What does designing for good look like?

4 min read
Mike Tannenbaum
  •  Aug 20, 2019
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As designers, it’s easy to get caught up in our own industry happenings and forget something important: a designer’s work is typically in service to some larger goal. If you’re in this field, surely you believe that design and its practices, methodologies, and mindsets can change the world.

My business partner Ilyssa developed a sabbatical program called Amble, and now we work together to bring a bunch of creatives and designers to US national parks to apply themselves to meaningful projects. The participants spend roughly one-third of their time providing design and creative assistance to nature conservancies and nonprofits that rarely have access to high-quality designers, and the rest of their time exploring the great outdoors, revitalizing their creativity, and renewing their inspiration.

After talking with executive directors from participating conservancies about their experiences collaborating with participating designers, the impact of design has never been more clear: the world would be better if we were to liberate the principles and practices of quality design from designers in the tech world and bring them outward to the people, organizations, and communities who need them most.

Though most of the executives who Amble participants work with hadn’t heard of terms like “UX” or “design thinking” before the program, they quickly learned their value—both as part of a design collaboration, and as a general business benefit. 

Let’s get into:

  • Why non-designers need to understand design principles
  • How designers can share design thinking with non-designers
  • The qualitative impact of design
  • The ways design thinking transforms companies
  • How we can share and teach design principles

Designers offer so much more than design services

Doing design work teaches people to broaden their perspectives, seek and achieve deeper understanding, and create what people actually need while moving them to action. And we know how good design can impact the people we design for. But what about everyone else—how can non-designers benefit from design processes?

Amble participants guiding Mariposa Arts Council through the design process

We know how to solve problems. It’s our obligation to share that beyond our traditional design work. Understanding the universal applicability of some design concepts, part of our job as designers should be to push design to its edges and apply it wherever possible.

  • How can we identify the problems that demand design thinking?
  • How do we redefine design language to include non-designers?
  • What design solutions are non-visual and able to be applied to “non-design” problems?
  • How do we share the design culture that lives on #designtwitter and blogs with non-designers?

We’ve done a great job of improving design practices within the tech and creative fields, and we’ve certainly pushed the fields forward, but this thinking rarely makes it to the places where it’s needed the most: the non-corporate, under-resourced, mission-driven organizations and communities.

Every designer has their own beautiful process to share

The ethical obligation of designers to share their design skills

There are so many meaningful causes that are under-staffed, under-funded, and entirely under-resourced.

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From social services to environmental preservation, the organizations supporting these causes don’t typically run in design circles, nor do they spend time with the leading practitioners across UX, UI, and design strategy. They’re not up to date on the latest Medium post about transforming organizational cultures and the value of design thinking, and they’re not tapped into the design publications that so openly share these practices. 

“Doing design work teaches people to broaden their perspectives, seek and achieve deeper understanding, and create what people actually need while moving them to action.”

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At the same time, there is so much wisdom within the design community: about cultivating high-performing teams; improving processes and workflows; designing for accessibility and inclusion; understanding your audiences and speaking directly to them. This is wisdom that is so beneficial to nonprofits and impact organizations, yet sadly stays confined to the creative, tech, and design worlds.

This is precisely why it’s our ethical obligation to share our design skills with those who will benefit from them: because we have proven time and again that we know how to solve challenging, complex problems, yet we seldom put in time to share and teach these powerful skills to others outside the world of design who would benefit greatly from even a single tool in our toolkit.

But we should.

Design’s impact beyond deliverables

It’s easy to talk about this in theory, but we have examples too. At Amble, we’ve had the opportunity to watch up-close as nonprofits learn about and benefit from design techniques. These are two of our favorite collaboration stories:

Mariposa Arts Council’s solution for creating cohesive messaging

In the western foothills of the Sierra Nevada mountains, Mariposa Arts Council seeks to support the cultural arts. The council was doing wonderful work, but not communicating it well to their audience. Before working with designers, the council had one message for all segments: “grant speak.” This proved fruitless in many of their communications.

Learning to speak each others’ languages

When Amble’s participants began their work with Mariposa, they started with identifying and understanding each of the council’s personas, allowing them to craft targeted messaging that resonates with the interests of each group. They continued on to create compelling collateral, design website user flows, and experiment with email automations that were highly relevant to each audience. All of these non-visual design solutions rejected the generalized one-size-fits-all marketing message that the council had been using.

Going through these design processes helped the council staff see their community in an entirely new light. They gained a much deeper understanding of the unique makeup of their constituents: donors, funders, grantors, members, and a general audience, each of whom have different motives and desires. Through research methods, empathy practices and other design exercises, they learned how each group responds to different stories and messaging while being connected to their common cause of supporting the local arts. 

While you and I may take user segmentation and persona building for granted, these tools helped Mariposa Arts Council reframe the problems they’re attempting to solve and entirely adjust their approach to addressing them.

The original objective of this collaborative work focused on creating materials that increased engagement, expanded reach, and improved their website. By the end of the project, it was learning the design process itself that left a lasting impact on the council.

Getting to know Sierra Foothill Conservancy’s user personas

The foothills surrounding the beautiful Yosemite National Park in California is supported and protected by Sierra Foothill Conservancy. Many different kinds of people visit their website wanting to support the environment around them—not necessarily just to donate to the conservancy—and they want to support all of these audiences. 

Working on personas and sharing knowledge

As one example, landowners will visit the site with a desire to conserve their land, and are looking for resources to support them in doing so. They don’t need to be pressured to donate to the organization, as they are doing their part in other ways. At the same time, when people visit the site to support the land conservation efforts of others, the conservancy wants to speak to them at the heart level to compel them to become more involved. 

Similarly to the work with Mariposa, Amble’s participants helped Sierra Foothill Conservancy break their audience into four unique personas, each with different needs and reasons for engaging with the organization. Once they did this, their world shifted. They began reevaluating all their collateral and messaging, marketing processes and user flows, and exploring new ways to more effectively engage each audience group in ways that are relevant to them, and not just the needs of the conservancy.

What really resonated with the staff was the “why” behind the recommendations from Amble’s participants. Essentially, it was seeing the journey, research, and design process that really evolved the staff’s thinking to the point where they now think deeply about each of their four personas and tailor all their work to address their unique needs in concert with their shared interests of conserving Yosemite’s land.

Our original thinking was that the deliverables would be the most tangible benefit for both Mariposa Arts Council and Sierra Foothill Conservancy. We quickly discovered that by taking people through the design process, the staff develop organizational capacity that greatly impacts the way they approach their work, far beyond basic design needs.

Prior to participating in design processes, these organizations were asking the question “How can we raise money from people?” Now, they’re asking questions like, “Why are these folks reaching out to us?” and “What does this group of people believe?” and “How do we want these people to feel?” 

This dramatic shift in thinking was entirely influenced by their involvement in the design process, and has led to their new love, appreciation, and evangelism for design and design thinking as a whole. This is making a tangible, lasting impact in these organizations. 

Sometimes what you really need is a fresh perspective

What you can do to further the impact of design

As we’re fully immersed in the world of design and creativity, it’s important to take a step back and make sure the way we work and the exercises we employ are not taken for granted. Many folks do not think the way we do, do not approach problems with the same levels of curiosity and empathy we do, and are not as research-based-yet-action-oriented as we are. These skills are valuable and deserve to be applied to worthy and meaningful opportunities beyond the tech and creative fields.

Things that seem simple to you and I can forever change the way another person without exposure to design sees the world and operates an organization.

Each of these holds tremendous possibility and is commonplace among designers, yet rarely are organizations outside our bubble experimenting with and implementing these tools and ideas—and if they are, they’re not preaching their practices the way we do, which creates another opportunity to build capacity.

This is precisely why we can have significant impact by helping move design beyond the walls of our community and into the world that surrounds us.

Now that you’ve seen how Mariposa Arts Council and Sierra Foothill Conservancy are building organizational capacity through design, let’s explore a few ways that we, as designers, can do the work of finding and supporting more organizations doing meaningful work yet lacking the resources—and awareness—to hire designers.

  • Run pro bono workshops with the local community organization you’ve watched from afar but haven’t previously connected with to guide them through your design process, learn about their challenges, and explore ways you can help them. You’ll expose them to design simply by taking them through the process.
  • Get involved with a cause you believe in—food justice, climate initiatives, public education, etc—and find your way onto a committee that excites you. From there, you could identify opportunities to help and take them through a design process to validate and address those challenges. This is an opportunity to teach design skills and methodologies while simultaneously having immediate impact.
  • Volunteer as a coach, mentor, or advisor with an organization that works with kids and become someone who challenges the kids to think in ways they’re not used to thinking—i.e. exercising their empathy, conducting qualitative research, and prototyping instead of planning.

If you want a little help getting started with teaching your design skills to others, you could also join us at Amble for a month-long sabbatical that helps you step away from regular work to spend time helping organizations benefit from your creative expertise—both craft and process—the way we’ve done with Sierra Foothill Conservancy, Yosemite Conservancy, and Mariposa Arts Council. You can learn more about our programs on our website, and also sign up for updates on future sabbaticals.

We would love to help you get started using your powers for (even more) good!

Collaborate in real time on a digital whiteboard