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The Trailblazers – How Students Are Learning To Make Impact Design Better

December 23, 2015

Social impact is something that many fields work towards, and in some respects, designers are actually late to the game. Disciplines like public health, social work, and international development have long been pursuing the same outcomes that have only more recently become a fascination for design. And in a very short time, designers have proven just how bad they can be at it. So the question becomes: how do we get better at using design to create impact?

An answer that has been gaining traction is education. In the last decade, over a dozen new educational initiatives have sprung up around impact design — from centers and labs, to certificates and degree programs. Once confined to architecture and planning, these programs now span a wide range of disciplines from graphic design (MICA, Parsons, SCAD), to engineering (SMU, RPI, Yale), to product design (MIT, UArts, ArtCenter), and even a few hybrids (PNCA, CCA, Carnegie Mellon) — all of which have helped impact design education begin to shift its reputation from a passing trend to a legitimate emerging discipline.

But what does it really mean to teach someone to design for social impact? So far in this series we’ve heard from educators and practitioners, but what are students of these programs expected to learn and what do they actually learn? Perhaps most importantly, what do they do after they graduate? To find out, Impact Design Hub spoke with Sara Cornish and Josh Treuhaft, two graduates from the inaugural class of the School of Visual Arts’ Design for Social Innovation (DSI) program, a two-year, cross-disciplinary MFA program, which aims to teach students to address social challenges through systems-level design thinking and offers one of the first graduate degrees in this field.


Sarah Cornish_Working st Games for Change_2015

Impact Design Hub:  Let’s start with a bit of background; what were you doing before the program and why did you decide to apply?

Sara Cornish: In undergrad I majored in urban studies with a focus on sustainable design and development. After school I ended up in the world of advertising in New York City, working at a series of agencies focused primarily on healthcare branding and marketing. It was really exciting, but after a few years, I became frustrated with the lack of big-picture thinking and the churn of client work preventing us from thinking more holistically. I still had a passion for sustainability and development, and despite being surrounded by really talented designers, I was not satisfied. I was craving work that was more human-centered and that involved a broader and deeper understanding of the what, why, and how and one that was oriented more directly towards social impact. So when I heard about DSI, it was the perfect intersection of what I was looking for.

Josh Treuhaft: My story is similar in a lot of ways. I had been working in strategy and marketing firms, helping big brands better understand their customers in order to develop new products or services. After a couple years, I started to become dubious of helping big multi-national corporations, and I didn’t feel particularly purposeful about the work I was doing. So I went back to school for design and got involved in a variety of work in New York City. That was the phase in which I was really beginning to figure out how to use design to work on problems that I thought were important and that were personally motivating to me. I did a lot of work and learned a lot, but I felt like I needed to learn how to create impact more effectively and I wanted to be around people who were interested in the same questions I was, so when I found DSI it just made sense.

IDH: Were you nervous about entering a brand new program in a field of study that was only just emerging?

JT: I have always been really interested in how people build new things and learn and develop. So to me it was an exciting opportunity to shape something that seemed big and aligned with my values. At  the same time, though, there was that voice in my head saying, “You’re paying for this and nobody has even gone through it.” A lot of the professors had never even taught the courses that they were going to teach because the courses simply didn’t exist before. That was scary but I think that’s part of DSI; you have to get used to balancing opposing viewpoints and being comfortable with the unknown.

SC: Yeah, and I think there was an understanding that we were not only joining the program, but also helping to build it, which was really exciting. I remember that the interviews were so filled with anticipation. They told us, “This is going to be amazing. You’re going to be part of something that’s an absolute first. You’re going to help trailblaze the field.” A lot of our class came from jobs where they weren’t feeling very fulfilled, or had an eagerness for a big life change or transition, so I think that mentality aligned well with being the first class. I think we were all ready to take a risk in our lives.

JT: Well that was the vision at least, that we were all ready to take that risk, but the reality was that not everybody was ready to do that. We lost a good number of people in the first few weeks. I think those that stuck around were not only a specific type of person with a specific type of values, but also had a specific level of interest, curiosity, and willingness.


Josh Treuhaft_Salvage SupperClub

IDH: So what was it like for you? What was the experience of the first few weeks and months of the program?

JT: The first couple of months was like drinking from a fire hose. There were so many opportunities to get involved in things and a ton of new material. I remember being incredibly energized because there was so much going on. It was non-stop all of the time, but in a good way.

SC: Also, two weeks into the program Hurricane Sandy hit New York, and it was pretty amazing the way that it brought us together. It was a moment of camaraderie and support that I think contributed to our class becoming an incredibly close knit community throughout our two years.

IDH: And what about the courses you were taking? Did it feel like you were in a cohesive program that was really teaching you how to design for social innovation?

JT: There were definitely classes that were incredibly useful, some of which, at the time, I was thinking “Why am I doing this?” Whether or not the courses were all aimed at some grand unified theory… I don’t know, but I think that was kind of the point. In retrospect I see a lot of crossovers and overlaps, but it was never explicitly about learning the way to design for social innovation. It was more about teaching a variety of different thought models, processes, and tools that you can use for various types of work relating to social impact. Ultimately, the program is about systems thinking and how things are connected to each other. For example, if there was someone applying who said, “I really want to learn how to be a product designer with a social mission,” they could do that in DSI, but a lot of it would have to be self-directed learning and getting access to resources through the network, not through the curriculum.

SC: I agree, and also I think it’s important to note that most of us did not come from a design background, so there was a lot of emphasis on things like how to visualize ideas and what it means to prototype. I think, coming into the program, we all knew just enough to trust that we’d be learning a powerful and useful set of tools. But this was also a barrier to many students, including myself, who had to take crash courses in the Adobe Creative Suite while others were not only fluent in the software but professional graphic designers. We weren’t vetted for design acumen; the program focused on our ideas, motivations and impact goals — noble and important for sure, but at times that definitely felt limiting when most of the assignments had a strong visual requirement. All that said, it was invigorating to really dig into the world of human-centered communication, even if it meant spending a little more time figuring out how to make a grid.


Sara Cornish_Speaking at DSI as Alum 2015

IDH: So do you think that going through the program changed your perspective on what design is?

JT: Yeah, I do. It led us to see how we could use design as a process for addressing problems. I think that’s the key conceptual shift for a lot of people in the program and a pretty big reframing of what design is. Personally, I had already started moving in that direction but DSI helped me to think about it even more broadly. The program pushed me to practice thinking in systems and thinking about skills that are not traditionally part of design but are incredibly important for social innovation and social impact, like leadership and organizational management. I think that a lot of the tools and skills and frameworks, as well as the structure of the program itself, forced me to think differently about what I actually thought it was to be a designer.

SC: I was fortunate to be hired for an exciting job at the UN after graduating in which I could use many of the tools and approaches we learned, but I’d venture to say that for many of our classmates, it’s been a pretty tough transition. Even now, two years later, several are still hunting for that impact-minded job. It’s a struggle to go against the grain, to remember we were schooled in something new that most of the professional world isn’t practicing yet.

JT: I agree. You learn when you’re out in the world that you’re constantly finding opportunities to exercise and use all those things that you picked up, but that despite your skills, change is hard. It’s a constant process to be figuring how to evolve those skills and how to make them more effective. I certainly feel equipped to be doing that, but I don’t feel like it’s easy. There are a lot of tools and skillsets and frameworks you gain from DSI, but it’s not just like you walk out of the two year program and immediately change the world.

IDH: It sounds like what you’re saying is that the program is actually modeling the behavior of the field, that DSI is working to show students what it would be like to practice social impact design. But that seems like something you’re both recognizing in retrospect. What about your time during the program? Were there any classes in particular that you felt taught you lessons that you think are critical to this type of practice?

SC: I thought that both our systems mapping class and game design class exemplified what the whole program aimed to teach: understand problems in systems, use mapping to visualize connections and flows, and address problems through communication and iteration. Together I think those two classes gave us useful tools for making sense of complex, interconnected issues with tangible outcomes. For me that was really important because it confirmed how play connects and opens communities in beautiful ways, and now I work at Games for Change, the lead organization on games for social impact.

JT: Yeah, a few. We had a leadership course that was really powerful — it helped me understand what it takes to structure and run effective teams, projects and meetings. Another class I remember was connected to our thesis course, during which it was really impressed upon us how important it is to have ideas and do them. The doing is really essential. Framing and strategizing and mapping is great, but at the end of the day, actually putting things in the world and seeing what they do is really important.


Josh Treuhaft_Salvage SupperClub_2014 copy

IDH: Do you think any of the skillsets and tools you learned are accessible outside the program? For example, what would you recommend to designers who can’t afford to go to grad school but want to transition into impact design?

JT: IDEO and have developed a bunch of great resources for folks interested in ethnographic and human-centered innovation processes. Donella Meadows’ book Thinking in Systems is a worthwhile read for those seeking to better understand systems thinking approaches and frameworks. I would also say learning by doing can be very helpful — there are a lot of fellowships focused on supporting social innovation and “change-makers.” If you have an idea for change that you want to see in the world and you’ve thought about how to move folks from where they are to where they could be, apply for a fellowship to help fund your work on that idea. 

IDH: What about people who are interested in the DSI program? Any advice for them?

SC: I think having an idea of what you want to do afterward is smart, even if it doesn’t end up that way. The program rewards students with deep passion, whether about a particular social issue or community. Entering with a problem to solve, as opposed to a general “I want to do good in the world” outlook seemed to give students more focus. I also thought having some years of work experience made the course content more relevant in many cases, and allowed me to draw from experience in discussion or working with outside partners or clients.

JT: Building on that, you should acknowledge that it’s school and has an academic side to it, but that the real impact and learning happens by really doing things. If you treat your thesis and your projects as real opportunities that could lead to some sort of impact or change and take it all seriously, you’d be amazed at what you can accomplish. Also I would tell a potential student to really get comfortable with hypothesis-driven prototyping. It’s a powerful way to rapidly learn and it’s often more fun than reading a book. But maybe most importantly, school is about relationships and opportunities as well as content and academics. Think long and hard about who you will be meeting and what networks you will be accessing (and which ones you want to be accessing) throughout your time in the program.

IDH: So this three part structure you both seem to be describing —the frameworks and approaches, the hard and soft skillsets, and the broader understanding and awareness of the difficult and complex nature of this work — do you think that’s the ideal model to train social impact designers?

SC: It’s tricky because we all came from such different places, and have had very different post-graduation trajectories, some of which were intentionally pursued and some more circumstantial. I think it depends a lot on what type of work you want to do after the program.

JT: I would go a step further to ask whether there even is an ideal model to train social impact designers? I think that adaptability, flexibility, listening to feedback loops and iterating is a design process that the DSI faculty are not only teaching, but utilizing on the program itself and that’s definitely the right direction. I like to think about it as a prototype — a version that’s learning and growing as it goes.

All images courtesy of School of Visual Arts MFA Design for Social Innovation program.


  1. Regarding students make an impact on innovative design, the Worldwide Ferry Safety Association has two types of opportunities for students to participate. We have an international design competition now in its third year for the design of a safe affordable ferry. The deadline for submission of designs is March 15. We also commission student research papers and would welcome studies on use of new materials and new modes of construction. Please contact me if you or your schools are interested in further information.

  2. As a resident faculty member in the DSI program starting in the 2013-14 school year (faculty “at large” as of 2015) I had the privilege of co-teaching the year long entrepreneurship and collaborative leadership course to Josh and Sarah’s cohort in their second year. It was an amazing experience getting to know their entire class, feeling their energy and commitment. My friend Cheryl Heller’s vision for the program is definitely paying off as it continues to evolve. I would recommend the program to anyone interested in making an impact even if they are an older Millennial, Gen X or 50Plus. There is no time like the present to figure out new ways to make a difference, even in the second half of life. The world is waiting anxiously for your gifts!

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