Impactful Teaching: Two Professors on Social Impact Design

As designers, of all types, become part of a rising class of problem-solvers and creative thinkers who work to solve our most pressing environmental and social issues, design education must adapt accordingly. Equipping emerging designers with the knowledge and the tools to best address these challenges requires a new way of teaching and learning: one rooted in an understanding of social impact.

Taking into account the triple bottom line, social impact design involves a responsibility towards the end user with the goal of improving societal wellbeing. In academia, social impact design programmes work to complement existing design thinking methodologies, while also encouraging students to let go of individual egos to listen and create empathetically alongside local communities. In conversation with two professors leading social impact programmes at their respective institutions, we learn what it takes to build effective social impact design curriculum and its critical role in preparing future designers to work more inclusively, sustainably and transparently.

Toronto’s OCAD University launched the Social Innovation Design Pathway as part of the Faculty of Design in 2017. The pathway of elective courses helps to augment a student’s home programme by combining responsible design thinking and making with business and innovation. Sarah Tranum, Associate Professor of Social Innovation Design at OCAD says that the pathway of courses is rooted in respectful design practices, which encourages students to find sustainable paths to developing products, services and systems that promote meaningful social impact.  Courses include Participatory DesignSocial Enterprise Catalyst and a Design Abroad course, which allows students to travel internationally and work closely with local organizations on systems design projects.

Some nine thousand kilometers away, at the Saint Luc Arts College in Brussels, is a Master’s programme in Design for Social Innovation. Launched in 2016 as a specialization, the programme became a full two-year multidisciplinary Master’s in 2019. Pierre Echard, Professor of Strategic Design in the Masters programme at Saint Luc, notes that the programme responds to a growing desire of future designers to become engaged citizens and skilled professionals. Offering courses in Strategic Design, Contemporary Creativity and Citizenship and Applied Psychology, students of the programme also undertake a 300-hour internship and a socially impactful personal project.

Credit photo: OCAD University

With the goal of fostering collaborative creation and thoughtful reflection, both programmes focus on experiential learning. An engagement with diverse audiences through community field work and projects is built into OCAD’s and Saint Luc’s curriculums, while skill development in iterative prototyping and participatory co-design allow students to hone their design thinking process. Collaborations with community stakeholders and local leaders represent the cornerstone of social impact design curriculum. In order for emerging designers to become accountable to and driven by the potential impact of their work, it is imperative to equip them with a deepened appreciation of diverging economic, environmental and cultural contexts. Pierre stated, “This is the opportunity for design, and design thinking, to become mainstream approaches for any form of innovation, used by non-profits, public administrations, academia and public health institutions. Despite the non-linear process of design between ‘problem’ and ‘solution’, it is increasingly becoming clear that design thinking achieves more robust, relevant and sustainable solutions in the long term.”

As much as a product or service must be technically feasible, humanly desirable and economically viable, it must first be socially and environmentally responsible.

Indeed, both Sarah and Pierre agree that social impact must be foundational to design education. Irrespective of their other qualifications, an understanding of social impact pushes the designer, whether industrial, graphic or UX, to apply societal considerations at each stage of their design thinking process. As Sarah notes, “gone are the days of designers solely focused on aesthetics or functionality” – in that as much as a product or service must be technically feasible, humanly desirable and economically viable, it must first be socially and environmentally responsible.

The rise of social impact in design education does hopefully reflect a broader shift in design, most notably through the acknowledgment that the most powerful outcomes come from diverse collaboration. In the meantime, the mission of both OCAD’s and Saint Luc’s programmes, and likely of similar programmes elsewhere in the world, remains guiding emerging designers to become, as noted by Sarah, “catalysts for a new mode of production, consumption, and interaction that forms the backbone of a new economy rooted in equity, cooperation, and love.”

Credit Photo: ESA St-Luc

Pierre Echard has 25 years experience working with NGOs, UN agencies, business networks and foundations, managing projects and strategies on the circular economy and social innovation. Following a Bachelor of Science in Rural Sociology from Cornell University (USA), and a Masters in Management from ESSEC Business School (France), he began his career in Africa and Latin America, where for five years he coordinated urban environmental projects with NGOs and UN agencies. Future generations are a cornerstone of his work, regularly coaching and inspiring youths to integrate sustainability in their projects and careers, and teaching a Master’s Programme in Design for Social Innovation. This MDIS programme of the ESA Saint Luc Arts college in Brussels, first of its kind in Belgium, gathers students with bachelor’s degrees in visual, plastic and spatial arts, who collaborate in multi-disciplinary teams on social and environmental projects in situ, for real public or private organizations.

Sarah Tranum is an Associate Professor, Social Innovation Design, in the Faculty of Design at OCAD University. She has created and taught several courses across the Faculty of Design that focus on guiding undergraduate and graduate students as they imagine and develop innovative and sustainable models for using design as a tool for social change. Sarah is also a social innovation designer and strategist. She founded TrickleUp Design, a design firm pushing the boundaries of design and business to create transformative products and services that are socially, environmentally, culturally, and financially sustainable. Sarah received a Master of Design in Designed Objects degree from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and her undergraduate degree in Policy Analysis and Management from Cornell University.

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