A Brief Reflection on Design with Non-Profits

by Ramsey Ford on March 17, 2010

Design is traditionally practiced as a tool to make industry more efficient, products more usable, and people more comfortable. These directives have been created by businesses interested in profit, in pleasing their consumers, and in beating the competition. So how is design different when it’s applied to a non-profit?  After all, non-profits’ first priority isn’t to make a buck,they’re generally interested in areas such as alleviating poverty, eradicating injustice, or advocating for the underrepresented.

Adam and Elavarsu reviewing a new charcoal mixer concept.

Over the past two years, staff and volunteers of Design Impact have worked intimately with non-profits on some of their core project areas and have learned a bit about what design in non-profits looks like. Designers still need to deliver on their core skill sets in order to add value to the process of development, but when working for an organization that is not motivated by profit and is less familiar with design,we’ve learned that it’s important to adjust the designer’s approach.  Here are five lessons that we’d like to share on making design valuable to non-profits.


Do more than draw pictures,but less than everything.

Designers often make two bad assumptions. One is that other people understand the value they bring to a project. The second is that they’re capable of implementing a wide array of skills outside of design. To work successfully,a designer needs to be clear with the non-profit and with themselves on the value and limitations of design. To an organization unaccustomed to working with a product or service designer their skill set and capabilities may not be fully understood. It may not be clear how “aesthetics” or “design-thinking” will help them serve their constituency. Designers need to thoroughly explain, through relevant examples, how their design specialty or background can benefit the project. Additionally,designers need to know their own limits and not overreach. Simply because a designer has worked on a product that has been marketed does not make them an experienced marketer. There are many talents needed to implement any project. Understanding which ones designerscan champion (and which ones they can’t) is essential to success.


Respect other change makers and learn about their processes.

Designers are not the only creative thinkers, process creators, or impact producers in the room. The non-profit they partnerwith has experience in their field and should be respected as a primary source of knowledge on creating change. Learning how the non-profit creates change is essential for making meaningful and appropriate impact. In traditional product design, designers that have knowledge of materials, manufacturing techniques, marketing requirements, retail expectations, and/or consumer insightare invaluable to the product development process. When working in a new non-profit area, it is important for designers to research and acquire a new set of related knowledge. For instance, if the non-profit is working on changing a local law that discriminates against homeless individuals, designers may want to have a basic understanding on the process of changing local laws, community organizing, non-profit funding, and creating media campaigns. This doesn’t mean they become experts in these areas, but gaining more than a layman’s understanding of the subject will greatly aid them in becoming a productive member of the team. Even as a non-expert, these new knowledge sets cannot be learned overnight, and require study or extended dedication to an area of impact.


Focus on concrete deliverables that impact the project.

When working in design’s customary role in business, designers can argue for a long leash. However, while their traditional partners in business have learned through experience that design is often a non-linear process, an uninitiated non-profit organization may not understand this.  In these situations, designers need to be careful not to spend too much time in creative reclusion or get side-tracked in interesting off-shoots of the original problem. Designers should define near-term objectives thathave concrete results that benefit the project while showcasing their talents and input. These smaller deliverables create tangible victories to build the team’s confidence in design, and help garner internal support as larger and more difficult tasks are approached. This focus on results in project sub-areas is crucial because non-profit projects are often bound by a tight budget.  Becoming accustomed to working in this manner, and in creating clear, relevant results will encourage the organization to work with design again.


Make your process open and clear.

Designers working with non-profits unfamiliar with designare acting asambassadors for the profession. They are bringing a new process and talent to organizationsthat may be curious (or incredulous) about their impact. It’s important for designers to share their process with their non-profit team members,in order to build the organization’s confidence in the design. The problem-solving process of design—the ability of designers to see connections between ideas and to leverage these patterns into new forms—can and should be shared with other people in the organization.  Opening the process and directly involving others in decisions and activitieswill most likely make the projectslower. However,demonstrating design to an organization may have far-reaching benefits. First, it strengthens the process by adding new perspectives and opinions. Second, it empowers the organization to use these same techniques in other areas of their operations. And third, it opens up new frontiers for other designers to work in the future.


Respect that social change takes time.

Designers generally work in the transfer of new technology from a research scenario to a market scenario, or theywork on updatingexisting technologies to fit with evolving brands and consumer expectations. This work requires speed, as consumer whims are ephemeral and new technologies are emerging at an ever-quickening pace. In fact, one of the most valuable aspects of design in business is that when applied at a systems level, it can increase the speed and efficacy of these developments. Working with non-profits often differs becausethey tend to work in a human scale, impacting change through relationships with people. In general, this type of change takes longer than technical change. Add to this that non-profits traditionally have less funding while working on massive problems (and thus areoften“stretched thin”), and the process of creating change may slow down even further.Designers need to understand this difference and be patient when looking for the fruits of their labor.

Kate and ODAM staff discussing soap packaging mock-ups.

Working with non-profits mandates that the designers adjust their approach and perspective. And, while these lessons may sound simple, they are not always easy to live out. However, as non-profits continue to embrace dynamic cross-sector solutions, design will become more crucial in meeting their goals. And, as the distinct line between non-profit and for-profit continues to blur in new social change models, designers that are familiar with various approaches will be better equipped to work with organizations to reduce inequality, remove injustice, and improve lives.

Note: The non-profit sector is huge and it is diverse. Non-profits vary extensively in their focus, size, sophistication, funding, and experience. Our background comes from working with small to medium sized (2-50 employees) non-profits and is primarilyfocused in product, service, and strategy design.


About the authors: Ramsey Ford and Kate Hanisian are the founders of Design Impact. Design Impact is a non-profit organization that partners professional designers with community organizations. These designers work on-site with innovative organizations and the communities they serve to design and implement life-improving solutions. Find out more about Design Impact fellowship opportunities on their blog.

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Betty March 24, 2011 at 11:03 pm

What a thoughtful overview of the considerations involved in designing for nonprofits. Thanks for thinking through your process and out lining it here! I’m struck by how much of the process hinges on open communication and education (both from designer to nonprofit and vice versa). I’m definitely bookmarking this for reference!


Leave a Comment

{ 2 trackbacks }

Previous post:

Next post: