January 16

Cheryl Heller

Measuring the Impact of Social Design

Social design, or the application of design methodologies to solutions for complex social problems, is a new field, comprised of some components we’ve practiced for a very long time and some new things we’ve learned only recently. It’s a toolkit of sorts, the kind a very good carpenter might carry, filled with some favorite old implements with worn handles and patina, and some new ones that are shiny and sharp.

A number of tools have been part of the designer’s art forever, like synthesizing complex information and making it accessible, visualizing data and invisible systems so that insights and revelations and connections are available to everyone, reframing problems and questions to uncover root causes instead of symptoms, abductive reasoning and sideways creative thinking, giving ideas physical form or representation, and then making them desirable – often delighting people with the beauty or functionality of whatever has been created.

Other elements of social design have been incorporated from neighboring fields: the notion of “human centered” evolved from the “user centered” shift in technology development, when a user’s experience with products and services became the driving force for their design. And the idea that the best solutions are emergent rather than predicted – the use of prototypes and observation of people’s response as a way to iterate solutions instead of an “answer” decided upon in advance and force-fitted – comes from studying the way nature works to “test” new ideas. It’s the same insight that led to the lean start-up method for business that’s slowly replacing our reliance on five-year plans.

I’ve been practicing social design since before it was called that. Fifteen years ago, about the same time my life helping big corporations get bigger lost meaning for me, I met social entrepreneur Paul Polak (chicken or egg?) who became a mentor, and exemplar of possibilities for using what I knew how to do, for things that matter.

Since then, the field has grown in every way. Major foundations, government agencies, NGOs, corporations and legions of designers are investing their time and resources in it. By whatever name it’s called (human-centered design, social innovation design, social impact design), it carries great expectations in our battle against all social ills, from poverty to human health, climate change, food insecurity, injustice and inequity.

Seven years ago, I asked a group of the practitioners I most admire to join me as faculty in launching the first master of fine arts program in social design at the School of Visual Arts in New York. The curriculum grew from what we had all seen and learned in our journeys to contribute to improving the human condition through design. We’re now in our fifth year, and our graduates are out in the world, practicing at global NGOs, government, corporations, health care institutions, in creative consultancies and as founders of their own enterprises.

The essential nature of social design is that you can’t do it alone and you can’t learn it in theory. You have to get out in the world and practice – and the world, as we know, is rich and complex and constantly evolving.

We’ve evaluated, codified, disseminated, prototyped, published what we’ve learned about social design, but the fact remains that the field is still driven as much by what we don’t know yet as what we do. I think that’s a very good attitude; one I hope we never lose.

At the Measured Summit in New York City on Jan. 24, a group of diversely remarkable people will come together to discuss protocols for measuring the impact of social design – so that we can understand it better, evaluate where it works and why, attract and prepare the next brilliant practitioners to take it further, and scale those things about it that have earned the attention and hope placed in its contribution. We’ve invited leaders in philanthropy, health care, design and business, who will all share their stories of implementing social design, how they measure the results, and how we might move the field forward toward greater social impact.

Real social change is difficult and extremely slow. It’s not so hard to see short-term results, but to evaluate the long-term impact of our interventions, in a responsible way, can take decades or generations. Measuring and scaling the impact of social design, like all work toward a just and sustainable world, will never be completed, but we’re excited to begin. Please come join us.

To learn more and reserve a seat, click here.


Cheryl Heller is the founding chair of the Design for Social Innovation master of fine arts program at the School of Visual Arts in New York.

Photo of Design for Social Innovation alum Josh Treuhaft’s Salvage Superclub, by Tanya Bhandari.


Impact Assessment
product design