Improvisation and Design in Social Impact 150 150 MAKE IT BETTER TABLE

Improvisation and Design in Social Impact

This article first appeared in The Good Design Awards Yearbook. For more information on the awards, please go to

Two reasons social change projects often fail to deliver their aspired impact are: 

1. Poor solution design 

2. Too much scripting and not enough improvised activity 

donkey wheel and Benefit Capital are proud to have been involved in the Social Impact Category of the Good Design Awards for three years. It has been a privilege over that period to have had visibility of circa 150 entries, all of which have had great social change intention. The Good Design Awards offer a special opportunity to shine a light on outstanding examples of good design applied to social impact, of which there have been many. 

In addition to these entries in the social impact category, in our own businesses we have had the opportunity to see hundreds more social change initiatives, projects and businesses. Some patterns have emerged which offer insight into what needs to be done to better harness the amazing talents and best intentions of social change agents. 

1. Good Design Applied Directly to Social Change Initiatives 

The best examples of design for social impact are those where good design practice is applied to the social impact itself, not only to the communications and media that support the initiative. It is not enough to engage designers when, for example, it is time to develop the supporting technology platform or the interior design of the facility. Is the intervention itself well designed? Applying good design to social impact means users are engaged, not only in the design of a pre-determined idea, but in the formation of the initiative itself, where social change agents commit the time and effort to empathise deeply with the intended beneficiaries and remain agile and responsive during prototyping and testing.

The next step forward therefore, in growing the application of good design for social impact is to increase the number of projects where designers and researchers are engaged with entrepreneurs in the foundational thinking for social impact projects. 

2. Improvisation 

The social change sector has learned a lot from traditional business thinking in recent decades, and much of the sophistication and rigour around commerciality, people and culture, and marketing has been very useful. However, one of the unfortunate practices that has been adopted in the bundle of organisational intelligence is the practice of strategic planning. Plans are like scripts with the role of the leader being to act like a play or film director, orchestrating the actors into a predetermined set of acts. But unlike a film set, the real world is not an independent system, it is constantly changed by externalities, often unpredictably. Acting in this world is more like the art and practice of improvisation, than acting out or memorising a script. If we act out a predetermined script rather than improvise based on real time context and stimulus, we risk wasting our energy while the world moves on without us. 

Our observations are that understanding external environmental patterns and trends and acting with agility in line with purpose and core values are much more valuable competencies than those needed to execute a static plan. 

Bringing these two observations together means that the design work in social change is never finished. The outcome of social change is (or should be) positive and growing impact, it is not to sustain existing solutions to social challenges (or the organisations that deliver them). A genuine commitment to optimise social impact therefore requires effort to ensure any intervention is well designed, but also to recognise that the project to support the intervention successfully will be less like a script and more like a set of guidelines to support improvisation.

Col Duthie