Student Spotlight: Designing For Impact

Marissa Kinsley is now a Notre Dame alum from the Class of 2014, working in Denver with NetSuite.  With dual majors in management entrepreneurship and philosophy, Marissa wrote this blog post last spring in our Social Entrepreneurship course.  We thought it had particular relevance this week as several of our speakers at the Irish Impact Social Entrepreneurship Conference will be incorporating design thinking and human-centered design into their workshops.  As a matter of fact, one of our presenters – Ann-Marie Conrado – is considered an expert in this field.  Check out the agenda on our website at If you’re in the Notre Dame area, you are still welcome to attend the conference.  Please register at Eventbrite71Cz+FaufIL._SL1160_

It’s been said that when you design with the poor, underprivileged, and underserved in mind, you design for all. As Tim Brown said in his book Change by Design, often the most compelling insights come from looking outward to the edges of the market. When the problem seems unwieldy and the constraints are abundant, you are forced to innovate.

Sometimes it is the necessity found with the poor and neglected that inspires innovation.

Because design pushes the boundaries of our problem solving, it has the power to offer new solutions that carry impact. As such, design thinking, which is human-centered by nature, is hugely effective for addressing social issues—i.e. human-centered issues. It’s about empathizing with the end user, which may seem intimidating when the end user is seemingly living in very different circumstances that your own. Getting on the ground at the user level and putting in the effort to understand their circumstances is hugely important. “Think of design as the way in which you see the world and the way in which you frame problems.”[1] This can be applied across the entire spectrum of the problem, from the product, to the business model, to the investors behind the enterprise, and beyond.[2]

A prime example of design thinking across the problem’s entire spectrum is seen with Embrace Baby Warmer, which includes a phase-change material that maintains its temperature for six hours after heating. The developers had built a low-cost incubator for a class project, but after speaking with the end users in Nepal—the families themselves—they realized that such an incubator wouldn’t do any good as many of the low-birth-weight babies came from homes that lacked the electricity required to power such a device. With this crucial insight into the lives of the end user, they were able to reframe the problem with the increased constraints in mind. Through design thinking, the team uncovered the right problem and moved to ideate and prototype ways to address that problem. The increased constraints at hand led them to develop a low-cost, highly portable infant warmer. The team would need to apply similar design thinking methodology in their distribution and sales model as they looked to make the greatest impact possible with their highly innovative product.

Moving forward, scaling the impact of design thinking on the social sector will certainly be a challenge, but one that IDEO is ready to tackle. They have already developed a human-centered design toolkit that serves as a free innovation guide for social enterprises and NGOs worldwide. Already the guide has been downloaded 100,000 times. Additionally, IDEO has worked with Acumen to develop a seven-week online course in Human-Centered Design for Social Innovation. It’s about changing methodology and the way social organizations approach problems and frame issues. There also has been a recent launch of a platform to crowdsource solutions for social change called OpenIDEO. The platform enables creative thinking and a collaborative design process online.[3] Leveraging the creativity of the masses is extremely effective for design thinking—most notably during the creative divergent stages of the process.

But what additional efforts can be made to instill design thinking into the very fabric of social impact? How can organizations—particularly social enterprises and NGOs—incorporate design thinking into their daily operations and methodology? IDEO’s efforts thus far are certainly beginning to bolster design thinking in the social sector, but fundamentally, it requires a design thinker on the ground within the organization to effectively make a change at the core of a socially-minded organization. The leaders need to place it as a priority, otherwise design thinking will not be able to achieve a meaningful impact on the organization’s operations. In this way, I feel that design thinking has to come from the top and trickle down from the organization’s leadership. Targeting these people through conferences, IDEO speaker tours across the country, as well as tools akin to the design toolkit will be the most effective means of instilling design’s importance in the leaders in the social sector—both of today and of tomorrow. Shifting socially-oriented leaders and organizations toward design-thinking can only serve to bolster social impact overall and help to more effectively address social issues in the future.

To note, Ann-Marie Conrado, an assistant professor of industrial design at Notre Dame, will speak on Thursday afternoon, September 18, at the Stayer Center for Executive Education at Notre Dame. Her research focuses on using design to address social and humanitarian concerns. At Notre Dame she brings that ethos to the classroom, engaging students in social design projects and bringing students to Nepal to work on various research projects including a $3 washing machine, a rapid deploy emergency shelter and a self-sterilizing umbilical cord cutter. She is the founder of Hope Initiative, an international nonprofit working in Nepal to utilize design thinking to address humanitarian concerns in developing countries.   


[2] Brown, Tim. Change by Design. (2009).


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