A reflection on good business and social design in three parts.

Business and social innovation are not traditional bedmates, but have much to learn from one another as the thinking behind this rising class of design entrepreneurs positions them as true leaders.

by Cheryl Heller

Traditional design exists to serve the needs of business, and has proven its value in every blockbuster product, disruptive service or platform, and successful brand. The symbiotic relationship between design and business has worked well for a hundred years, give or take, and its progeny have populated our industrialized civilization with billions of organizations and artifacts. The outcomes, as we all know, are selling products, delighting consumers, gaining market share and making money. But what I’ve just described is business as usual, and as we all know, that no longer applies to either enterprise or design.

A wake up call came for designers with the 2011 Cooper Hewitt exhibit called Design for the Other 90%; with its stark revelation of the role design has played in creating a world that fails the vast majority of people in it; and, with its heart-opening illustration of the vast opportunity that exists to give design a higher purpose; to change lives as well as bank accounts.

Since then, the desire on the part of designers to do good and well has become infectious. Design for social Innovation has become an exciting practice, launching educational programs, career paths and thousands of on- and off-line communities.

It’s clear, even at this early stage, that this new design, which focuses on transforming people instead of innovating only more “things”, can create a renewed sense of possibility, energy and creativity for business as well as society.

But as with all new ideas, it has caused a bifurcation; in this case between the old world of growth-at-any-cost bottom line driven capitalism and a new model for growing and creating markets by making them more healthy and robust. To generalize shamelessly, business doesn’t understand what social innovation has to do with business, and social innovators are far from convinced that the best way to do good in the world is through the corporate world that they have learned to mistrust.

Business is changing.

The complex, disruptive challenges confronting companies today aren’t solved with the traditional tactics that used to automatically prescribe growth. The “Disruptive Innovation” concept that Clay Christiansen placed on the tongue of every business person who reads HBR gave name to the dynamic (and the anxiety) with which corporate leaders live. Threats no longer come from known competitors and death does not come slowly enough to predict or avoid. The structural order that the industrial age founders of capitalism believed they could impose is a memory. None of the old tricks work like they used to – at least not long enough to matter. There are no silver bullets, as they used to say, design or otherwise.

Moreover, the seemingly unquestioned notion that businesses have a need (and a right) to continual growth bumps up against the reality that resources – energy and materials extracted from the earth – are increasingly more scarce (and expensive) as other nations catch up to the U.S. and its consumptive habits. Add to that the technological transformation that has given citizens everywhere voice and power; it is no longer possible, or frankly sane, for companies to plan their future without adjusting to the realities of our planet and the needs of its citizens.

The shift from a single-minded business focus on selling objects and services (extraction, consumer-based) to designing new models and systems for human interaction and impact (recalibrating our role as participants in the biosphere) is the only way forward if we look with open eyes at the state of the anthropocene[1]. I am reminded not infrequently of David Orr’s statement that “As homo sapiens’s entry in any intergalactic design competition, industrial civilization would be tossed out at the qualifying round.”[2]

Using the same tools to fix the broken system that made it won’t work. Businesses need to sustainably increase the adaptability, creativity and wisdom of the people who lead and serve them.

And that is where design for social innovation comes in.

In the past five years or so, the number of people working in social innovation has grown exponentially. Paul Hawken has called it the “largest movement on earth”[3]. Business schools adopt design thinking or “human-centered” design as their version of it, AIGA created a national program dedicated to it (Design for Good), IDEO formed to address it. Meet-ups for people wanting to understand how to use it to “change the world” take place everywhere all the time.

Wikipedia defines social innovation as: “… new strategies, concepts, ideas and organizations that meet social needs of all kinds — from working conditions and education to community development and health — that extend and strengthen civil society.[4]

At DSI[5], we define design for social innovation as working on people instead of things; at a systems level, at large scales, with complex levels of engagement and on invisible as well as visible dynamics. In other words, it’s the design of those new strategies, concepts, ideas and organization that meet social needs of all kinds. But, and here’s the point of the article, we are finding that, ironically, social innovation design – and not the design that business created – is what business needs most right now. And that is works on people, not things, energizing cultures, shifting perspectives and igniting creative potential.

Please check back next week for an explanation of how this new design is different, and how it works.


[2] David Orr, Designing MInds

[3] Paul Hawken, Blessed Unrest


[5] MFA Design for Social Innovation at SVA