Guest Blog: Careers in Social Impact Design Are Real…You Just Have to Create Them.
Pursuing a career in social impact design is not an easy thing to do. There are very few clear paths to follow, which means you’ll likely have to create a job for yourself, or at least create the inroads to one. Through a combination of luck, hard work, and guidance from some great mentors, I’ve been able to translate some of my own inroads into real job opportunities. That process is different for everyone, but I want to share some of the strategies and approaches that have helped me develop the beginnings of a career in social impact design.
First Things First
I have to start by advocating for the Impact Design Hub—not just because I am part of the editorial team, but because it is one of the most useful resources for someone looking for a job in this field. Impact Design Hub (IDH) is a website committed to growing the field of impact design (an umbrella term we use at IDH to refer to all fields practicing community-based design, human-centered design, public-interest design, participatory design, social design, etc.). If you’re looking for a career in this field, the first thing you should do is become more familiar with what’s out there and what’s going on.
Our Editor-In-Chief Katie Crepeau and Content Curator Blaze Gonzalez work tirelessly to find news, events, projects, ideas, resources, and opportunities in impact design. In particular, check out our jobs board that contains dozens of jobs posted each week and our new database of resources, information and opportunities (which we’re working to crowd-source, so please share it and add to it!). We also have a feature article section that serves as an open platform for practitioners and leaders like Liz Ogbu and Robert Fabricant to publish original articles and essays focused on critical issues in the field. Check out all the great articles in our most recent feature series “Design For Equity.”
OK, now onto the real advice…
Look Before You Leap, Then Leap
Do Your Research
Explore what’s already out there. Find out which organizations and firms already do the type of work you’re interested in. Find out which foundations offer grants to do the type of work you’re interested in. Find out which universities have programs and centers that support or facilitate the type of work you’re interested in. Find out if they have any opportunities you can take advantage of. Find out which fellowships and opportunities exist to support the type of work you want to do. Listen to TED talks by leaders in the field. Do whatever you need to do to find out more. Being informed is a critical first step.
Follow the Inroads
Don’t be overwhelmed by everything that’s out there. You don’t need to find your life’s work right now; you just need to find a focus area that fascinates you. Find something you are passionate about that you want to explore; something that you have a feeling will put you on the path towards what you do next. Along the way, find people you can identify with who have more experience than you and ask them for help. Many of the leaders and practitioners in this space were in your shoes once, and will be happy to give you advice if you ask. Building relationships with like-minded people of all ages will help you tremendously (often in unexpected ways).
Making Yourself Valuable to the Field
This field is nascent—just coming into existence and beginning to display signs of future potential. You can help it grow by identifying gaps in existing research and knowledge. You don’t need to be an expert to do this; you just need to be a smart researcher. Connect with people in the field and talk to them about what you’re researching. Listen to them, really listen. Take their advice, and follow up on any leads. Synthesize your research, then write an article or compile a report or design an infographic. Email it to everyone you know and share it on whatever social media platforms you use (I can’t tell you how many connections I’ve made just by sharing a few reports on issuu). Do anything you can to share the information you’ve gathered—it’s more valuable than you probably think it is.
Practical Advice For Students, Grads and Professionals
Take Time Off
If you’re still in school, take some time off. Whether it’s an entire year, a semester, or even just a summer, take some time to NOT do work and just read, write, and explore whatever you’re interested in. One of my favorite quotes of all time is “The work you do for yourself will consistently be the most impact work you do.” But if you don’t take time off to do that work, you never will. If taking time off isn’t an option then connect with university centers and student groups focused on what you’re interested in. Have discussions with your professors about the work you want to do and ask them for guidance. Go to Design Futures, it’s the best student-focused public interest design training out there. Make sure you’re giving yourself time to reflect on what it is you really want to be learning and training yourself to do.
Explore and Reach Out
If you’re about to graduate and you’re freaking out because you don’t have a job, then try to create bridges; fellowships, internships or other experiences that allow you to explore what you’re interested in (and get paid at least a little, don’t work for free) before you have to start a real job. That exploration period will give you the space to reflect on what you’re actually interested in. Live at home with your parents or sleep on a friends couch, do whatever you can. Reach out to practitioners and ask if they can hire you. It doesn’t matter if you’ve never met them, just email them and explain your skills and interests and ask if they know of any opportunities.
Network and Become an Intrapreneur
If you’re already in the work world, attend conferences (ACD, SFI, ABWxD, find more here—just select “Conferences / Events”). When you’re at these conferences, take lots of notes, get business cards, and stay in touch with the people you meet. Go back to your job and talk to your coworkers about everything you learned, not just once, but continually. Start a monthly discussion group, or convince a director or principal at your firm to allow you to spend a few hours a week researching and exploring how this type of work might be incorporated into your firm’s activities. Convince them to join Public Architecture’s 1% Program. Invite speakers to give talks at your firm. Start a small side project on the weekends. Or if none of that works, and you’re really motivated, find a new firm to work for, one that values community-based work.
Fathers and Fortune Cookies
My father has given me the best advice of my life: Work hard and be a good person. Maybe more than anything else, I think this applies to finding a job in social impact design. Everyone in this field wants to see it grow, and if you show them that you are willing to work hard and that you have good intentions, you’ll be surprised by how quickly opportunities will present themselves. But this won’t simply happen on its own; you must be proactive and entrepreneurial. Don’t be afraid to cold call people and propose new projects or opportunities that don’t yet exist. Alex Gilliam of Public Workshop once told me that a huge part of his job was “convincing people to pay for things they didn’t even know existed.” Get used to doing that.
While growing up, we’re constantly being encouraged and supported by our parents and teachers, constantly being told to keep trying even when we fail. For some reason these types of encouragement are not as present as we get older, but that doesn’t make them any less important. So we need to find them in other places, sometimes in unexpected places. For me, some of the best motivation I’ve ever gotten was from two fortune cookies, both of which have helped me more than I can put in words, far more than I ever thought a fortune cookie ever could.
“Your dreams are never silly, depend on them to guide you.” “A focused mind is one of the most powerful forces in the universe.”
Careers in social impact design are real; you just have to create them.
Gilad Meron is an independent designer, researcher and writer focused on community based design. He currently works with the Association for Community Design, the Autodesk Foundation, and Enterprise Community Partners. He is also a co-leader of Mapping Impact and a co-founder of the Blue House. Contact Gilad at firstname.lastname@example.org.