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The Art of Building a Social Impact Design Firm

January 17, 2017

Seven years ago, architect Katherine Darnstadt started Latent Design, a small social impact design strategy and architecture firm in Chicago. Although the firm began out of Darnstadt’s own job instability amidst the recession, consumed her savings in startup costs within the first month, and left the designer bringing in only $20,000 in the first year, it stands today as a remarkable success. The 34-year-old architect was recently named one of Crain’s Chicago Business Magazine’s 40 under 40, has worked on projects with Chicago’s Department of Transportation, and is the winner of an AIA Young Architects Award. Next City spoke to Darnstadt about Latent Design and her somewhat direct — and at times difficult — path to the social impact design field.

“Darnstadt realized she was developing a valuable area of expertise — a specialization in using a systems-thinking approach to identifying critical links between large-scale socioeconomic issues and small-scale small-budget design projects that could address them. Latent’s diminutive dimensions had become an advantage. Without a large staff or the budget to hire consultants, the architect had learned how to work with zoning code and write policies to get projects done. She had learned how to navigate systems.”

Latent Design’s first paid work grew out of the in-between — doing small projects to correct code violations and filling the gaps that larger contractors and firms had no interest in pursuing. Darnstadt networked with like-minded designers by getting involved with Chicago’s Architecture for Humanity (AFH) chapter, launched small-scale competitions to redesign lots, developed partnerships with nonprofit and for-profit actors, and eventually registered as a benefit corporation and general contractor to legitimize her social impact work and expand the services and project agency her firm could offer. All along, Darnstadt leveraged Latent’s small size and its ability to stay true to goals of community participation, social equity, and human-centered design, producing large-scale socioeconomic impact with small-scale interventions. By continually positioning and repositioning itself to find work and serve both nonprofit and for-profit clients, Latent’s example, while not perfect (Darnstadt laments not bringing in a co-founder and partner at the onset), serves as a template for social impact designers searching for success and eventual stability.

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Image courtesy of Next City

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