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Making an impact, by design

I think that what we decide to call things creates meaning, and sometimes the meaning created may not be the meaning that was intended. I also think that the trendy vocabulary we employ culturally should be replaced with rhetoric-free communication. I can’t say I’m deeply sympathetic to the word “impact,” a word that could mean many things or nothing at all. It is, in some cases, an empty word intended to impress.

But impact design—a growing trend among socially-conscious designers with an appetite for using their talents to help create a better world—is something I am deeply sympathetic to. The fields of public interest, social impact, community, humanitarian and sustainable design make up impact design, and all of them are on a critical growth path as more people use the power of design for positive social and environmental change.

And social impact doesn’t necessarily need to begin and end with our home communities—it can be used to shape, manage and reshape corporate cultures, too. Businesses are, after all, communities. Every company is made up of employees, each with their own traditions, prejudices, habits, attitudes and circumstances that make up their jobs and lives. These employees are where a cultural shift starts. For this reason, impact designers can play important roles in developing and nurturing their company’s corporate culture.

Next week, I’m finishing setting up an impact design pilot in two of my company’s US office locations that attempts to do two things: develop office culture that ties into our corporate strategy, and spread personal success stories between coworkers on the ground day-to-day.

What became clear for me while planning the project and setting up the first location was that a designer’s ability to effect social change and help foster strong social bonds around a single business strategy is not mysterious, that it is explicable, and that when put into practice it can even be scalable and measurable. And even more encouraging—it can be done on a shoestring and with limited resources. You can, in fact, create a simple, collaborative shared space that impacts an office and the way coworkers interact with it and each other without being overly concerned about “perfect” design and the ideal budget. The space you’re transforming, the tools you put in it and the quality of the stories that are shared are what count.

Stories alone have the power to change an entire culture. In fact, if you want to change a culture, you need to change the stories that are being told. 

...if you want to change a culture, you need to change the stories that are being told.

That simply means, if the stories people in your office are telling revolve around pulling all-nighters, rushed last-minute assignments and being asked to work on weekends, do one thing at a time to change those stories and you’ll be amazed at the cultural impact. And a healthy culture leads to increased efficiency, talent retention and quality of work. So maybe changing the stressful stories looks like letting your team go home early one day, or taking them to a Yankees game, or to the bar for happy hour, or on a “field trip” to a museum. Maybe it looks like reorganizing your team so they can collaborate and work more efficiently with each other and with other departments. But however you do it, once the stories begin to change, the culture will change along with them.

Storytelling is an expected part of many social impact projects. Narratives are the living memory of a moment in time, of human interaction or experience. Beyond the fad of this often-empty word intended to impress, storytelling aspires to be a model for winning hearts and minds and inspiring others.

So then, storytelling became an integral part of my impact design initiative right from the start. Uncovering “hidden gems” and sharing them was almost more important than the space itself—the “hidden gems” being overlooked employees. Everyone has an inspiring story to share, and when offered the opportunity, many will gladly put theirs forward. As a small team spearheading the initiative, myself, a designer on my team, and organizers on the ground at each location curated a group of handwritten success stories from coworkers on printed and branded postcards, to be displayed in the collaborative spaces we created. When we launched the first space, we read one out loud to the local group to get the ball rolling. And what we saw slowly beginning to happen was that others were becoming interested in reading and being inspired by them. We even had a request for more blank cards so others could fill in their stories, too.

I am a passionate advocate of the transformative power of design and storytelling and the engagement of designers in the public realm—whether it be as initiative-leaders within their organization, or in their neighborhoods. I call that making an impact, by design.

This story is just the beginning of one proof of it.

Alyssa YeagerComment