Unpack Impact + New thoughts on co-design

There are those moments when you feel fired up, inspired, and aligned — as if someone’s saying “yes, this path, here.”

I felt it again last night listening to Jess Rimington and Joanna Ceas talk about Unpack Impact, their research initiative as visiting fellows at Stanford about the imperative of listening to end users and including end users in meaningful ways throughout the process of for-impact work.


I will link a video of their talk as soon as it’s available, because they do the storytelling in a way that I won’t be able to do justice to here. But in brief, they present a history of two tribes of people: those working “for-profit” and those working “for-impact.” While the for-profit tribe has evolved over the decades in response to both market and consumer needs, the for-impact tribe looks largely the same as its colonial and philanthropic roots during the Gilded Age (think Rockefeller Foundation saving the poor). While the two drivers of the lean start-up approach and the rise of design thinking (and human-centered design) have led to innovation in the for-profit space, the for-impact space has a mindset that incentivizes satisfying donor objectives rather than end-user impact. While the for-profit space is creating platforms that take advantage of the wisdom of the crowds for content and services, the for-impact space still largely views its beneficiaries as people who need to be helped by others who know better/best.

They also had a panel who spoke to the costs and consequences of not listening. The cost of the war in Afghanistan when we go in and do “aid” without respecting or listening or working with the people who live there…being the starkest example. And success stories of projects in New Orleans and the Philippines where working with residents, using technology to include voices of those displaced, and combining technical expertise with resident passion gave the neighborhoods a fighting chance.

Rimington and Ceas are writing a book, and this is their call to action to their own for-impact tribe to begin a cultural renaissance by:

  1. Investing to shift standards (funding for assumption testing, and not just investing in proven ideas) (Hello, Tipping Point’s T Lab. More of this model please.)
  2. Translating and adapting the tools/methods/approaches (the tools and technology that the for-profit space has used to involve users to evolve products — these need to be adapted because obviously needs are different…and sidenote: some of these tools were borrowed from for-impact sector in the first place — from community organizers and social justice warriors who involve the people.)
  3. Shifting mindsets (that the expertise is distributed, and that the expertise about how to have impact is within our end users. This is the hardest! because the core of this lies in social justice and true co-design. I want to talk more about this below.)


So, as context, I am a designer working in the social impact space. For a lot of my projects, we create new products or services for companies/organizations doing good in the world.

The last time I felt this fired up was last summer when I was sitting in meetings where many smart people were trying to figure out how we would all collaborate on an education project in the South working with teachers. I was most inspired by one of the smart people in the room who deeply believed in the power of teachers — and that if we could give them back the agency to be problem solvers in their classrooms for their students, that would solve a lot of the problems we try to solve with additional “programs”. And this smart person also saw the systemic blocks that have been stripping away teachers’ powers for years.

At the time, I thought my enthusiasm and my “stars are aligning, this is your path” feelings were because this project lay square in the middle of my venn diagram of dream project between “design” and “social impact” and “education”. BUT now I’m seeing the pattern: it was more because of this theme/thread of capacity-building and co-design and giving voice to the voiceless. (<< Which is still the wrong phrasing because I can’t give you anything. My role is just in helping you recognize and remember what you’ve already had all along.)

It’s what I came out of my grad program at AC4D most fired up about as well. I wrote about co-design and Theatre of the Oppressed here and here.

Co-design is hard to talk about because it’s actually a really complex issue. I myself ebb and flow in my practice of co-design as much as I believe in its theory. And there is a lot to still discover and figure out and experiment with. When Rimington and Ceas talk about adapting the methods, this is where I really want to collaborate with for-impact organizations to figure out what co-design means in practice for social impact projects, where end users fall on a range of historical disenfranchisement.


Rimington and Ceas are speaking to the for-impact tribe; their audience is the non-profits and NGOs and foundations doing this work. They’re trying to convince their audience that listening to users will lead to more innovation and more impact.

Some human-centered designers and firms who practice design thinking are also talking to this same audience of the for-impact tribe: we have a process and methodology that will help you involve your users and which will lead to more innovation and more impact! Work with us!

I am whole-heartedly an advocate for the above two paragraphs. By all means, let’s work together! Writing as a designer who is working in the social impact space, I will just be honest and say that I am wary of the “HCD solves all” Kool-Aid. Below are some nuances as to why/where/how I think design needs to continue evolving in order to meet the needs of the for-impact space.

  • Even the for-profit sector has to fight for end-user inclusion. I have designer friends right now who are working for big cool Silicon Valley tech companies who are fighting for (and “fighting” is the word they invariably use) to include user-centered design in their processes.
  • We still need to figure out where end-user feedback is most leveraged for for-impact projects and organizations. There are many ways that the for-profit sector involves users throughout the process, including: design research to understand their needs, user testing during iterative feedback cycles to improve products, crowdsourcing users to create content or provide services (e.g. platforms like AirBnb, Facebook, etc.), receiving market feedback via dollars spent (consumers are able to vote with their $$$). There are times when design thinking is most leveraged, and there are times when user-involvement is most leveraged, and there are times when designers need to go off and be designers. We need to adapt these ways of thinking and working into the for-impact sector, and they probably look different for the for-impact sector. (Which requires experimentation and partnership with foreward-thinking orgs who are okay with the fact that we designers don’t already have all the answers but who trust in the fact that we can figure it out if we all work together, holla!)
  • All of the above ways that the for-profit sector includes users may never be enough for the for-impact space. For a lot of the impact we want to see, if the root/seed of the solution is the in re-enfranchisement of the historically dis-enfranchised…the process has to be full-on co-design for it to be effective (as witnessed in New Orleans or Afghanistan or the teachers I alluded to earlier). And true co-design in the for-profit space is very rare, so there really isn’t an existing model we can look to. We can borrow heavily from Lean and HCD, but we’ll have to create a new paradigm for how innovation works in the for-impact space.
  • The mindset shift to “designing with” from historically “designing for” is an emotionally-charged space to be in when we’re talking social impact work. An a-ha moment from the talk last night was when Rimington and Ceas pointed out that the roots and history of current-day social impact work lies in the colonial mindsets of philanthropy from the late 19th/early 20th century of “how to help the poor.” (Rockfeller? Gates? Same same.) “Designing with” requires people with good intentions to grapple with our own biases, and the historic systems of oppression which we operate in, and the inherited roles of privilege which we inhabit. The ability to look at a beneficiary and really truly believe that you have an answer and expertise here which I don’t, and the answer lies within you and not me…I am not here to help you, you are here to help me…well that is straight up social justice work, which honestly most of us who work as designers (and maybe even a lot of people working in the for-impact space) did not sign up for. It’s easy to feel a dichotomy between “us” vs. “them” and to feel like the end user is either a) a victim b) to blame for the position they’re in c) not in any position to contribute. How do you invite a chronically-homeless person to be a meaningful contributor at the table? But if that’s the case, then part of our work is the capacity building and education to get that person to the place where they can be co-collaborators in this process. On a larger scale, “designing with” can only happen if we question and dismantle existing systems of power. That’s where the theatre of the oppressed stuff comes in: when you change the rules of the game, more is required of all involved. It’s a metaphor shift: from working on the symptons of poverty (improving education and healthcare) to trying to eradicate the roots of poverty creation.

And within all of that lies this tension of:

  • On the one hand, I’m arguing that co-design in the social impact space is a very radical approach. If you really want to have the most impact, you need to re-empower the [teachers, citizens, homeless, poor, healthcare high utilizers], and to do that, you need to involve them as collaborators and partners from the get-go. Not gonna lie — this is hairy, scary work. It means wading into politics and longterm relationships and other gnarlier questions along the lines of… individual agency vs. systemic change: how much of a disservice are you doing if you’re trying to empower people within a broken system.
  • On the other hand, I don’t want people throwing out the baby with the bathwater. I think there is a lot that can be gained from listening to users at strategic points during your process. Even if make small process changes in the for-impact model, we can make huge strides. We can inject some Lean principles into your org! We can apply human-centered design to social impact issues! Yes we can!

So I’m going to keep working on both. Frankly, the latter is easier to do as a day job, and there is still a ton to learn and contribute. AND the radical core of me will continue to get fired up whenever people allude to the former, as I keep trying to figure out where I fit in that whole scene. All of this work will continue to refine my POV — my thinking still has a long way to go in sophistication as I keep grappling with these themes, so stay tuned!

And anyone out there who wants to collaborate on any of the above, I’m all ears. Hit me up.