Design and Social Impact Q + A: Mariana Amatullo

Five Intelligent Coalitions: Design and Social Impact panelists were invited to expand on the Design and Social Impact white paper recommendations. Each had participated in the 2012 Social Impact Design Summit, which the “Design and Social Impact: A cross-sectoral agenda for design education, research, and practice” white paper chronicles.

Mariana Amatullo, Co-Founder and Vice President of Designmatters at Art Center College of Design addresses storytelling–a summit recommendation in relation to her dynamic work with students and international aid agencies.


Art Center students engaging in participatory design research activities during field immersion in Campamento San Jose, Santiago, Safe Agua Chile project.

One of the key challenges participants noted during the Social Impact Design Summit is how the value of social impact design is not effectively communicated to the social sector. You explored numerous ways Designmatters emphasizes storytelling in the program’s work. Involved in this area of design for over a decade, working with UN agencies, how did you get an organization like UNICEF to understand the value of design?
I don’t want to mislead the reader by implying that we’ve had a magic bullet for communicating value and broadly diffusing design knowledge in an organization as complex as UNICEF. This is far from the case! Instead, looking back, I would say that our process for building mutual understanding and conveying a sense of worth for design with our UN partners was much more driven by persistence, experimentation, and collaboration. The process was also guided by collaboration with a handful of extraordinary individuals in these organizations who were receptive to taking a leap of faith with us early on. If there is a “secret sauce” that I would emphasize, it is the collaborative dimension. It becomes always essential for us to connect with folks that are open to new spaces for dialogue and partnership. Today, we are privileged to have a robust partnership with UNICEF through Designmatters and our Media Design Practices: Field program; our graduate students were just at UNICEF Headquarters in New York to showcase the outcomes of their design research and projects--ones developed in close collaboration with the UNICEF Innovation team, the UNICEF Uganda country office and local stakeholders in Uganda. It was personally rewarding for me to witness how much our collaboration has expanded in depth and reach over time, though the collective contributions and insights of so many of the participants that we have immersed in this work.

From your experience, how can designers improve their own efforts in conveying the significant role design can play in creating positive change?
As a knowledge domain, the design field is undergoing a transformative moment: with designers shaping human experience at a broader scope than ever before. It is unquestionable that designers are increasingly recognized for their capacity and leadership skills to innovate in an uncertain world. By the same token, this particular space of practice for designers in the social and public sector remains un-codified and emergent. I imagine one could consider a number of action fronts to pursue in terms of advocacy for the significance of these new design roles: the sector will grow as designers leap into new strategic roles and craft singular career trajectories that bridge public and private sectors and create new forms of practice. Either way, it is important to recognize that there is probably not a single path to be followed. Proof of concept for the significance of design is also tied to the dire need to create a shared discourse about the “return on design” that we can point to. We need to do a better job at capturing the diversity of models we have to do this work, and lay out both qualitative measures, and quantitative metrics about some of the contributing factors that are at play for success and failure.


Field testing of a Balde a Balde and Giradora, Safe Agua Project, Cerro Verde, Peru, November 2011.

One short-term recommendation calls for creating an archive of case studies via a web-based knowledge hub. This archive would demonstrate the value of social impact design in terms of cost saving, efficiency, and broad social impact. Does Art Center or Designmatters create and post case studies? Is there a particular project or initiative that clearly exhibits one or more of these elements?
Since the founding of Designmatters we have been committed to capturing and documenting our educational and partnership processes as much as possible. There is certainly a curatorial approach that we take to accomplish this storytelling aspect of our work: we get together regularly as a team with the faculty leading our projects, and on a case-by-case basis, evaluate what resources we might have, what audiences we may want to reach, and what documentation formats and vehicles might be best for recording any given project. Our publications range from printed books to documentary films, and peer-reviewed academic papers. But at a minimum, all projects get synthesized in project pages in the Designmatters website. Building an open platform to share and contribute to the knowledge base in this emergent space is a priority for us. A recent case study that bridges theory and practice and addresses cost saving, efficiency, and broad social impact potential, is our Safe Agua initiative. The focus of Safe Agua is designing products, systems, and services to overcome water poverty in informal settlement communities in Latin America. A handful of the award-winning designs that have emerged: Giradora (an affordable, human-powered washer and spin dryer designed by Alec Cabunoc and Ji A You), and Balde a Balde (a low-cost portable faucet designed by Kimberly Chow). These are quite exciting to me not only as innovative products that capture the needs and aspirations of a base-of-the pyramid consumer, but also as examples of good, meaningful, scalable design.

One long-term proposal from summit participants was: develop a means to document and share the instructive failures of social design efforts. It was also suggested that we learn as much, if not more, from our failures so it is important to share these along with the successful ones. Is there a less successful project or approach with your students that did not work, but provided important insights you could share?
We generally adhere in design to the idea that we should fail fast, iterate, and design again. I’d like to think we can push that sense of failure further and follow Samuel Beckett’s dictum: “Try Again. Fail Again. Fail better.” Evident failure is part and parcel of design for social impact and there can be good reasons and a multiplicity of factors contributing to failure at many levels that are helpful to recognize. So indeed, we must get better at embracing a certain appetite for failure—especially for those of us interested in design education and social innovation. Being honest with our students about failure and the risk involved in bringing new ideas to life is important. Foreshadowing alternative futures for social change is a messy proposition at best, and a humbling one at that. In my view, having the flexibility it takes to pick up the pieces after the fall, and the self-awareness to make sense of it, are key skills for designers who want to engage in any project with an aspiration for purposeful change. In terms of Designmatters examples of failure, I would say that projects where we have learned to fail with flying colors over the years have shared a common denominator: Typically they have been ones where we did not take enough time to dialogue with partners and clearly set expectations together from the onset. More and more, that fluid, ongoing dialectic process with partners is one we dedicate a lot of energy and resources to.

Designmatters is a program that works with students from various disciplines. This type of collaboration across disciplines and sectors is characteristic of socially responsible design. Why is it important to create this type of design team?
It has been my experience that designers’ knack to constantly reframe and refocus a problem space as “reflective” practitioners is all the more amplified when we set the context for a process of inquiry within a multi-disciplinary framework. It tends to push our students to design with more constraints. The questions that get asked are all the more disruptive. And ultimately, that is a good thing.

All images courtesy of Designmatters at Art Center College of Design.

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