Over the past two months, I’ve been fortunate to attend three conferences on humanitarian and social impact design, each in relatively different locations around the world—Glasgow, Paris, and New Orleans. Each one has brought a slightly different perspective to the evolving field of design for impact, from practitioners focused on learning by doing, to in-depth conversations on moving practice and projects forward, to providing an intensive, 5-day ‘school’ experience. One commonality between each of these events was the large amount of young designers eager to use their skills for good, who were all asking the same question: how do you begin?
Unfortunately there is no easy one-sentence answer to this question. The journeys taken by well-known practitioners, like MASS Design Group’s Michael Murphy, Tulane City Center’s Maurice Cox, and SCALEAfrica’s Erinn McGurn, are meandering paths where openness, flexibility, and dedication prevail over the common challenges of projects dissolving, teams face turmoiling, and funding running dry (or non-existent in the first place.) However, there are a few common starting points that have propelled these designers into action.
Below are three launching points that have been grouped together based on presentations and personal discussions with designers. The lines between are blurry and disregard the layers upon layers of stories and experiences that have shaped these people into who they are today. However, these stories are meant to be seen as catalysts that have driven people to their work. Think of these experiences like the biggest weight in their heart that the other experiences revolve around.
1. Harness a Personal Experience
Whether it has happened to a family member, friend, or themselves, the designers below have been affected by a life-changing event that has ignited a deep passion and a willingness to take action.
Take MASS Design Group’s Christian Benimana who grew up in Rwanda during the Genocide—a life-altering event that has challenged him to question the significance and reach of architecture. Beninma studied architecture in Shanghai and returned to Rwanda with a yearning to use his architectural skills to positively transform his home country. He has taught at Rwanda’s first school of architecture in Kigali (KIST) and works on healthcare spaces that are not only changing the face of Rwandan architecture but also impacting healthcare standards in the Global North.
On the other side of the planet in the City by the Bay, Stephanie Goodson and her neighbors were frustrated by the 30-year waitlist for a garden plot. Matching this frustration with a plethora of vacant lots in the evolving community of Mission Bay, NOMADgardens was born to create a communal space for new neighbors. After four years dedicated to developing the first transportable community garden, the concept is growing to other emerging neighborhoods in the US.
Although not a designer by trade, Giles Duley uses his craft of photography to convey stories of people living in conflicted areas around the world. Beginning his career in music photography, Duley was unfulfilled with the insignificance of his work and abandoned photography to be a care worker. Through caring for–and ultimately becoming friends–with an autistic man, he discovered the power that photographs can have in revealing issues and compelling people take action. This experience made him return to professional photography to document humanitarian issues for NGOs. While on assignment with American troops in Afghanistan, he stepped on a landmine and lost his legs and one of his arms—making him part of the story. The culmination of these events over many years has led Duley to do his most meaningful work every day—telling the stories of the forgotten and marginalized with empathy. (His TED talk is extremely powerful and worth every minute.)
2. Embed Yourself in a Local Community
Through deep involvement and investment in a place, these designers discovered an opportunity to use their skills for positive change. They truly embody the ‘citizen expert’ working with ‘expert citizens.’
After living and working in Italy, Maurice Cox returned to Charlottesville, Virginia, to teach at the University of Virginia’s School of Architecture. With an insatiable curiosity to discover his new hometown, Cox became involved in a neighborhood group to protect neglected historical homes. He utilized his skills as an architect to work with community leaders and the local government to garner support and eventually recognition for the historical buildings. This was the catalyst that has led Cox to become a “democratic design” practitioner in a variety of roles, including Mayor of Charlottesville, NEA Design Director, and now Director at Tulane City Center.
Across the pond in Scotland, architect Lee Ivett of BAXENDALE believes in becoming a part of the communities where he works. With years-long commitments made to establishing projects, Ivett has discovered the power of leaving projects undone to create sustainability. With the Woodlands Community Garden in Glasgow, he facilitated the creation of a space constructed by local people and an organization to sustain the garden for years to come. With this method, he believes “architecture becomes invaluable.”
In the raw and culturally rich South Africa, architect Peter Rich has been an activist architect ever since the apartheid era. He began by joining protest movements and has since transferred his involvement in social justice issues into his architectural practice. He has dedicated decades of his life to studying, documenting, and designing with South African’s indigenous and informal communities, which he describes as “telling the stories of people who’s stories haven’t been told before.”
3. Discover Possibilities through Travel
Last but not least, a visit to a distant place has made these designers shift their focus towards causes and issues both in their home countries and internationally.
During a trip to Zimbabwe, New York-based architect Erinn McGurn witnessed children eager to learn but lacking supplies and spaces. She began by sending them books and school supplies, which eventually turned into designing a library and then a school. By alleviating the inequities through small actions, McGurn has built SCALEAfrica to be a full-fledged nonprofit committed to improving education in rural sub-Saharan Africa.
The architect duo (Yashar Hanstad and Andreas Gjersten) behind the widely recognized TYIN tegnestue has combined travel and design to build projects in some of the most remote and impoverished areas of the world. Working on a shoestring budget, they only begin designing when on site and with community partners. Their agile and rapid-response mentality has led them to build libraries, orphanages, and community centers in Thailand and Indonesia.
It took a trip to Copenhagen for designer Matt Tomasulo to realize the potential of underutilized spaces in his hometown of Charlotte, North Carolina. By experiencing the Danish mecca where the space between buildings are as essential as the buildings themselves, Tomasulo has been “stitching together people and places” with a variety of initiatives ever since. He developed CityFabric for people to use maps to tell stories about where they live and Walk [Your City] to make directional signage to encourage walking and biking.
Identify Your Launching Point
For designers eager to get your hands dirty, spend a moment reflecting on your own experiences. What has made you think twice? What have you witnessed or experienced that you want to change? What has ignited a fury inside of you that you can’t let go of?
Use these as kindling to initiate a project. Share your idea with other people. Some might not take hold and others could blossom into something bigger than you ever imagined. Just like the designers above, remember that these are starting points to a lifetime of work where you’ll learn more from meandering than staying on the straight and narrow.
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