Over the past ten years, we’ve seen the proliferation of design projects that explicitly aim to have a social, economic or environmental impact… but where are the firms? There have been dozens of publications that highlight successful projects, but few that explore how these types of projects could sustain an entire design practice. However, we’ve already seen leaders like D-Rev and MASS prove that it is in fact possible to develop a financially sustainable design practice focused on social impact design. But how have they done it? What are their strategies and methods? What are their business models and organizational structures? How do they make money?
Over the past two years, I’ve been researching these very questions alongside my two partners, Mia Scharphie and Nick McClintock. Our work explores how social impact design firms fund projects and develop viable business models, as well as how these new approaches to practice are redefining the scope of the traditional design process. We recently received a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts to finish and publish this research, which will be publicly available early next year, but we wanted to share just a taste of what’s to come here first!
Below are three brief profiles of social impact design practice; one nonprofit, one for-profit, and one hybrid. Each has developed a unique approach, and while these profiles don’t tell the full story, they begin to shed light on some of the strategies being used today to sustain social impact design practice.
Who, What, Why
Emerging Terrain was an Omaha-based arts organization focused on issues of the built environment. The organization worked on a variety of efforts—both built projects and nonphysical efforts including exhibitions and events with the larger goal of starting a conversation about the Omaha landscape and the potential for Omaha to be a vibrant city. While the organization is no longer operating in Omaha, their work still provides key knowledge on social impact design practice.
Incorporate Non-Physical Outcomes
Emerging Terrain’s first project coincided with a large-scale dinner and event. The firm has continued to host events, both a second large-scale dinner and smaller conversation nights, as well as lectures, events and installations on local issues relevant to Omaha’s landscape. Through this focus on non-physical products, Emerging Terrain has brought together a diverse set of stakeholders (citizens, community leaders, nonprofits, businesses, politicians, funders, etc.) interested in public life and issues of space and landscape within Omaha. Through the process of hosting and leading events, Emerging Terrain demonstrated its commitment to these issues and in the process built trust with numerous potential partners.
By incorporating non-physical outcomes; dinners, talks, events, etc. Emerging Terrain built a constituency and positioned themselves at its center. As a result they have been tapped to consult and work on large scale urban projects. The city and its many stakeholder see Emerging Terrain as a key mediator with the skills to address issues that few firms have the local knowledge to take on. Thus, by engaging in activities outside of the traditional design process, they’ve built a reputation for themselves that has led directly to new project opportunities focusing on exactly the issues they are most passionate about.
As designers, we tend to think about waiting for the project opportunities to come to us, but Emerging Terrain has shown that by bringing public awareness to design-focused social impact projects, they could build a constituency of supporters and partners who would want to hire them to work on those very projects, as well as tap them for other related work.
Who, What, Why
Utile is a for-profit architecture and planning firm that calls itself “a design firm built like a think tank.” Utile has become known for their skill at dealing with the complexities and politics of urban projects (specifically in Boston and in the Northeast Region). Utile’s strategy is to avoid projects that include Requests for Proposals (RFPs) at all costs and to try to be in the right place at the right time.
Expand The Scope Of Design Practice
Most of Utile’s projects involve government agencies (and often a complex set of funding sources and agency jurisdiction.) One of the firm’s strengths is its heavy emphasis on the ‘predesign’ portion of the design process. This predesign work often includes developing project scopes for complex public agency clients, creating zoning categories, drafting RFPs, and convening stakeholders.This arms Utile with the deep expertise of a locality that, when paired with their professional expertise, sets them up as great candidates for the design of projects in those locales.
By getting involved in projects long before a design firm typically would, Utile is expanding its service offerings and getting involved in highly political contexts. Their role in helping city governments craft things like RFPs and zoning proposals provides the firm with unique knowledge and understanding about diverse stakeholder groups, economic agendas, and a multitude of other factors that play critical roles in the design and management of cities. As a result, they are able to position themselves as both a design firm and a think tank. With a deep understanding of the many complex and interdependent issues and stakeholders, they have a unique capacity to translate that knowledge into design solutions.
As Thomas Jefferson once said, “Design activity and political thoughts are indivisible.” Utile has shown that by embracing the political complexities that surround the design of the built environment. In doing so, they are able to sustain a practice focused on critical public-interest issues in the city and region where they work.
Who, What, Why
Inscape Studio/Publico is an architecture and design firm with two arms; a traditional architectural practice that work primarily with community-based organizations, and a nonprofit arm that works with local nonprofits to provide predesign and schematic design services at a discounted rate. This model allows the firm to provide the collateral that nonprofits need to raise the funding for large capital-intensive projects that have the potential to transform communities. The firm emerged out of the 2008 financial crisis with a commitment to reorient their business model to serve the types of clients they felt most passionate about working with.
Hybrid For-Profit / Non-Profit Model
Inscape Publico provides nonprofits with highly detailed schematic design packages that help them apply for grants, connect with potential funders, gain board approvals, and feasibly push projects forward. After nonprofits raise money for their projects, they are free to take the plans to another architect for construction documentation and administration, or bring them back to Inscape Studio and work with the team at market rates. Over the past few years, they have seen that nearly every non-profit that Inscape Publico works with do, in fact, choose to come back and hire Inscape Studio to complete the project.
A crucial part of the model is the organizational structure; Publico does not have any architects on staff. In truth, Publico is just a shell, a middle-man of sorts. Although Publico is the entity working with nonprofits, all the design work for its nonprofit partners is subcontracted out to Inscape Studio. This means that Publico avoids the need for liability insurance, payroll services, administrative staff, and many other requirements a typical architecture firm has. But the work Inscape Studio does for Publico is typically done at 20-30 cents on the dollar, which means Publico’s 501(c)(3) status is crucial to their financial sustainability because it allows the organization to fundraise and apply for grants. As a result Publico is able to both help nonprofits, and produce projects that end up coming back to the studio at market rate.
While the concept of a for-profit/non-profit hybrid has existed in social entrepreneurship for years, it had yet to be applied to the architecture and design industry. Inscape has demonstrated that by looking to business models outside of the design industry, it is possible to create new opportunities for practicing social impact design. More on Inscape’s model here.
Career Paths and Business Models
One thing is clear from examining these three profiles; practicing social impact design requires more than just design. If you’re looking for a career path in this field, it is critical to recognize that the traditional business model of design is likely not in your future. It’s time to start thinking more broadly about what design practice looks like when it’s focused on social impact, rather than profit.
Early next year our research group, Proactive Practices, will complete our first publication, which will include 10 case studies on social impact design firms, along with essays and articles from leaders in the field. Click here to get a copy of the publication once it’s finished! In the mean time, we’d love to hear from you – what firms or business models do you know of that make social impact design possible? Leave comments below or reach out to us on twitter or email! firstname.lastname@example.org email@example.com firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @giladmeron @miascharphie
Mia, Nick and Gilad are co-founders of Proactive Practices, a research collaborative that explores the strategies and practices of designers who explicitly pursue social, economic or environmental impact through their work.