Social Impact Design: Where are the Career Paths?

I recently had coffee with a new friend. We spoke about our shared interest in design for underserved populations–and the business models for doing this. I have a vision for the work I want to do–and it’s one that isn’t widespread.

I want to design landscapes that make a healthier world–on the individual level, the community level and the ecosystem level. I believe the design of outdoor space is an underutilized opportunity for community building and health…

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I recently had coffee with a new friend. We spoke about our shared interest in design for underserved populations–and the business models for doing this. I have a vision for the work I want to do–and it’s one that isn’t widespread.

I want to design landscapes that make a healthier world–on the individual level, the community level and the ecosystem level. I believe the design of outdoor space is an underutilized opportunity for community building and health.

I want to do work that is deeply informed by the cultural patterns and realities of the clients I serve. I want to work with people from public health, community development, psychology, social work and entrepreneurship. I want the places and systems I design to be strategic tools–physical interventions that work deeply with nonphysical infrastructure–like communities, policies and programs–to achieve community goals. I want the design process and the design product to help coalesce community capacity building.

I want to be asked to design places that make families want to go on walks in the evenings. I want to be asked to make design and planting decisions that support honeybee populations and bring more birdsong into our lives. I want my mandate as a designer to set up frameworks that help people grow more of their own food, and sets up local food economies.

There’s a whole set of skill sets needed for this work–some of them are traditional design skill sets–conceptual design, planting design, detail and materials knowledge. Others include collaborating with other disciplines and translating goals into spatial strategies, knowing the literature to make informed decisions, and being able to assess whether projects have reached their goals.

Not every designer needs to have all these skills. As organizational consultant Lori Stohs says, “Know yourself best, surround yourself with the rest.” I don’t believe in the ‘master designer’ who knows more than anyone about everything–I believe in the architect as the ‘last great generalist’ who knows how to communicate with a collaborative team, coordinate efforts, and translate goals and ideas into physical reality.

In an optimal world, I’d be able to walk into a practice that uses design to serve the underserved, and create healthier, more vibrant environments. I would work in a network of professionals from other disciplines. But that world doesn’t truly exist yet–and certainly doesn’t exist, with the exception of a few practices, in landscape architecture. So the question for me is how do I build that reality? Do I keep practicing landscape architecture and try to shift my context towards human-centered and mission driven processes from within? Or do I try to build the internal capacities (or partner with them) on the ‘nontraditional’ skill sets and reverse engineer my way to the practice I’d like to be working in?

One of my research partners on Proactive Practices, Gilad Meron, always speaks about the need to build viable career paths in social impact design. I used to shrug off his concerns–preferring to look at the structural realities of our field as not as something that could be changed, but as obstacles that those with true passion and grit would find a way to move around.

I now see it differently. How much potential and passion is being lost due to the facts that there are so few career paths for practicing design for the underserved and in the public interest? How much more could we get done if we helped designers with a calling amplify that mission through skills training and placement doing meaningful work? We need grit, but we also need a landscape that allows designers with energy and commitment to see their work come to fruition.

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