institutional capacity of their respective associations saddens me deeply, they are nothing more than a knee braces on stumbling, hapless professions. They have no impact, just look out of your window.

    I know it is possible to build ground for design to stand on that is far higher than represented by “the client who can pay”. The challenge today is to build organizations that can successfully alter our entire society. This is a supremely difficult path if we rely on “impact-individuals” who remain quietly shunned by their peers. It requires us to get out of our greedy professional silos and building a completely new institution. There are a few examples of the better direction to take made by small groups with institutional support that are changing the world.

    Health and law professionals are building institutions with powerful global abilities. They develop methods, garner resources, serve and protect the individual in poor health and when needed whole communities in great stress. They risk their lives. We expect this from institutions in health and even law, why not those who the create space in which we need to work. The short answer is lack of political will to shape communities that are more than the paradise of cages they now offer on behalf of the clients who pay for them.

    The world does not need “impact design” it needs designers with impact institutions. I’m also beginning to believe these institutions will need to be of the “kick-ass” variety, but that is another story, especially if IDH will be one of them.

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