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Social Impact by Design: A Reflection

By Aliya Maria Baptista

Several of us at Carnegie Mellon are working on projects for our Social Impact by Design class. My project partner, Chelsey Delaney, and I reached out to collaborate with a local Pittsburgh organization, Earthen Vessels Outreach (EVO), an organization that works with youth in some of Pittsburgh’s rougher neighborhoods through after-school programs and summer camps. As an interaction designer, I was curious to see how I could fit in to the “social impact” realm of the design world. But I quickly realized the limitations of “design thinking” out in the day-to-day lives of the people we were supposed to be helping.

It’s safe to say that we had no clue what we were doing. We visited EVO twice, and both visits included community dinners. Our second visit was with the Girls Group, an after-school program that engages girls in dance and craft activities in the basement of a church. Kids, aged 5 to 18 years old, came here, sometimes with siblings, but largely without their parents’ consent or concern. Most of them come from abusive and/or single-parent homes. The meal, for many, was the first of the day. It dawned on us that one of the most important things we needed wasn’t something that would come quickly, if ever: their trust.

I’ve been taught that design can be used to solve many, if not every type of problem, no matter the scale or scope. But in this particular instance, I wasn’t convinced. That evening, I realized there are factors that wouldn’t allow for us to create a completely honest design solution.

We’d been given a two-month timeline for the project, and dealing with serious social issues such as poverty, unemployment, and drug  and sexual abuse added an extra dynamic to the equation. At best, our solution would be a suggested strategy. Maybe we would come off looking like heroes for working in this area. But what would we be solving? How would we know if our proposed solution is the best?

I concluded that we needed four things. 1) Time. The EVO staff has been there for years, and many of them could have been at jobs earning $100,000 or more a year. But they were devoting their time to this project, earning less than $25,000 a year. 2) Sacrifice. A real selflessness and commitment, exhibited by the staff, has developed into familial relationships with the kids. 3) Relationships. These kinds of bonds can only be built with your “user” over time. 4) Money. The staff has amazing plans for what they’d like to provide. But these plans, sometimes, remain plans due to a lack of resources.

These are the elements that I think I need as a designer, apart from my “design thinking,” to design for social impact. I don’t have some of these elements. But without them, I feel like a fraud working in this realm. And, perhaps I have no business to do so?