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Design Impact’s Metathemes Report

July 19, 2017

by Genevieve Poist


As we move through our series exploring Racial Equity in Impact Design, we’d like to take a moment to highlight the work of the Cincinnati-based nonprofit social innovation firm Design Impact.

Within this series, Christopher Scott has discussed the role of designers in challenging structural racism through examining the architectural work surrounding the development and design of the Pine Ridge Reservation. Mia Scharphie, founder of Creative Agency, has highlighted Enterprise Community Partners’ Design for Outcomes initiative and the resulting tools that can help designers approach desired social impact outcomes and track their progress within those aims. Design Impact addresses and extends both of these social impact efforts with its report, Metathemes: Design for Equitable Social Change.

Through its self-described “empathetic ethnographic” work, Design Impact (DI) attempts to understand individual perspectives surrounding systemic issues. They unite designers, community development practitioners, social entrepreneurs, and educators, while partnering with communities, nonprofits, hospitals, and government agencies, to research and propose solutions to localized social issues.

As the DI team carried out its investigations into poverty and inequity in the Greater Cincinnati region, it noticed patterns of similarly-themed insights and inspirations across many projects and communities. The Metathemes Report evolved from a process of surveying all of the varied DI projects and noting the common social equity themes they shared. DI hoped its research would present both a collection of common ideas and targeted approaches to addressing them that organizations across the spectrum of social impact design could modify and implement, especially those concerning racial and economic equity.


Uncovering Patterns

To develop the report, DI’s team of designers, researchers, and volunteers collected insight from the interviews and observations the firm had already been gathering during its standard project-based work surrounding poverty and inequity in the Greater Cincinnati Region. In each of these projects, DI had started by listening to the voices of the community members, frontline workers, funders, and policymakers involved in each issue. Through a process of “empathetic interviewing,” DI captured the individual experiences of these stakeholders on “insight sheets” short forms that allow specific observations or quotes from the clients of each project to be connected to larger opportunities, tensions, and solutions. When constructing the Metathemes Report, DI’s team took project-specific information from these insight sheets and synthesized it with data from the firm’s overall body of work. DI believed that if common themes showed up in different places and projects, the team could begin an analysis of these patterns that would expedite its own social impact work and allow for more in-depth studies of and design solutions to  the issues in question.

Although these themes emerged from the human-centered design process that is at the heart of DI’s ethnographic design research and focuses mostly on the individual, DI felt that, in order to begin adequately addressing many of the issues underlying its various projects, its team must examine and investigate the system itself, combining individual perspectives to produce systems-level commentary. After observing so many of the same systems barriers for equity and poverty reduction, the hope was that uniting them as key themes would allow the DI team — and others working under similar social impact aims — to design more effectively for the individuals affected by issues of poverty and inequity.

“Since 2009, our work has allowed us to listen to hundreds of people directly experiencing poverty. Our focus, regardless of the project, is to amplify those voices in order to create change. Through these stories, we recognized recurring themes. These metathemes span race, neighborhoods and social issues and highlight systemic issues that must be confronted in order to address structural inequality.”

As the team identified common themes and the links between them, it narrowed the list to six of the most powerful and well-supported ideas “that cut across multiple issues that have implications for systems change.” These resulting themes eventually became “metathemes” — “bare brief statements that reflect the meaning behind a set of similar insights, learnings or data points” and represent “a theming themes” from a handful of projects each representing a different social sector. All six of the themes work together to create positive change; they are not to be considered in an isolated, singular context.

The report’s six metathemes include:

  • Bridge Norms – Individuals are often asked to adopt dominant social norms in order to succeed or receive services in the social sector; this theme encourages designers to value the individual as he or she currently exists and expand the collective understanding of various tropes and stereotypes that may prevent an individual’s success.
  • Go Beyond Feedback – The top-down approach of policy change and community action often ignores and devalues the voices of community members; this metatheme states that community members and those directly affected by certain key issues need to possess tangible decision making power.
  • Feed My Soul – This metatheme explains how the powers of self-expression and individual creativity need to be emphasized and nurtured so that they can be used to help individuals cope with stress and manage recovery.
  • Redesign the System – Designers must help demystify the system by simplifying and streamlining key stakeholders and the processes required of the frontline workers involved in various social issues and services.
  • Give Room to Heal – Social sector workers must consider the whole selves and trauma histories of the individuals they are attempting to serve, getting at the root of key social issues and addressing the unresolved trauma that is crucial to creating lasting and effective change.
  • Keep Promises – Many people have been let down by those promising to offer help; designers and policymakers striving for change must always show up and keep their word when it comes to delivering social action.


In addition to the six overarching themes, the report also identifies fourteen Calls to Action intended to help designers engage each of the emergent thematic findings, helping give direction to organizations on what exactly they can do to respond to the information. Each metatheme section of the report outlines the tension around that particular idea, including its importance, opportunities for change within, the aforementioned calls for action, and real-world stories from community members affected by the concept.


Sowing Change

The United Way of Greater Cincinnati worked with Design Impact to develop the full report, which is available for organizations and individuals to download for free. DI hopes the report will unite what is often a fragmented and disconnected understanding of the issues surrounding poverty and inequity and drive the systems-level mindset outwards into the social sector at large to address complicated problems like hunger, homelessness, and healthcare access. The DI team also hopes organizations view the report as a resource they can freely utilize without prescription as “a starting point to begin foundational change for themselves.” The United Way of Cincinnati, for example, has used the report’s findings as an impetus for modifying its funding strategies for hundreds of organizations so as to better address the themes presented in the report. United Way has also held workshops to introduce community leaders and organizations to the report and discuss how the findings can be integrated into their work, and DI is working with other community partners to develop additional programs and workshop events to help individuals and organizations understand and implement the Metathemes findings.

DI recognizes that the report’s findings are intended to be continually “revisited, refined, and reimagined” as the firm and other organizations utilizing the resource make further observations and discoveries during the course of their work in the social sector. Ultimately, the Metathemes Report stands as a tool that can assist anyone working for social equity along race, gender, and economic lines in better understanding the systems-level barriers that must be addressed and accounted for if any localized and human-centered design efforts are to have lasting and impactful effects.

By identifying these metathemes, we’ve also been inspired to take action. Together, we can reconsider – and redesign – social systems and services. We can reimagine a system that breaks the cycle of poverty.”



This editorial is part of the Racial Equity in Impact Design series, co-led by Mia Scharphie and Christopher Scott.

Design Impact is a non-profit social innovation firm made up of designers, community development practitioners, social entrepreneurs, and educators. To read Design Impact’s full Metathemes Report click here.

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