3 Business Models of Social Impact Design


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.

Emerging Terrain

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.

Emerging Terrain

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.

Inscape Studio/Publico

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! 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.


After The Storm: Katrina 10 Years Later


From cataclysm to catalyst, Hurricane Katrina affected individuals, communities, and ultimately our nation in profound and innumerable ways. Ten years after the storm, Next City marks its anniversary through the voices of ten residents who share their experiences and efforts to cope with and create change around the circumstances created or simply exposed by Katrina.

“We chose to mark the 10-year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina this way because it would be impossible for one story to encompass the myriad experiences and truths that underlay New Orleans’ rebound from what can only be described as a complete failure of local and federal government systems and policies. There is no single metric that can measure the ongoing evolution of a city and no one voice that should be privileged in the recounting of something as complex as post-disaster recovery.”

Progress has not always been linear and has taken on different meanings for different people. From criminal justice to housing discrimination, K-12 education to the environment, these stories run the gamut from hope to despair. But it is vital that they be heard.

Click here to read the full series on Next City.

Photo by AP Photo/Gerald Herbert

Architecture for Humanity Chapter Network is Rebranding and Wants Your Input


The group formerly know as the Architecture for Humanity Chapter Network, has decided to find a new name for itself. Now that they have done significant work transitioning from a group of chapters to a collectively mobilized and collaboratively led network, they will surface a new banner to rally under, and they want your voice in creating this name.

The network’s existence proves that the most resilient aspect about the old AFH organization are the people. Inspired to deliver on the mission of needs based, participatory design these volunteers remain as steadfast as ever, maybe even more so, working to create more opportunities within the design and AEC professions for humanitarian work. Moving forward they will form a 501(3)c nonprofit in the US and operate to support the professional development of their members, and the incubation of new chapters as sustainable business models for humanitarian design practice.

This network belongs to anyone who believes in the power of design to have a massive impact on the way we build and are represented in this world. To capture the essence of how you want to see this new organization they are running a campaign to have people record their answers to key questions about our collective efforts.

Click here to voice your opinion for the new AFH in this 15 minute survey.

Beyond the Cafeteria – A School Designed to Fight Obesity


Despite widespread awareness of the nation’s childhood obesity epidemic, there has been little success in affecting healthy and lasting change. Initiatives like longer gym classes, nutrition classes, and mandatory standing desks have failed to turn back the tide. But what if the design of a school itself could be used to prevent obesity? The redesigned Buckingham Elementary School in Virginia does exactly that.

“The architects worked directly with public health researchers to change a long list of details based on current research, from designing a kitchen with dedicated storage space for local, seasonal fruit, to placing healthy meals at kids’-eye level in the checkout line. In a teaching kitchen, third-graders can learn to make healthy meals from the foods they grow in the school garden …. Beyond the healthy eating interventions, the school was also designed to keep kids more active, with features like inviting stairways, walking paths, and furniture that flexes as students sit, so they aren’t completely still.”

From colors to materials, furniture to layout, the entire building is a classroom. This new frontier in design-centered health intervention in an academic setting, instills the lessons of healthy living for life.

Click here to read the full article Fast Company.

Photo by Tom Daly.

“Lilongwe women leveling inequality in construction”


In Lilongwe, Malawi, women are stepping up and staking their claim as contractors. At this point, 30 women have constructed over 200 units for a large scale affordable housing development called Likuni Meadows. In an article on, they describe these women as not being credited engineers or project managers.

“ Instead, they are ordinary mothers and grandmothers, many of whom were not able to complete their schooling. They all share financial discipline, work ethic, and the ability to think outside the box.”

They have worked very hard to climb up the ladder within their informal settlements of Lilongwe to get to this point. The female contractors collect five percent of the construction cost and have typically invested this money back into their families.

Click here to read the full article on

Photo by Reall/Mikel Fleming

2015 INDEX: Awards Bestowed Upon 5 Projects Designed to Improve Life


Last night in Helsingør, Denmark, over 1,300 people gathered to celebrate the 2015 INDEX: Award winners, a prestigious biennial design award that began in 2005. Representing the best in design “as a tool to address the world’s biggest challenges,” five projects were selected to each receive €100,000 cash prize from a record-breaking pool of 1,123 applicants from 72 countries. Join us in honoring this year’s winners, and don’t miss out on exploring all 41 finalists (including Better Shelter and Divine Divas, which were featured in our Pathways to Practice series!) More

Free Course on How to Successfully Network


The idea of networking tends to conjure up visions of “awkward mingling.” +Acumen and the Center for Creative Leadership have partnered to create a free 4 hour course addressing just this. Acumen believes that in order to make great change one needs great collaboration. The course “Networking Leadership 101: Building Your Core Professional Network,” is offering some core tips and tricks to getting over the networking hurdle. Some key learning outcomes include:

  • Understand the 3 key characteristics of effective networks and 5 network “traps” to avoid
  • Map and diagnose your individual network using the Leadership Diagnostic tool and other visualization platforms
  • Visualize and collaboratively assess your organizational or team network to see key trends and gaps
  • Plot 3 specific ways you can cross a network boundary, make a new introduction, and deepen an existing relationship

This free course is available from September 22- October 21 2015. All you need is a computer and approximately four hours to complete the course.

Click here to read the full description of the course.

“Impactful Business Models in Architecture”


‘The State of Practice’ is the focus of the AIA Young Architects Forum’s recent issue of Connection released last week. Available online for free, editor Jeff Pastva curated a solid sixteen pages on business models in architecture–a topic that compliments our current feature series on Pathways to Practice. Our own editor Katie Crepeau collaborated with verynice’s Matthew Manos to share socially-engaged practices in “Impactful Business Models in Architecture” through highlighting the online resource Models of Impact.

Last year, Matthew and his colleagues at verynice launched the Models of Impact website to share their findings and help more social entrepreneurs and designers understand the variety of social impact business model out there. The interactive map highlights over 100 brands and documents 45 thriving business models in both product- and service-oriented industries… Although it has attracted primarily startup incubation programs, coworking communities, academic institutions, social entrepreneurs, and nonprofit directors, Models of Impact can easily be applied to the architecture field in two ways: for architectural practices and for their client work and projects.

Read the full article on how architects (and designers) can use Models of Impact for their own practices, accompanied by three case studies of thriving practices, on Issuu here.

How to Get a Job in Impact Design

John Peterson, Founder and President of Public Architecture and recently appointed Curator of the Loeb Fellowship at the Harvard Graduate School of Design, has played a central role in the public interest design movement for over a decade. In a recent interview with Impact Design Hub’s Blaze Gonzalez and Gilad Meron, John shared his views on what the future of impact design looks like, where the jobs are and what skills designers will need to get those jobs. The video above scratches the surface of how to find a job in impact design and Gilad’s interview below takes a deeper dive into how John believes social impact design can be applied to any project, anywhere, by any firm, simply by analyzing six categories of impact.

Gilad Meron: Last year at Design Futures you gave a presentation about career paths in impact design. In particular, you spoke about what types of skills you thought students would need to find jobs in this field and you challenged them to think about alternative ways to gain those skills. What did you hope attendees would take away from that?

John Peterson: I could sense there was a lot of frustration and anxiety around the fact that there aren’t many jobs available in this field… it can be kind of paralyzing, people focused simply on that one question: where are the jobs? I really felt that was the wrong question. This field is too emergent to expect a tiered system of jobs and job tracks. It just doesn’t exist yet and you should stop waiting for it. More

Designing Here/Now at 2015 Core77 Conference


Core77 will be hosting it’s second annual conference in downtown Los Angeles around the theme “DESIGNING HERE/NOW.” From October 22nd to 24th, 22 speakers will be sharing work around four themes: Collaboration, Making, Business, and the Future. Hear from notable impact designers Matthew Manos of verynice, Tanya Aguiñiga, Gadi Amit of NewDealDesign, John Bielenberg of Future Partners, and Sly Lee of The Hydrous (also an Autodesk Foundation grantee.) Tickets are currently on sale at earlybird pricing, which ends August 31st.

This year’s conference is an exploration of the forces, relationships, technologies and ideas that are driving contemporary design into the future. We’ve worked to make DESIGNING HERE/NOW an experience that offers inspiration, practical know-how and an opportunity to connect over great food and drinks with the insiders of L.A.’s design community.

Click here to learn more and register to attend 2015 Core77 Conference, online at